Rhombic Antennas on Chopmist Hill (Rhode Island) Help Win World War II
The bristling antennas, miles of wire and all the technicians are gone now, but the old Suddard Farm
on Chopmist Hill in Scituate is still dotted with the ghostly reminders of one of World War II's best-kept
and most important secrets.
For it was here on Chopmist Hill in March, 1941, that the Federal Communications
Commission (FCC) under Commissioner George E. Sterling, established and began operating a top-secret,
radio-monitoring station. It was the largest in a nationwide network of 13 similar installations, and --
due to peculiarities of the terrain and certain atmospheric conditions -- it was the most effective. The
station on Chopmist Hill could intercept distant radio signals with astonishing clarity, and in wartime,
that was a critical advantage.
While Rhode Island joined the nation in home-front sacrifice -- severe
gasoline rationing, ersatz chocolate and horsemeat instead of beef, to name a few -- the band of 40 radio
operator-technicians from the FCC's Radio Intelligence Division (RID) conducted a superb spy operation that
directly affected the waging and final outcome of the war.
Personnel in Scituate routinely monitored weather
reports that were a key to troop movements and bombing missions in Europe. With uncanny frequency, the station
intercepted the radio transmissions of German spys positioned in South America and North Africa. Chopmist's
reception of North Africaa was so good, in fact that the station had no difficulty picking up -- and turning
to good use -- radio transmissions between the tanks that comprised the Desert Fox's infamous Afrika Korps.
But to this day -- 40 years after Japan's devastating attack on Pearl Harbor and 36 years after the war
ended -- few Rhode Islanders are aware of the spectacular battles fought on the little hill right in their
"C'mon, you're pullin' my leg" or "You gotta' be kidding" typify the responses of skeptics
when told or asked about the illustrious history of the North Scituate farm.
Originally, the station was
set up in peacetime to police the airwaves for illegal radio transmissions and to assist in air-sea rescue
operations. On one occasion, actress Kay Francis, en route home from a USO tour in Europe, was aboard a
plane that was lost off the coast of Florida. No formal radio installation on the seaboard was able to
pick up the pilot's signals, but the Chopmist Hill station did, and the monitors in Scituate directed the
plane home safely.
As the war intensified, so did the role of the Chopmist Hill station -- and the secrecy
The installation became a virtual mini-city, complete with its own power-generating station
in the concrete blockhouse. Nearby stood a wooden barracks building that housed the RID crew. Antennas were
everywhere, anchored by guide (sic) wires attached to heavy metal plates cemented to the ground.
The station itself was jam-packed with supersensitive radio receivers, transmitters and direction finders,
and it was all so top-secret that not even the 40 technicians working there knew its purpose. Armed guards
patrolled the area, and even visitors on official business could not approach the farm without a state police
Even the Narragansett Electric Company, which played a key role in establishing the Chopmist Hill
station, didn't realize just what it was doing.
Company crews were sent to the station with instructions
not merely to install utility poles, but to sink them more deeply into the ground than normal, thereby
ensuring that the tops of the poles would be below tree-top level and hidden from view outside the farm.
No sooner was the work completed than Thomas B. Cave, who supervised the facility for the RID, ordered all
the poles moved to a different spot.
"I thougth we'd have a revolt on our hands in Scituate," said former
commissioner Sterling. He is 87 now and lives in quiet retirement with his wife, Margaret, on an island in
Maine's Casco Bay. "The folks at Narragansett (Electric Company) thought we were crazy. We called in their
utility crews to dig holes and install a whole bunch of telephone poles. Next day, we called them back to
move all the poles about two feet."
Regardless of how much consternation and confusion the unexplained
move may have caused, the relocated utility poles gave the station optimum radio reception. By the end of
the war, the inconvenience was gladly forgiven anyway. When the role of the Chopmist Hill station was
publically explained, a Narragansett Electric official said, "Hell, if I'd known what they were doing up
there, I would gladly have dug holes all the way to Cairo!"Z
But no one knew.
encoded cryptographically, were being intercepted and copied verbatim by radio operators working 24 hours
a day, who would then relay the messages to Washington, D.C., for deciphering.
said during a recent interview that he has never been able to figure out why the United States was caught
napping at Pearl Harbor 40 years ago tomorrow. He said that for several months before the December 7, 1941,
attack, the Sictuate monitors were routinely intercepting Japanese messages that indicated military action
RID supervisor Cave said that "Every three weeks, like clockwork, a Japanese submarine would
surface in Tokyo Bay and broadcast to higher military headquarters the number of foreign ships that went in
and out of the bay during the period" Cave recalls.
The Scituate monitors helped thwart the Japanese
attempts to bomb the United States with TNT-laden hot-air balloons. To keep track of the silent craft,
the Japanese placed radio transmitters on aboard the deadly balloons. But the RID eavesdroppers heard
the signals, related the information to Washington and U.S. fighter planes were promptly dispatched to
destroy the balloons.
In the entire course of the war, only a few balloons penetrated the electronic
screeen; one landed harmlessly in Wisconsin, and others drifted off into the Canadian wilderness.
One of the most important jobs of the Scituate station was to intercept German weather reports from
Central Europe. Broadcast in such a frequency that they could not be picked up in England, the signals
bounced across the Atlantic Ocean to Chopmist Hill. the information played a vital part in British
planning for bombing raids against Nazi Germany.
Most amazing was the stations ability to intercept
virtually all radio transmissions sent by German spies in South America and North Africa. In fact,
said Cave, who is now 79 and lives in Holmes Beach, Fla., Wilhelm Hoettl, one of Germany's foreign
intelligence area chiefs, affirmed during his interrogation by the U.S. Third Army in June, 1945,
that German intelligence had not been able to establish a single wireless connection, either in the
United States or England.
It was the Chopmist Hill station that discovered installations of German
transmitters on the West coast of Africa. Even the British, who had their own monitoring stations in
the region, were totally unaware of the existance of the enemy stations. It wasn't long, said Cave,
before the British, via Washington, were breathing down the necks of Scituate operators for more and
Little wonder. During the seesaw battles between British forces and General
Erwin Rommel's infamous Afrika Korps, the Chopmist Hill station frequently picked up coded messages
containing battlefield strategy from the German military leader to his subordinate commanders. The
information was relayed to the British, who under Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery defeated the
legendary Desert Fox at El Alemein.
"That's nothing," Cave said. "At one time, we saved the
British liner Queen Mary, from being sunk with more than 10,000 Allied troops on board."
Queen Mary was docked in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil awaiting departure for Australia. German spies
in South America learned the ship's sailing schedule and precise Southerly route down the Atlantic,
around Cape Horn and across the Pacific Ocean. The information was radioed to Nazi forces in Africa,
then relayed to German submarine wolf packs prowling the ocean. Orders went out to sink the pride of
England's maritime fleet.
"We intercepted the German transmissions, alerted the British, and they
ordered the ship to change course," Cave said. "Who knows," he said with a chuckle, "maybe there's
still a U-boat commander out there somewhere wondering where the hell the Queen Mary is."
On another occasion, the British asked the RID operators in Scituate to determine the nationality of a
remote transmitter near the Aleutian Islands. It turned out to be a Russian station and, therefore, was
spared the annihilation which was planned for the suspected Japanese facility.
Does it seem far-fetched?
Is it asking too much to believe that a secret radio station up on Chopmist Hill in little old Rhode Island
could have done so much so efficiently for so many?
Early on, the U.S. Army was skeptical, too, Cave said,
so Army officials challenged the RID operators on Chopmist Hill to prove themselves. RID supervisor
Sterling picked up the gauntlet. He told Army brass that his operators could pin down the exact location
of any station within 15 minutes from the time it began operating.
So, the Army set up a phony station
inside the Pentagon, without notifying the FCC, and began transmitting. Sure enough, the team on Chopmist
Hill pinpointed and identified the source within seven minutes.
Perhaps, like people, every place has its
day in the sun, too. World War II was Chopmist Hill's. It could not be so again.
"The problem with
Scituate now is one of population growth," said Anthony M. Gates, a former Navy radioman now employed by
the FCC as a program analyst in Washington.
"There are a lot of new homes, buildings and factories in
the area, all of which tend to produce extensive interference with radio signals," Gates said. "that was
not the case during the '40's."
After the war, the station site was used as headquarters for Rhode
Island's office of Civil Preparedness. The agency moved to Providence in 1965.
Today, the rusting
steel door to the blockhouse groans in protest every time farm owner Frederick Leeder goes inside to
get some hay for his small dairy herd. The barracks building is gone, and its cement-slab foundation
now serves as a platform for Leeder's large woodpile.
The small concrete blockhouse is there, guarded
still by its six-foot, barbed-wire topped hurricane fence. And nearby, a few stubby telephone poles
still stand in the pasture next to Darby Road, like dedicated sentries ready to carry messages that
will never come.
Reproduced with permission of the Providence Journal-Bulletin. Originally
authored by Journal-Bulletin staff writer Jim McDonald. First printed December 6, 1981.
thanks to John "Cranston John" O'Rourke W1LZY (first licensed April 1939)