Voices from the Jungle

“A gun crew man [sic] their weapon far back in the Panama jungle.” The Tuscaloosa News, Dec 11 1940, P. 3.
“A gun crew man [sic] their weapon far back in the Panama jungle.” The Tuscaloosa News, Dec 11 1940, P. 3.

Voices from the Jungle

by Mike Roberts
American Forces Network (AFN) Broadcast Center

Maj. Gen. Sanderford “Sandy” Jarman couldn’t get his troops to listen. It was an odd position to be in for a respected leader who had fired giant railway guns at the Germans in WWI, was the first from his USMA class to wear stars, and whose innovations with coastal artillery would add an Oak Leaf Cluster to his Defense Service Medal.

Ordinarily, Sandy Jarman commanded attention quickly and completely, but there in the Panama Canal Zone in 1940 his Soldiers just weren’t listening. Specifically – and dangerously – they just weren’t listening to their radios.

By mid-year, the Nazis had Western Europe in a stranglehold and more than a million Japanese troops were ransacking China. On June 17, the Army ordered units guarding the canal onto high alert against sneak attacks and sabotage. Three days later, Jarman’s 20,000 Panama Coastal Artillery Command (PCAC) Soldiers moved into the jungle, dispersed among 200 outposts hurriedly chopped into a corridor of dense rainforest ten miles by fifty. At unprecedented speed they were strengthened into the largest and most heavily armed artillery unit the nation had.

Redlegs have long been taunted with a mildly libelous rhyme that begins, “The cannoneers have hairy ears, they live in caves and ditches….” Camping in Panama’s steamy green tangle was even worse than that. With the mercury always within three degrees of 80 they were never cool. Air nearly opaque with moisture was further thickened with earthy aromas of rotted logs and mud. Between sweat and downpours they were seldom dry. Gummy clay weighted their boots. The forest filtered out all sounds except the annoying ones – the alarming creak of skyscraper trees pushing each other aside, staccato rain, choirs of frogs, dueling bird calls, the constant raspy hum of insects. There were rivers of ants, and saucer-sized spiders enjoyed nightly strolls. Though only twenty percent of the snakes were venomous, that seemed like plenty.

The cannoneers’ new homes buzzed, bit, dripped, glurped and stank. They called themselves Jarman’s Junglemen, and duty with them was the closest an American Soldier of that prewar day could come to actual combat zone conditions. Frequent boredom began to inflict its numbing drag.

The men spent their freshman jungle year living in tents as they built their own camps. Days of construction work left many too tired to do anything but tumble onto their cots, dreading the gong that might alert them to a simulated night attack. To relay those alerts and other information, Jarman repurposed civilian commercial radio receivers, the type more likely to be found at backyard barbecues than jungle outposts. But the sporadic nature of HQ’s messages meant the sets were mostly silent, and the bored artillerymen ignored them. Sometimes they just left the radios switched off, which made it impossible to order alerts.

As the system teetered toward failure, the general was saved by his sergeants. A trio of them came up with the idea to play popular music over the sets, and soon “PCAC Radio” had three operators and a stack of tunes. From its rudimentary studio in the post gymnasium at Fort Amador on the canal’s Pacific end, the station also hosted daily newscasts assembled from local newspaper reports, and a half-hour Sunday summary of the week’s events.

Now in the right hands, the little civilian radios were finally fulfilling the terms of their enlistment. But it soon became apparent that their success might not be sustainable. Broadcasting even a modest four hours daily left the fledgling DJs desperate for fresh material. A limited playlist put the Fort Amador transmitter in danger of becoming just another annoying jungle sound, and if the troops got bored they might go back to ignoring their radios. The time was ripe for the next big idea.

Once again the station’s founders came through. Sgt. Wayne Woods, editor of the cannoneers’ newspaper, and Master Sgt. Clay Doster, the public affairs non-commissioned-officer-in-charge, pulled the lanyard on a barrage of correspondence aimed at famous radio performers and stateside networks, looking for whatever help they could get. Doster’s plea to NBC was typical, and straightforward: “This is a voice from the jungle and we’re in a helluva fix! What we gotta have is transcribed [recorded] programs, preferably music and comedy. We don’t care how old they are – they’ll be new to our gang. How about it? Can you help us out?“

NBC could, and did. Within days, a ton of recordings –  a thousand hours’ worth of NBC’s hottest music, comedy and drama – was winging its way south. In one bold stroke PCAC Radio was content-rich, worthy of every artilleryman’s attention. The collaboration with NBC grew to the point that the network made the station an honorary affiliate.

The inevitable conflict with Japan and its ally Germany came the following year. Six months after that the War Department recognized the need to expand the model of PCAC Radio, and its imitators in a handful of other units, to global proportions. The leadership had long known that morale was as important as ammunition, that troops with high morale fought harder and won more battles. In this new war of unprecedented scope, it would take the worldwide reach of a dedicated Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS) to keep service members entertained and informed in a way that maintained their winning edge.

But the very idea of American military broadcasting came from the troops themselves, who invented the first popular radio platform for command information and developed partnerships between military and commercial broadcasters that were destined to connect with successive generations of warfighters.

The roots of AFN’s global reach are found in a slender strip of Central American rainforest, where three voices got Jarman’s Junglemen to perk-up their hairy ears.

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