Signal Improves Field Communications
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The message becomes more important than the messenger.
BY JULIANNE SIMPSON
This is part of a series of interviews with signaleers, one for
each of SIGNAL Magazine’s seven decades, to commemorate
the 70th anniversary of AFCEA International.
David L. Woods quite literally wrote the book on signal. In 1965, Woods’ A History of Tactical Commu- nication Techniques was published with a foreword by Col. W.J. “Sparky” Baird, USA (Ret.),
former general manager of AFCEA and
editor of SIGNAL Magazine for 18 years.
Col. Baird writes, “To the best of my
knowledge, this history of tactical commu-
nication is the most valuable and complete
presentation about the subject to be found
Woods has every issue of SIGNAL Maga-
zine, from its founding in 1946 to present
day. He served in the Navy and retired as
a captain. He has written about and wit-
nessed firsthand many of signal’s changes over the decades.
The 1950s and 1960s were largely about polishing various
communication systems, particularly in the field, Woods
relates. Line-of-sight technologies still were being used, but
by the 1950s, telephone and radio signals were becoming a
much easier means of messaging for warfare, combat and
The decline of visual signals after World War II changed
the signaleer profession, and new technologies came to the
forefront in the 1950s. “It was a lot safer sending a signal
over radio behind a log than being prominent on a boat or
in a field, holding a flag, where people can easily shoot at
you,” Woods describes.
The lone signaleer was not common during this time
period. There were usually groups of three to four people
For example, during the Korean War, signaleers were
in charge of intercepting the enemy’s radio transmissions.
These personnel were not yet counterintelligence specialists. “What you usually had was an operational radioman
to intercept the message, a Korean linguist to translate the
message and a tactical soldier who understood the battlefield,” Woods says.
Getting the enemy’s messages back to a commander or a
general was usually done via radio or telephone. Although
telephone was preferred because it was more secure, this
was a tedious task because a second group of three or four
men was needed to lay a wire.
“Laying that wire wasn’t quite the same as standing out
and waving flags, but it was equally difficult,” Woods says.
The wire came on a large, heavy spool that required two
men to carry. They could not also carry rifles. “So now you
need two men to lay the wire and one or two men with rifles
protecting them,” he adds. “That’s a lot of people. When
you have wires and radios involved, you have to use more
people to do your signaling.”
The emergence of telephone and radio signals during
this era allowed leaders to send more complicated, strategic
messages, Woods states. “I think the messages became more
thoughtful and provocative and probably
based over a longer period of time,” he says.
“There was a blurring of tactical and strate-
“In earlier tactical situations, it was more
or less, go there, shoot him, cover them.
The message wouldn’t necessarily give as
much specificity as it might give philosophy,” Woods offers.
Today, he says he sees a major difference
in the volume of messages. With the devel-
opment of fax machines, the Internet and
email, the volume is much larger because it is easier to send
all types of messages—long messages, short messages—
and to do so almost instantly. In turn, though, “paper has
become less significant because of the storage capacity of
Woods also has witnessed a new layer of administration
over signaleers. Signaleers used to develop their own mes-
sages and send them after being told what someone wanted
to say. “Now you have people who come in specifically to
write 200- to 300-word messages that are then reviewed by
seniors or their executive assistants before they get sent,”
he says. “Messages like that were not sent very often in the
Today, many communications do not deal directly with
battle. “There is a litany of logistical messages,” Woods says.
“For example, if you want to have 28 tanks at point X on June
15, you probably need to send four or five messages to differ-
ent places … to get tanks ready, put fuel in them, get ammu-
nition there, etc.”
He continues that the scope of messaging increased enor-
mously in the 1950s and 1960s thanks to radio and telephone
signals. Through World War I, simply delivering the message
was critical, but by the 1950s, it was safe to assume it would
get there. “The message and the person writing or preparing
the message became more important than the person sending
it,” Woods declares.