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Fighting Voices from Downunder

When World War 2 began in 1939, radio broadcasting was still just a teenager, having started in the early 1920's in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the USA.

This young entertainment upstart was immediately drafted to 'the cause' and Armed Forces Radio stations appeared first, unofficially, in Alaska, whilst the Australian and New Zealand government broadcasters sent mobile broadcast units to the Middle East.

Image of ABC Gaza 1941

Australian Broadcasting Commission housed its Field Unit in this imposing structure, suitably attired with antenna, at Gaza, Palestine in October 1941
© Frank Hurley, Australian War Memorial

This was new territory for both broadcasters, who had to juggle wartime censorship and a legitimate demand for their volunteer military units to stay in touch with their families back home.

When the Pacific War brought operations much closer to home, the American AFRS mobilised private commercial radio broadcasters and began to move their units into the South Pacific where they later introduced radio to some local islands for the first and only time in their history.

The first joint Australian and US station was 9PA in Port Moresby, whilst the Australian RAAF also maintained a mobile station at Madang.

Image of RAAF Voice of the Islands HQ 1944

RAAF Radio 'The Voice of the Islands' broadcast from Madang in New Guinea in late 1944
© Australian War Memorial

Like the Americans, the Australians could also draw on commercial radio broadcasters although 9PA was technically under the control of the ABC because Papua was an Australian territory.

This former troublesome teenager called radio was in it's early 20's by now and getting the hang of romance and adventure.

'Tokyo Rose' began flooding the Pacific airwaves with soft and seductive propaganda programs, and the AFRS responded by implanting 'hometown' radio stations everywhere GI's were gathering across the region.

Australian Army Amenity Service radio stations were finally ready for action as the Pacific War ended, and one of their earlier implants was also a 'hometown' station in the exposed Northern Territory of Australia itself.

Image of 5DR Darwin 1945

Corporal L Hobbs works on the installation of the transmitter for 5DR Darwin in April 1945
© Australian War Memorial

With the words 'This is Armed Forces Radio broadcasting from Tokyo' a new era dawned, followed quickly with Australian, New Zealand and other Commonwealth broadcasters adding their voices to Japanese airwaves.

As well as the massive AFRS network covering Japan from north to south, WLKS an Australian AAAS station with an American callsign was on the air, and even New Zealand found space on the dial with AKAA at Yamaguchi.

Image of AKAA Williams in Tokyo

Ulric Williams of AKAA Yamaguchi 'The Voice of the 2NZEF in Japan' interviews Kiwis atop Empire House in Tokyo in 1946.
© Ulric Williams Collection, Radio Heritage Foundation

AFRS and AAAS radio stations were scattered across the broad expanse of the Pacific at the close of World War Two, with additional AFRS stations throughout colonial India and pre-revolutionary China.

British Forces Radio, British Military Administration Radio and Radio SEAC broadcast from Singapore and Malaya, with AFRS and AAAS stations also located in the Dutch East Indies and Labuan.

Image of 9AF Labuan 1945

AAAS Radio 9AF broadcast from the small Straits Settlement territory of Labuan island off the coast of Borneo in November 1945.
© Australian War Memorial

Radio SEAC [South East Asia Command] was re-establishing itself from Ceylon ahead of Indian independence and by 1950, as China and Korea emerged as new areas of concern and the 'Bamboo Curtain' began to sweep down across northern Asia, Australia's WLKS still entertained remaining ANZAC troops at Kure, near Hiroshima in Japan.

Image of WLKS 1950

Captain Ken Collie [third from left] joins others to support the on air announcer at WLKS Radio, Kure in August 1950
© Australian War Memorial

On the Korean peninsula, the Korean War had erupted, with the United Nations sending forces and a by now very mature thirty-something 'radio' into the conflict. AFRS mobile radio stations were shipped from Japan and in the fast moving battles, an entire station was lost near Seoul.

ANZAC and other Commonwealth units were also engaged in the fighting, and 'Radio Commonwealth' rotated broadcasters from the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand in front of its microphones to provide links with home, and cricket commentaries instead of the baseball found on Vagabond and the other AFRS stations.

Image of Radio Commonwealth 1955

Sgt. Kevin O'Donnell spins the records at Radio Commonwealth on the Imjin River, a few miles from North Korean troops in November 1955.
© Australian War Memorial

During the Malayan Confrontation with newly independent Indonesia, ANZAC forces were again to be found patrolling the jungles of Borneo and the Malay peninsula, and the RAAF established a long term radio station at Butterworth, near Penang Island.

Radio RAAF Butterworth [RRB] emerged out of use of the tannoy system at the camp by the RAAF No 2 Construction Company in 1956, when personnel wanted a local station with their own music instead of listening to shortwave broadcasts from AFRS on Guam.

Image of RAAF Butterworth

RRB became a long established radio station for several decades and in its later years used this large studio building.

Even whilst Malaysia and Singapore were coming of age as new nations in 1963, Australian, American and New Zealand personnel were being drawn into events in Vietnam, where a major US military broadcasting operation was being established, known popularly as AFVN [Armed Forces Radio Vietnam].

Little known outside Australia and New Zealand is Australian Forces Radio located at Vung Tau, in Phuoc Tuy Province, South Vietnam. This station also featured taped shows from a number of well known broadcasters, including popular New Zealand DJ Keith Richardson.

Image of AFR Vietnam 1970

Australian Army Red Cross Field Officer Carmel O'Shea plays a request for listeners at AFR Vung Tau in January 1970.
© Australian War Memorial

By now, radio had progressed from its formative teenage years in 1939 through to respectable middle age some 30 years later in 1970. Along the way it entertained and informed ANZAC forces in many fields of conflict from the Middle East and North Africa through the Pacific, the shores of Australia, and throughout South East Asia.

Together with American Armed Forces Radio stations such as 1ZM in Auckland, New Zealand and 4QR in Brisbane, Australia, AAAS, WLKS, AKAA, Radio Commonwealth, Radio RAAF Butterworth and AFR Vietnam were some of the memorable icons of the Fighting Voices from Downunder.

Radio had come of age.

For more detailed information about the Australian AAAS radio stations check out 'Diggers on Air' and for a photographic review of the 9AA and other AAAS stations and the NZBS Middle East Unit, see 'ANZAC Day Salute'.

There's also a review of the joint AFRS/ABC Papua station at '9PA Port Moresby'.

There are over 30 AFRS related features - see the header 'AFRS Armed Forces Radio Memories' for a full listing.

Key features are 'AFRS Alaska', 'AFRS China-Burma-India', 'AFRS Japan' and 'AFRS Jungle Network'.

If you have any information, photos, recordings, memorabilia or any other items of interest about ANZAC radio broadcasts since 1939, we would like to hear from you and would be honored to share this material here.

You can 'email' us or write: Radio Heritage Foundation, PO Box 2213, Stoke, Nelson 7041, New Zealand. Donations to help us research and present more ANZAC and AFRS broadcasting heritage are very welcome and can be made in memoriam to family members and friends if desired.


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