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Early History of the White House Communications Agency (1942)

The Early History of WHCA

Type of Activity
Establish Communications Support
Washington DC
Date of Activity
25 Mar 1942

The White House Communications Agency (WHCA), originally known as the White House Signal Detachment (WHSD), was officially formed by the War Department on 25 March 1942 during the Roosevelt Administration.

The detachment was activated under the Military District of Washington to provide normal and emergency communications requirements in support of the President of the United States. WHSD provided mobile radio, teletype, telephone, and cryptographic aids in the White House and at Shangri-La, now known as Camp David.

In 1954, during the Eisenhower Administration, WHSD was reorganized under the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, Army Signal Corps as a Class II unit and renamed the White House Army Signal Agency (WHASA).

In 1962 WHASA was discontinued by order of the Secretary of Defense under President John F. Kennedy, transferred to the auspices of the Defense Communications Agency under operational control of the White House Military Office, and reestablished as the White House Communications Agency.

Colonel George J. McNally

Editor’s Note: The following is the excerpts from the manuscript titled “A Million Miles of Presidents by the late Colonel George J. McNally, a former Commanding Officer of WHCA. The 1600 Communications Association is undertaking a low key effort to have the book published someday. In the meantime, these items will be printed in our newsletter from time to time. They outline WHCA'S early years. This item is excerpted from Chapter One, Titled:

"The Curtain Goes Up."

Around the middle of 1941, General Frank Stoner, then the head of Army Communications, had detached Col. William Beasley from Fort Monmouth and sent him to Washington, D.C. with a couple of sergeants and civilian engineers. He was instructed to survey the communication situation in the Nation's Capital and with an eye to the White House find out where the most serious deficiencies lay. With the declaration of War he was then assigned directly to the White House, told to augment his group as necessary and correct the things he had found lacking.

I was detached from my shift assignment in the Secret Service and because of my technical background and knowledge of Washington, assigned to Col. Beasley to act as liaison between the Secret Service and the newly formed communications outfit. The Col. drew a few men from what was then called the Washington Provisional Brigade, now known as the Military District of Washington.

We set up a small shop in connection with the White House garage at E Street and Virginia Avenue and tackled one of the first assignments, mobile radio for the Presidential automobiles. The Secret Service wanted a system whereby the President could be tracked whenever he left the White House for he was always on the go. Col. Beasley and I surveyed the District for high places and eventually arrived at Reno Reservoir.

Presidential Automobiles were equipped with mobile Radios

We secured permission from the District authorities and put an FM transmitter-receiver combination with emergency tower inside a water tower on the site and antenna on the top. Control lines were leased back to the White House. This served as the principle base station expanding mobile network link and Motorola supplied base and mobile equipment.

The FM Base Stations were installed in the Fort Reno Water Tower

An oddity of the early war days was the installation of an anti-aircraft defense. We assisted the Colonel in charge in getting a radio network going. Revamped artillery was spotted around the perimeter of the District and machine gun posts established on the roofs of the tallest buildings.

The machine guns possible effectiveness was highly debatable. It was never clear during the early war years by what magic the Germans were supposed to invade us by air. Conceivably a fleet might penetrate our thin coastal defenses but no one had planes capable of flying the Atlantic with a load of bombs and returning to base. The Germans were far from the suicide phase at this point. Also they were having a ball on the continent. They were fully occupied and the submarines were a local menace to shipping and hardly to be frightened off by obsolete artillery or a few machine guns. Still. this ordnance seemed to provide a feeling of comfort to some.

The winter of '43 was very severe and the men manning the guns on the roofs suffered a great deal. A windbreak was finally thought of. These helped some but still one soldier came down from his tour and shot himself. Quietly thereafter the men and guns were replaced by dummies. These appeared real enough over the windbreaks and all was well until a congressman made a personal inspection of Washington's defenses. His horror at finding the town 'undefended' was heart-rending!

By April, 1942, with Colonel Beasley well acquainted with Washington I was no longer needed. I had been waiting for the draft anyhow and checking around I discovered the Air Corps was short of radio officers and I signed up for the newly formed Troop Transport Command. I was ready to say goodbye to the family when a telegram arrived-cancelling my orders. In a few days new orders arrived transferring me to the Signal Corps and assigned to Washington. I was off on a long period of service in the Army at the White House.

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of the book "A Million Miles of Presidents" by the late Col. George J. McNally. This excerpt is from Chapter Two titled:


The philosophy of the new military organization was set by the Chief Signal Officer, Maj. Gen. Dawson Olmstead in 1942 when he formed it officially.

The head cf Army Communications, Brig. Gen. Frank Stoner became the guiding force through the war years. He was assisted by Col. Hatch and Col. George Rogers whose loud harsh voice and slang expressions hid his capabilities very successfully and staved off many a petitioner at the general's door.

An organization as unique as this, answering to the President through the White House staff and to the Office of the Chief Signal Officer had no parallel. I will venture the prediction that this group will remain unique.

After the four years of World War II our almost complete freedom in complying with White House requirements an inevitable pattern was set. We could expedite and request through the Army and we could secure any necessary cooperation, military or civilian through the authority and prestige of the White House. The only burden on us was to engineer the problem to a logical state and then implement it to a satisfactory conclusion, as rapidly as possible or faster. Several people have claimed the phrase, we feel we executed it, "The difficult is done immediately, the impossible takes slightly longer."

During the war people everywhere were helpful. Still we had problems of transportation, housing and local procurement, which had to be overcome diplomatically. There were very few complaints about our personnel and none about work results.

From a handful of draftees and regulars in 1942 evolved an organization whose efficiency, variety of skills and esprit-de-corps stood unbeaten in the service.

From the very beginning of the organization we were fortunate in getting men who quickly dedicated themselves to the job. The few who were misfits or disliked the idea in general were soon weeded out and reassigned. Some never got past the first interview.

As was once said, if you could hear thunder and see lightening, you were acceptable for war service. Unfortunately some draft boards seemed to stretch even these minimums. The result was some very odd characters reported for duty. They filled a quota and a uniform and that about ended their accomplishments. Naturally, we got our share.

The winter of 1942-43 was pretty rough with lots of snow mud and ice. Conditions caused thick ice to form or the Potomac. A quick thaw up country sent down a large amount of water which came up over the ice and Washington had a flood.

A lot of Georgetown waterfront went under. Water showed up on Constitution Avenue and headed east. The airport and Gravelly Point were soaked. District Officials set up a control point at Fire Alarm Headquarters and were asked to help with radio equipped vehicles. Other troops came in from Fort Meade.

Some of our men were billeted in cabins at Gravelly Point and we moved them out putting them in tents at Bolling Field until other arrangements could be made. One man, a switchboard operator, failed to show up for his trick. In fact he was missing for a couple of days. When finally located he was working for the Smithsonian and living in a furnished room. His explanation was that he suffered from colds when living in a tent. Also he discovered on a tour around town that the Smithsonian needed his civilian specialty so he signed on. None of this struck him as strange.

Old conceptions die hard and because of this many people tend to look on the enlisted man as just a laborer. It must be remembered that they are often highly skilled. During a war they sometimes have more formal education than the officers under whom they serve. It is only necessary to treat them accordingly to have them serve to the best of their ability. The pattern of daily deportment was set originally by Col Beasley. We did not adhere strictly to military usage among ourselves. After the war we received permission to wear civilian clothes on the job. For the most part we were dealing with civilians at the White House. In the field it was difficult at times to think of ourselves as other than a business organization.

Editor’s note: this article Is from the Army Information Digest printed in August 1947, by the late Col. George J. McNally


The signal officer on wartime duty in Accra, on Africa’s gold coast, was mystified by the sudden arrival of a sergeant on secret orders, who firmly requested top-priority service. The operations officers in such remote way stations as Georgetown, British Guiana, or heat-ridden Khartoum in the Anglo Egyptian Sudan, had similar doubts about a-1 priority travel orders carried by close-mouthed officers and enlisted men who would not state their missions or destinations. Prime Minister Churchill, too, had reason to wonder at the fleetness of these men who unobtrusively appeared at Quebec, Teheran, and Yalta, wherever grand strategy was planned and historic policies formulated during the war years.

To these men, members of the white house signal detachment, was entrusted the mission of speeding the president's top-secret communications, from highest level conference tables to installations in the field. today, wherever the president travels, the white house signal detachment continues its task of weaving deftly an intricate communications net which enables the commander in chief to keep himself constantly informed and in touch with the nation.

Although officially activated in March 1942 by orders labeled "immediate action" and "secret." the White House Signal Detachment had its informal inception weeks before, when Lt. Col. William A. Beasley of Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, received orders to report to the White House, in a session with Frank E. Wilson, then chief of the United States Secret Service, and Michael F. Reilly, in charge of the White House detail, plans were formulated to provide the president with complete communication coverage.

Brig. Gen. Frank E. Stoner. Chief of Communications told Colonel Beasley. "You’re working for the President, he is to have everything he needs, and it must be the best." supplied with an, A-1-A priority and funds for procurement and purchase of non-issue equipment, Colonel Beasley under­took the job of fighting time with speed.

News from Europe and the orient was anything but reassuring, an attack was expected, how or where was not clear, so all contingencies were anticipated. Elaborate safety precautions were established for the president's protection. a bomb proof shelter was begun at the white house.

A guard of fifth cavalry troops from Fort Myer was thrown around the white house grounds; cameras were taboo; and special passes were required for admittance, helmets and gas masks were issued all around, and every one on duty took gas defense training.

Beginning with a nucleus of men detached from the Washington Provisional Brigade, Colonel Beasley in December 1941 set up a signal shop and began organizing a radio network to supplement and possibly replace the telephone system, in case enemy bombs crashed down. the main radio control was located in the white house itself, with five net stations of 50 watts each at strategic centers in and near Washington. The main transmitter and antenna were remotely controlled; in addition, an emergency 50-watt set, powered by a diesel unit which automatically cut in when commercial power failed, was set up on the white house grounds, a low frequency transmitter.

White House Signal Switchboard

FM Radio s installed at the White House

A private branch telephone exchange board, separate from the white house switchboard, was also installed. Tie lines ran to key centers in Washington, with private lines to persons the President might wish to summon in emergencies.

Direct lines ran also to all sources of air raid warnings with own plans laid and the joint and combined chiefs of staff functioning. President Roosevelt plunged into inter­national arrangements. Prime Minister Winston Churchill came over for a conference. Princess Martha of Norway arrived and took up residence outside the district. the signal team installed a small radio station and a private branch telephone exchange at Lee, Massachusetts, where Queen Wilhelmina elected to stay for the summer of 1942.

President Roosevelt soon resumed his trips to Hyde Park, and the signal detachment took action to provide additional communications. A 50-watt frequency modulation station was modified and installed on the secret service car attached to the presidential train, army vehicles, radio equipped, were spotted at strategically plotted points along the route between Washington and Poughkeepsie, so that the train was in constant touch with the Wh1te House all the way. Another FM radio link was installed in the old stable on the President's estate at Hyde Park, by means of a direct telephone line to Washington and frequency modulation radio. The white house was kept informed of the president's whereabouts at all times.

The Presidents Ferdinand Magellan

For security reasons, men of the signal detachment dressed in civilian clothes, arrivals and departures of the presidential party were made at late and early hours, to prevent crowds: however; appearance of familiar cars and personnel on the roads and in the vicinity of Poughkeepsie was the tipoff. Probably not more than a few thousand persons knew of the movements, the press stuck faithfully to their agreement and merely reported that the president had not held the usual press conference or that he could not be reached for comment.

The president later sought respite in a mountain retreat, closer to the District of Columbia, the camp, formerly a summer place for children, had been turned over to the military, to the marine guards, the navy maintenance personnel, the secret service and the signal corpsmen, the area seemed to be a proving ground for bad weather an area where it rained continuously, "one day from the sky and two days off the trees." the mountain itself was like solid rock, and when the time came to lay telephone cables, blasting was necessary, crews from army headquarters in Baltimore sweated over cables and equipment that alternately got water soaked or burned out when storms hit the mountain. The elements had a high regard for President Roosevelt, though, and he enjoyed many good days at the mountain lodge, the haven was named by the President at a press conference, when asked where he had been, he smiled and said "Shangri-La”.

President Roosevelt’s Shangri-La

In spite of long-range planning and the complete support of the signal corps, a slip-up almost did occur, one afternoon at Shangri-La. a call came from the president's lodge. "Mr. Hopkins wants to listen to Hitler’s speech" soldiers were dispatched to locate a short wave radio in camp, they returned without success, among the great variety of radio equipment on hand, nothing was immediately available for short wave broadcast reception, finally, in one cabin a table-style broadcast receiver was found.

A quick check revealed a short wave band, the switch was thrown and the set tuned, the German speech issued from the speaker, with ten minutes to go. Two soldiers quickly strung an antenna outside the Roosevelt lodge. a third soldier polished the battered radio cabinet, and the other made certain that the tuning control was not touched, then, tenderly, the set was carried to the president's study where it was plugged in. the "Boss" and Mr. Hopkins listened while a stenographer recorded the frenzied phrases.

Entrance to President Roosevelt’s Shangri-La

This attribute was noteworthy about the white house official family they never questioned our means of carrying out an order or request so long as it was accomplished.

Top-flight plans, intimate correspondence, and war strategy discussions among President Roosevelt, Prime Minister Churchill, Generalissimo Stalin, General Eisenhower and many others were encoded and decoded by the enlisted men and officers of the signal detachment with never A slip, the responsibility was heavy, but it is on record that no enlisted man of the White House Signal Detachment failed, in a crisis or was derelict in his duty.

As the tempo of war activities increased, the manual coding and decoding of the heavy traffic to and from the President's desk proved too slow, sixty-word teletype printers with crypto­graphic attachments were installed at Hyde Park and in the map room of the white house. Similar equipment was carried and installed everywhere the president traveled. Army and Navy personnel manned the map room where the latest war information from all over the world was plotted, the President and his staff inspected these maps daily, and here many military and naval plans were germinated, The white house communications center was run by the combined staff, while the White House Signal Detachment handled operations in the field.

In May 1943, Col. Beasley, the commanding officer, left the outfit and prepared to go overseas; and Major Dewitt Greer took command of the detachment, in the signal detachment shop, work went forward in adapting equipment to specialized tasks; signal equipment was mounted in saddle bags on motorcycles, with a speaker on the handlebars and a microphone for transmission. Police-type 35-watt radios were installed in jeeps and station wagons, metal detectors were designed and built for secret service use, miniature receivers and transmitters were adapted and improved, a special broadcast set was constructed for the president's use. in the continuous race to develop new, better, or more efficient methods, nothing was spared, field crews were out constantly on surveys to test equipment or locations for optimum results.

As early as May 1942, in preparation for the president’s tour of the country, the signal detachment was ordered to prepare a railroad car as a mobile radio station. a combination coach and baggage car, number 1401, was secured by the trans­portation corps and work began.

The WHSD 1401 Communications Car

In order to meet the standards of the American Association of Railroads, extensive modifications were necessary, seven inches above the roof was the maximum space allowable for tunnel clearance; so antenna wires were strung inside insulated tubing and mounted on porcelain high tension skirted insulators parallel to the roof. a fireproof double walled tank with a pump feed was built underneath the car to supply the gasoline power units which ran the transmitters, among other items of radio equipment car FM transmitter receiver combination, and a 75-watt transmitter for emergency use.

After shakedown trials, the generators were converted to diesel power, and the 500-watt generators were increased to two kilowatts, by further modifications, the static and vibration apparent in the early trials were minimized, thereafter, wherever the president traveled on the North American continent, to Canada, Mexico, and the west coast, car 1401 facilities enabled the commander in chief to call the signals to the world wide military team.

1401 Generator Room

When the president's train put in on a siding at Georgian Bay, Ontario, in advance of Quebec conference in august 1943, car 1401 was the mobile powerhouse which furnished rectified power for the train batteries, pumped water and air for the cars, and provided constant radio communications to station W.A.R. in Washington. Field telephones were strung for the sentries, and frequency modulation radio was used between the train and small boats when the president fished.

Early HF Communications systems with W.A.R.

At the Staid Chateau Frontenac at Quebec, where the conferees assembled, a signal center was installed, with full duplex teletype, conference circuits and additional telephone facilities provided, telephone cables were fastened around the outside of the hotel. at the citadel, the fort where the president and Prime Minister Churchill conferred, the signal detachment setup and operated the communications facilities for the president and his staff.

The speed and efficiency of United States army signal corps equipment was never better demonstrated that at Hyde Park during Prime Minister Churchill’s second visit, in a test of speed.

The prime minister and the president sent identical messages over British and United States facilities to Australia. the president had his answer in less than two hours; the prime minister got his the next day, again, in Canada, the allied staff had difficulty believing that the coded answer which came from General MacArthur over a conference circuit had come so swiftly over such a great distance, over the same conference circuit, decisions were reached which moved up the day of reckoning for the japs.

In preparation for the Tehran conference, signal detachment personnel leap-frogged ahead of the president, alerting personnel at various points, setting up radio and telephone channels and moving on, with the locale of the conference held secret until the last minute. strange situations developed as a result of detachment personnel globe hopping with a-1-a priority travel orders, to get the network functioning, one officer made a record trip to his post in Asmara, Eritrea, where a relay station was set up; and another officer and enlisted man traveled to Cairo, Egypt, in 76 hours, bucket seats all the way.

The conference which began at Teheran was continued in the shadow of the pyramids. When the conference broke up, a trek was made across North Africa, stopping at General Eisenhower’s headquarters in Tunis. The President flew to Malta, then to Casablanca, where he boarded a ship for home.

In the summer of 1944, President Roosevelt, Prime Minister Churchill and the combined staffs again met at Quebec. General Stoner supervised the installation of communications facilities at the Chateau Frontenac, with the white house detachment handling the president's private communications.

To attend the meeting of the big three at Yalta, the president traveled by ship through submarine infested waters, from aboard the U.S.S. "Catoctin" off Yalta on the black sea, the signal office rushed equipment into position ashore; and the detachment, again swung into action, communications were ferried to the naval station for transmittal.

In mid-February, when the agreements were concluded, the travel tested men of the White House signal detachment headed homeward with the presidential entourage.

In addition to setting up temporary installations at conference sites, the White House Signal detachment as early as 1943 operated fixed radio stations in Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Shangri-La, regardless of trips and conferences, communications development went on, with the cessation of hostilities, the detachment could view with satisfaction the number of "first" compiled in the course of duty first to construct and operate a long-range mobile radio station in a railroad car with high powered equipment; first to design and develop pocket size frequency modulation radio transmitters and receivers; first to keep a united states president in 24-hour communication from any point on the North American continent to any point in the world where united states personnel were stationed.

With a flexibility acquired in worldwide service, the white house signal team today is applying the lessons of wartime experience to the problems of maintaining communications channels wherever the commander in chief travels.

Order Establishing Presidential Support
29 April 1946

SUBJECT: The White House Signal Detachment (WHSD)

To: The Chief of Staff
The War Department

1. The White House Signal Detachment was organized at the beginning o£ the War for the purpose of providing, maintaining, and operating facilities for the transmission, reception, and safeguarding the security of Presidential communications primarily during the President’s travels.

2. This organization, commanded by Lt. Col. Dewitt Greer, Signal Corps, US, who is also Signal Officer and Cryptographic Security Officer for the White House, has done an outstanding job and, while the necessity for such an organization is not as great as it was during the War the necessity for this unit, reduced in strength, still very definitely exists. This Detachment has been reduced from a wartime peak strength or three (3) Officers., three (3) Warrant Officers, and forty-nine (49) enlisted men to two (2) Officers and eighteen (18) enlisted men, and it is planned that ultimately the enlisted strength can be further reduced by the substitution of qualified civilian personnel. In this connection, the following is a proposed revision to the existing,

Table of Organization for the White House Signal· Detachment:

OFFICERS - - - 2

1 Lt. Colonel, Signal Corps. Commanding Officer
1 Chief Operator or First Lieutenant, Signal Corps, Assistant Commanding Officer


GRADE 1 - - - - 3

1 First Sergeant
1 Chief Operator, White House Security Communications System
1 Installation and Maintenance Technician, Teletype and Cryptographic                     Equipment

GRADE 2 - - - - 4

1 Chief, Radio Installation and Maintenance Section
1 Chief, Wire Installation and Maintenance Section
1 Assistant Chief Operator, White House Security Communications System
1 Unit Signal and Detachment Supply Sergeant

GRADE 3 - - - - 9

4 Operators, Telephone and Radio-telephone Equipment, White House                       Communications System
2 High Speed Teletype Operators
2 Radio Operators
1 Diesel and Gasoline Motor Equipment Maintenance

GRADE 4 - - - - 2

1 Operator, Telephone and Radio Telephone Equipment, White House Security         Communications System
l Motor Vehicle Driver


1 Operator, Communications and Cryptographic Equipment
2 Installation and Maintenance of Fixed Station and Mobile Radio Equipment

Except for a reduction in personnel, no changes in the administrative status of the White House Signal Detachment are desired at this time.

Brig. Gen., U.S. Army

Military Aide to the President
The White House Army Signal Agency (WHASA) is established

In 1954, during the Eisenhower Administration, WHSD was reorganized under the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, Army Signal Corps as a Class II unit and renamed the White House Army Signal Agency (WHASA). The WHASA supported the President under Col. McNally until 1965 at which time Gen. Jack A. Albright took command.

Aspen Lodge (1959)

General Eisenhower visited Shangri-La quite often when he took office, primarily because it was a short distance to his farm in Gettysburg PA. During the Eisenhower years there were many improvements made to the retreat, Aspen Lodge was renovated several cabins were built and many more were renovated. President Eisenhower was an avid golfer so he added a three hole course right behind Aspen Lodge. The WHASA was also responsible for the Communications at the Gettysburg farm and the Presidential Communications Rail Car which was stored near Harrisburg PA.

David Eisenhower standing at the entrance to the Camp named for him

In 1956, with the Cold war with Russia escalating, President Eisenhower requested the Secretary of Defense to provide a recommendation to build Emergency facilities and a Communications network that would be able to survive nuclear attack on Washington DC. The proposed plan included several existing locations and the construction of several new communication towers surrounding the Washington DC area. This project when completed became the Presidential Emergency Facilities (PEF), and WHASA was tasked with the responsibility to install and maintain the microwave network connecting all of the PEF locations. In 1970 the microwave network was deemed obsolete and was decommissioned.

Raytheon Microwave equipment made up the backbone of the network

HF SSB equipment used for long range communications

The Birth of the White House Communications Agency

In June of 1962 a review of the organizational arrangements by which the Communications needs. ln the White House were being met and the review suggested certain changes involving Department of Defense support which would. It is believed to facilitate the White House operations.

At the present time, the three military Services have specific: responsibilities for satisfying White House Communications needs. In particular, the White House Army Signal Agency has the major responsibility for providing the White House with communications support.

It has been recommended by the Command and Control Panel of my Science Advisory Committee that the Department of Defense implement its Directive 5105.19 (November 14, 1961, Subject: Defense Communications Agency) insofar as the directive would apply to the DCA assuming responsibility for the Presidential communications. As I understand it, the DCA should assume the responsibilities £or funding, logistics, detailed planning and engineering, and other functions as needed to support the work of the White House communications. It is further recommended that the 'White House Army Signal Agency, which is now supported by the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, Department of the Army be transferred from the Signal Corps to the DCA, and predesignated The White House Communications Agency.

The DCA is not at present in a position to assume this task. I would appreciate your recommendations as to whether or not this is feasible and desirable and especially as to the timing of this suggested change.

The WHCA Microwave Network remained in service until 1970, when a large portion was deemed obsolete and several towers were decommissioned.

Over the years the White House Communications Agency has distinguished itself and has been awarded several Awards including:

1. In 1964 the Presidential Service Badge authorized.

2. In 1971 WHCA was awarded the MERITORIOUS UNIT COMMENDATION medal (1st Award)

3. In 1973 WHCA was awarded the MERITORIOUS UNIT COMMENDATION medal with oak leaf cluster (2nd award).

To this day WHCA provides superior communications to the President, Vice President and the White House Staff worldwide

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