WWII radio pioneer gives new life to planes at Strategic Air & Space Museum

Rodger IhleASHLAND — The 25 missions he made off the Mediterranean Coast — at night, flying into flak, pursued by German fighters — would change modern warfare methods and make him a pioneer, performing a role that now seems so elementary but was, 70 years ago, top-secret and revolutionary.

First, though, Roger Ihle has a few stories to share.

Like how he ended up above Italy, and what happened along the way.

Ihle is 94 now, long retired from the Army, long retired from his career as an electrical engineer. Twice a week, he hires a driver to carry him to the Strategic Air and Space Museum, where he gives new life — and shine — to the planes that served when he did.

He starts at the beginning: when he was drafted, 10 months before Pearl Harbor.

He was working for Union Electric in St. Louis, the son of a country doctor from Iowa’s northwest corner and a recent electrical engineering grad from Iowa State.

In 1940, with tension growing in Europe, and in Washington, the United States reinstated the draft, requiring unmarried men to register.

“That made a lot of married men,” he says, “trying to get out of the draft.”

Ihle was still single. And he was told to report for infantry duty in late February 1941. He was sent to Little Rock, Ark., where he joined an anti-tank company, lived in a dirt-floor tent and trained with wooden guns.

“We didn’t have weapons,” he wrote years later, when he put his memories on paper for his family. “No rifles or side arms and some did not even have a complete uniform. We were not ready by any means to think about going to war.”

But the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the soldiers in Arkansas climbed into railcars — so old they had kerosene lanterns and wicker seats — for a seven-day trip west to guard the California coast against Japanese attackers.

He patrolled through the rain and fog of that Christmas and New Year’s, slept on the wet ground. Then his division headed north, to the Aleutian Islands, but the Army sent Ihle back to the Midwest for communications school.

He struggled with Morse code.

“I had difficulty distinguishing the differences between the dots and dashes,” he wrote, “but I did graduate.”

The young lieutenant from Cleghorn, Iowa, was one of several men sent to Boston to study radar at Harvard and MIT. This was new, breakthrough but cumbersome technology: the ability to see the enemy without ever seeing the enemy.

Even the word radar, he said, was top-secret at the time.

And then he was off to Florida to learn radar countermeasures — how to jam and find and record the enemy’s radar. It was more new ground for students and teachers.

“The nice thing about this school is that nobody knew what they were teaching. We were pioneers, and our instructors had no idea what we’d be doing.”

He remembers testing his skills, flying up and out on anti-submarine patrol. German subs were lurking in the waters off the eastern coast of Florida at the time.

“Every once in a while, we’d see a ship burning up on the horizon. They’d shoot at them with their torpedoes — civilian, military, anything.”

He and his training partner, Matt Slavin, were in Florida three months when an officer approached with orders to go to the Mediterranean: They were going to be the first to conduct electronic reconnaissance missions over enemy territory. And something else.

“They also told us our mortality rate was three out of five.”

They needed equipment. They stopped at the secret Radio Research Laboratory at Harvard to pick up their new — and unreliable — receivers. They flew to a base in Ohio to outfit their B17 and meet their flight crew.

“We had one of the last enlisted crews to come from the courts who had given them the choice of the Air Force or jail,” he wrote. “One of this flight crew’s adventures was flying under a Missouri River bridge which cut the telephone lines, wrapped around one of their props and totaled the aircraft on landing.”

They had to fly to Salina, Kan., to be processed for overseas deployment before beginning their long hopscotch to North Africa — via Miami, Puerto Rico, Trinidad, Brazil and a tiny volcanic island in the Atlantic.

But first, a little sight-seeing in New Orleans. None of the crew had been there, so they claimed “engine trouble” and made an unscheduled overnight visit to Bourbon Street.

In Africa, they landed in Liberia, at Roberts Air Field, right across a river from a village. A business-savvy local charged them each 50 cents to ferry them across to tour the village, with its mud-walled, thatch-roofed huts. And then he charged them $5 to take them back.

Final destination: Blida, Algeria, just off the southern Mediterranean coast and across the sea from Italy, and German troops.

His memories of everyday life on the base are as vivid as the work he did at night.

They shared a runway with British troops, each occupying one end. The Brits preferred the food in the American mess hall, so they would wander over in the afternoon to visit — hoping they would be invited to stay for dinner.

He remembers fashioning a sun-heated shower from a 55-gallon barrel and tubing from an old German Luftwaffe aircraft. It became so popular he built a second. And he was more than happy to let a group of visiting flight nurses use it.

“As long as they were with us,” he wrote, “they did not lack for escorts to the Officer’s Club functions.”

He worked in the dark, in the air, bundled up in the cold and howl of a B-17, searching for signs — and sounds — of the Germans inside his headphones.

He didn’t have a directional antenna, so he had no way of quickly zeroing in on the source of the enemy radar signal. Instead, the pilot flew a pattern, and Ihle would record the beep’s strength and frequency and then plot when and where he heard it.

It was slow, but with enough information — by logging enough German radar beeps — Ihle could point to a radar station on the map.

“We got them close enough so that it paid for them to send out a photographing plane … and they could pick up the thing.”

And then, in some cases, bomb it to pieces.

They would fly low — sometimes just 500 feet — to shake the German fighter planes from behind and below their tail. In the dark, the Germans would try to take aim at the flames from the big plane’s exhaust, but the enemy was wary of flying, and possibly crashing, so close to the water.

“They’d get their feet wet, and they had no air-sea rescue unit.”

The Army required Ihle and his friend, Slavin — the pair was codenamed Ferret 3 — to fly separate missions. A plane and its crew could be replaced.

“But they said it would take a year to replace you guys.”

After his 25 missions, Ihle was sent across the Mediterranean and stationed in Bari, Italy, to continue more radar countermeasures.

“It was top-secret. We never talked about it until after the war.”

But the young man from Iowa had helped change how global powers fought each other.

“It’s crucial to know where radars are. Absolutely crucial,” said Pete Maslowski, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor emeritus and military historian. “If you know where their radars are, it gives you some possibility of evading them or trying to destroy them.”

After Ihle returned, he married Marilyn Hendersen, a woman he had met while stationed in Arkansas. He had a long career with the Rural Electric Administration. He lives in Omaha with one of his two sons.

He keeps up a little with developments in electronic surveillance, but he has a hard time believing what those who came after him are capable of.

Unmanned drones. Satellite reconnaissance. War by remote control.

Nothing requiring a young lieutenant to strain into his headphones, searching for sounds, flying low and dark over enemy territory.

“It wasn’t cutting-edge by any means, but it was all we had available. The stuff they got now is way over my head.”