Below the Radar

The untold story of how the U.S. Navy trained thousands of radar operators in World War II

2 min read

Just prior to entering World War II, the U.S. Navy had fewer than 400 warships. Even worse, only one-fifth of them were outfitted with radar. Within four years, the nation’s armada was over 2000 strong, and every ship was equipped with radar.

The much-heralded speed of U.S. industry left the military with a large but hitherto undocumented void: the personnel to operate and maintain the complicated electronic devices coming aboard. The U.S. Navy had always operated by line of sight when engaging its adversaries. What good were the fleet’s new electronic capabilities without skilled radar technicians?

This is the dilemma addressed in Solving the Naval Radar Crisis: The Eddy Test—Admission to the Most Challenging Training Program of World War II . Author Raymond C. Watson Jr. notes that while this personnel crisis represented one of the most pressing demands to face the United States at the war’s outset, and though ”the solution involved the development and operation of the most intense and intellectually difficult training program ever given by the military in America,” there are, he says, almost no published accounts of it in the war’s literature.

To be sure, radar was a top-secret technology during World War II. Still, that does not explain the absence of books on the subject decades later. On the face of it, a crash course program for Navy personnel hardly compares to the war’s larger tech success stories, such as the Manhattan Project. Or does it? The cost of developing the atomic bomb was US $2 billion, while the deployment of radar cost $3 billion.

Cost aside, the story of the radar-training program is fascinating in its own right, intertwined as it is with the broader history of electrical engineering. Consider Capt. William C. Eddy, chief among the program’s originators. After Eddy’s early retirement in 1934 from active duty as a submarine commander, due to deafness, he worked as an engineer for inventor Philo Farnsworth, helping to develop electronic television. He then joined the rival Radio Corporation of America.

Eddy was in Chicago overseeing installation of the city’s first commercial broadcast TV station when word of the attack on Pearl Harbor came. He immediately traveled to Washington, D.C., and lobbied for reinstatement into the Navy to create a training program for electronics technicians and engineers. In just a few days, with the help of a small team of officers, the Navy implemented Eddy’s radar-training program; it began producing qualified technicians within a few months.

For naval or technology historians, Solving the Naval Radar Crisis will be a source of much-needed research on a niche topic. For its author, though, the book is clearly a labor of love aimed at the diminishing audience of those who recall something about the use of radar in World War II. Watson himself took the Eddy Test and later administered it as an instructor in the Navy’s electronics training program, so he brings firsthand knowledge to his subject. And it is a worthwhile topic to spend a few hours learning more about after all these years.

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