Strong signals

WWII veteran pens newsletter of experiences in classified battalion

WWII veteran pens newsletter of experiences in classified battalion

June 28, 2009|By JULIE E. GREENE

QUINCY, Pa. - Two World War II fighter planes get caught up in mid-air combat, guns blazing, as the pilots fight for their lives and their countries.

The U.S. pilot survives the dogfight, rights his plane and looks to the horizon and then below, not having a clue where he is.

He radios to an aircraft controller, who uses radar to help the pilot get his bearings so he can return to base.

When it comes to war, the actual combat tends to get the most attention - it's exciting and, sadly, results in casualties, Bill Freienmuth said.


But for every U.S. soldier in combat during World War II, there were eight to nine support people, Freienmuth said.

Freienmuth, 88, of Quincy, Pa., was one of them.

Eyes for U.S. pilots

He was sent to the European theater in January 1944, serving in Belgium, Holland, France and Germany with an Army Signal Aircraft Warning Battalion. These are the guys who operated, installed and maintained radar equipment such as the ones aircraft controllers used to help pilots find their bases.

Long after the war, in 1997, he took on the task of writing and distributing the Sawbuck Gazette, a newsletter for and about WWII veterans who served in the European Theater of Operations' Signal Aircraft Warning Battalions.

He does this from his home in Quincy Village, using a Dell computer and first-class snail mail to distribute the newsletter three times a year.

"I write about something I'm familiar with and I like to do it because it's a service to veterans and their families. Our part of the war didn't gain a lot of publicity because it was classified during the war," Freienmuth said.

Signal Aircraft Warning Battalions, aka SAW Bns, is the military's term for soldiers who handled radar and communications equipment for air-to-ground communications, such as that used by wartime aircraft controllers. This equipment helped aircraft controllers distinguish friend from foe and identify ground targets.

SAW battalion members also reported on pilots' mission status to tactical command headquarters, Freienmuth said.

Childhood interest

Freienmuth picked up the "radio bug" at age 10 when his teacher gave him an assignment to look up telegraph in an encyclopedia. He became interested in telegraphs, but didn't know how to find enough wire to rig one up with a friend who lived two miles away. His father suggested he look into wireless communications.

When a radio transmitter was moved to a spot 2 miles away from his Tonganoxie, Kan., home, Freienmuth got to know the operators at the transmitter. He became familiar with the equipment they used.

In 1940, he became a radio operator for the National Guard. Two years later, he joined the Army's Signal Corps.

He bounced around from station to station and from school to school, including Harvard University and MIT, as he received training to become an officer and learn to operate different types of radar equipment. One of the things he learned was how to use the new automatic tracking radar. This allowed anti-aircraft gun operators to lock onto and follow a target.

During the Battle of the Bulge, Freienmuth was near Maastricht in the Netherlands. He operated a radar that allowed air controllers to help pilots providing air support to the 9th Army on the ground at the battle.

Old news

Freienmuth took over the Sawbuck Gazette in October 1997.

The original newsletter focused on news and gossip about former members of the Signal Air Corps, he said.

"I'm not interested in telling whose wife was unfaithful or who's sick," Freienmuth said. He does report on reunions, but the main focus of the newsletter under his leadership is to share stories of SAW battalion members and explain equipment they handled.

Not all of the newsletters recipients are Sawbuck veterans. Many are veterans' widows or children, so they are learning about the type of work their family member did during the war.

One of his readers is Piet Truren, who lives in Veghel in the Netherlands.

Truren is a retired technical officer of the Royal Netherlands Air Force. He is part of a group who researches the air war of 1939-40 in his part of the Netherlands. With several thousand Allied and German aircraft crashing in the Dutch countryside during WWII, there are many aircraft, crews and missions war that historians still don't know about.

Much information about ground and aircraft radar used by American and British air forces was classified for decades and, even now, after being declassified, can be hard to find, Truren said.

He heard about Freienmuth and his newsletter from a Belgian pilot. Because the newsletter is not online, he got on the mailing list and occasionally calls Freienmuth for information.

"He has a lot of his own archive and knows people," Truren said.

Freienmuth said he finds it interesting, being in Quincy and being able to help someone across the Atlantic Ocean who, during the Battle of Bulge, wasn't that far away from him.

What Freienmuth appreciates the most is the notes and e-mails he receives from people, appreciative of what he's doing and asking for help learning about a particular event or relative.

"It's that kind of stuff that makes life interesting," he said.

Many veterans didn't talk to their families about their war experiences. Sometimes the veterans kept their silence until their deaths. In some instances, Freienmuth is able to describe for relatives what their loved one was doing as a young man or woman during the war.

"It's a great source of satisfaction," Freienmuth said. "I feel that in retirement, I've made a contribution of knowledge to families ... that otherwise might not have been available."

If you want to learn more about the Sawbuck Gazette, call Bill Freienmuth at 717-749-7444.

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