Howard in WWII
Howard Vollum was drafted before the United States entered World War Two and was sent to Camp Roberts, located about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. He described it as the "middle of nowhere". His group was the first to occupy the site and in the first few days the arriving draftees were arbitrarily divided in two, with one group sent to the infantry, the other the artillery. Howard landed in the infantry; it was a completely random selection process.
Howard spent three months of basic training at Camp Roberts, at the end of which his fellow recruits were sent off overseas. Many of these draftees were sent to the Pacific where Howard later learned they had "some pretty rough times" once the war started. Howard didn't get shipped out because he had met an officer from Milwaukie, Oregon, who was an engineer with the Bonneville Power Administration. The officer got to know Howard and took advantage of his expertise by having Howard fix radios on the base. Since Camp Roberts was a headquarters communications group, Howard's skill was highly prized. He was retained at the base for the arrival of the next ninety day group.
Howard later applied for officer's candidate school as well as a program initiated by the British to have Americans come to England for six months to train on their radar systems, at the time the best in the world. There was also a third option where American soldiers with physics or engineering degrees could qualify for an Electronics Training Group that President Roosevelt had initiated. Howard had received his Bachelor's Degree in physics from Reed College in Portland. All these programs were of interest to Howard, but he became frustrated when nothing happened for several months after he had applied.
The situation changed dramatically on December 7, 1941, the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Within a few days Howard was promoted from Corporal to Second Lieutenant. This happened so rapidly even the camp commander wasn't notified. Howard had previously been interviewed at one point by what he identified as "some traveling Washington guys" and they apparently singled Howard out for special treatment. Not long thereafter, Howard was reassigned to Fort Monmouth in New Jersey and was immediately transferred without an opportunity to return home to Portland. He just boarded a train and went directly to the East Coast.
Fort Monmouth was headquarters for the Army Signal Corps and at the time was a collection point for hand-picked recruits newly bound for the radar training program in England. Howard remained in New Jersey until the entire designated group was assembled and then traveled to Halifax, Nova Scotia by train to make the voyage across the Atlantic. There was a week's delay in Halifax because they had a little problem with some "sinkings", presumably by German submarines. Howard noted that a prior group had "gotten a little bit wet", but were ready to try a second time. Howard boarded a Dutch passenger liner appropriately named the Vollumdam and they made the trip with a partial destroyer escort without incident.
In a suburb of London Howard started what was to be a three month training course followed by three months of hands-on work. Several types of radar existed at the time and Howard was trained on his preference, a high frequency system (200 to 250 MHz) used with searchlights to track and illuminate aircraft so they could be targeted by antiaircraft guns. Howard and another American finished at the top of the class and were promoted to First Lieutenant.
The standard outcome of this training for Americans was a return trip home, but Howard elected to stay in England. He was sent to Christchurch on the coast and where he joined a group developing a newer radar system. He never actually worked further on the searchlight radar he had been trained on. The objective of the newer program was to implement a radar fire control system to direct 15 inch guns on German shipping in the English Channel at Dover. This program was given a very high priority and Howard's role was to develop the display, or so-called indicator unit, for the system, which appropriately enough, was a specific type of oscilloscope.
The standard procedure for an American working in the signal corps in England was to rotate out of an assignment after three months. Howard received repeated extensions of service and remained in the coastal radar display development program for over two years, operating under a top security clearance. It was probably the highest performing radar system at the time, employing high power, 0.1 microsecond pulses.
During this time Howard routinely used Crosier oscilloscopes, the leading British brand analogous to DuMont in the US at the time. But the Crosier units weren't suited for the high frequency work Howard was doing so he was forced to create his own custom modifications in so-called bench "lash ups" without cabinets. He worked closely with British radar experts from Oxford and Cambridge. Howard spent a total of two and half years in England.
Upon his return to the USA, he was stationed at Camp Evans in New Jersey where he went to work on another fire control system, this one capable of tracking mortar shells with radar that in turn could respond to remove the threat. Mortars were significant weapons in WW2 - more soldiers were killed with mortars than machine guns. Howard's work involved tracking the parabolic path of the mortar shell and extrapolating back to its source.
In addition to the effort at Camp Evans, the Army also had a group at MIT working on anti-mortar radar and Howard spend a great deal of time going back and forth between the Signal Corp Labs in New Jersey and Boston. He made so many trips he got to know the porters by their first names.
On July 18, 1945 during his time at Camp Evans, Howard was awarded the Legion of Merit for his work in England. Howard eventually attained the rank of Captain and was discharged in November, 1945. His efforts at Camp Evans resulted in Howard later receiving a second Legion of Merit Award in the form of an Oak Leaf Cluster.
It was extraordinary for an officer of the rank of Captain to receive the Legion of Merit award. Past recipients have predominantly been heads of state and general officers or colonels.
Two days after World War Two ended, the New York Daily News published an article on the long-secret story of radar, describing it as "second only to the atomic bomb as the war's most revolutionary scientific development, the margin of victory in the Allies' darkest hours and a springboard to the perfection of television and the other far reaching changes in postwar living."
The vintageTEK museum was able to obtain the photo album that was assembled by Captain John F. O'Donnell, a colleague of Howard Vollum in the Army Signal Corps at Camp Evans, from Howard's award ceremony. Captain O'Donnell was later a successful businessman and real estate developer in Portland whose family was associated with the Union Meat Company and the Lipman-Wolfe Companies. The individual from whom the museum acquired the album learned that Howard had asked Mr. O'Donnell if he would invest in Tektronix in late 1946, but O'Donnell felt the idea was too risky and he declined.