Move Over Netflix, The Army Signal Corps was Here First

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Television producers and directors at Fort Monmouth WFM-TV. “We called ourselves ‘The WFM Good Guys,’ “ said Clark Santee, in back row. Courtesy Clark Santee
Television producers and directors at Fort Monmouth WFM-TV. “We called ourselves ‘The WFM Good Guys,’ “ said Clark Santee, in back row. Courtesy Clark Santee

By Melissa Ziobro

FORT MONMOUTH – There’s no shortage of news coverage for those wishing to learn more about Netflix building a state-of-the-art facility on a large portion of the former Fort Monmouth. One interesting tidbit left out of most news coverage, though, is that movies and television shows have already been produced on the site – by the U.S. Army Signal Corps.

As reported in The Two River Times last week, Netflix intends to build a campus with 12 sound- stages with other offices, a commissary, consumer attractions, a theater and more. The construction phase is projected to create over 3,500 full-time jobs, with over 1,500 permanent jobs once the studio is fully functional.

Perhaps Netflix should look to history when designing the future.

The Signal Corps was established during the American Civil War and has been charged with all manner of military communications. This has included both still and motion picture photography. The Signal Corps harnessed both to train American troops and their allies, to inform the public of wartime news in real time and to document military history as it happened.

Still photography technology came first with Signal Corps photographers practicing their craft as early as the late 19th century. Today, the National Archives holds one of the largest Signal Corps photography collections, including roughly 1 million images chronicling military activities during war and peace on the front lines and on the home front. The images all live in the public domain, meaning they can be freely used without copyright infringement.

A studio scene during a course in basic electronics featuring at two-instructor team. Courtesy National Archives
A studio scene during a course in basic electronics featuring at two-instructor team. Courtesy National Archives

As motion picture technology emerged, the Signal Corps adopted that, too. The National Archives recently digitized nearly 800 reels of Signal Corps film and made many available via its YouTube channel. This series features footage captured by the Signal Corps as early as 1914, showing everything from battle scenes to Army bakers at work to dogs delivering cigarettes in the trenches.

The Signal Corps brought these fascinating and historically significant photography missions to Monmouth County when the Army established what would eventually be known as Fort Monmouth in 1917, shortly after the U.S. entered World War I. The post, which was supposed to be temporary, outlived the war and in fact remained open until the Department of Defense Base Realignment and Closure Commission shuttered it in 2011. By that point, the fort had trained countless men – and women, too – for war. Its innovative research and development laboratories had also conducted pioneering work on technologies ranging from radios to radar, satellites to night vision, and so much more.

While numerous different Army – and other federal government – agencies had a presence on the post at different times over the years, it was long known as the “Home of the Signal Corps.” From 1919-1976, this included the U.S. Army Signal School.

One mission of the Signal Corps and the Signal School at Fort Monmouth was producing training films – and later television – on site and training soldiers in moviemaking.

The archival record provides an intriguing glimpse into the history of film and television production on the post. In “United States Army Signal School 1919 – 1967,” Signal Corps historian Helen Phillips notes that as far back as the 1920s, the Signal School at Fort Monmouth taught elements of both still and motion picture photography. But instructors were initially told to ignore the existence of newfangled sound techniques.

Maj. Frank J. Peterson, chief of the TV division, explains the use of a television camera to German and Canadian liaison officers. Courtesy National Archives
Maj. Frank J. Peterson, chief of the TV division, explains the use of a television camera to German and Canadian liaison officers. Courtesy National Archives

That eventually changed. A 1940s Signal School course catalog lists the class Sound Projector Repair. Ten weeks long, it was intended to “train enlisted personnel to repair and overhaul sound motion picture projectors and related equipment…” Another class, Motion Picture Photography, ran for 11 weeks and trained enlisted personnel to “take sound and silent, indoor and outdoor motion pictures for use in preparing training, informational, and historical films.”

Similar courses are listed in catalogs throughout the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. (Still and motion picture photography were not exclusively the purview of Fort Monmouth; there were other facilities for teaching and producing media, such as those at the Army War College or a former Paramount Studio taken over by the Signal Corps in Astoria, New York.)

In addition to the Signal School training soldiers for military occupational specialties that involved motion picture work, the corps created films right on site. Records indicate a training film field unit, which included one officer, two enlisted men, and one civilian, was operating at the base in the mid-1930s with a yearly production quota of 20 reels. This unit soon exploded in size and output. The New York Times tracked the growth of Fort Monmouth’s motion picture operations, noting in a June 8, 1941, article that “the Training Film Laboratory now has… 150 writers, directors, cutters, animators, camera men, technicians, and assistants.”

The Signal Corps was established during the Civil War and handled all manner of military communications.
The Signal Corps was established during the Civil War and handled all manner of military communications.

That was just the beginning. The number of Signal Corps films would increase exponentially as the U.S. entered World War II. As Maj. Gen. Willian Oliver Reeder recalled in the 1947 article in The Military Engineer, “A very important responsibility of the Signal Corps during the war was the production of educational films which saved countless days in the training of new troops.

Training films by the hundreds were produced, demonstrating, for example, how a rifle is assembled; how communications wire is spliced; and how a tank is serviced. Many of these films were given new sound tracks in foreign languages to increase the practical value of arms shipped to non-English speaking allies. In addition to training films, still or motion pictures were also produced for the historical record, for information to assist commanders in reaching military decisions, for identification to aid in safeguarding military establishments, for photomail and V-Mail letters, and for the reproduction of documents, maps and similar matter, both to preserve valuable information and to supply duplicates.”

During the war, Hollywood elites like Darryl Zanuck and Frank Capra answered Uncle Sam’s call to help with these motion picture missions. Some of these men made their way to Fort Monmouth – like director Garson Kanin. He joined the service fresh off a string of hits, including “Tom, Dick, and Harry” featuring Ginger Rogers. His ability to direct films was at first hampered by the fact that he was a private.

A wry 1941 New York Times article observed, “Though in urgent need of directors to make its training films, the Army has found that it cannot press into service its ranking craftsman, Garson Kanin, because he does not hold a commission. Until recently a $2,800 a week Hollywood director… Kanin was assigned two weeks ago to the Training Film Laboratory at Fort Monmouth, NJ, where it was believed his talents could be most advantageously employed. But Private Kanin has not been asked to make films for Uncle Sam, nor is it likely he will be until he earns a commission.”

While there was no rule dictating privates couldn’t be directors, military protocols would make it hard for one to direct his crew as needed. This snafu was eventually overcome and Kanin co-directed Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s official record of the Allied invasion, a documentary titled “The True Glory.” The film was named Best Film of 1945 by the National Board of Review and won the Academy Award for Best Documentary that year.

Kanin wasn’t the only famous Hollywood type to land at Fort Monmouth. So many were stationed there the Asbury Park Press reported the post was referred to as “little Hollywood,” “Hollywood on the Atlantic” and “the Celeboratory.”

Current U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Command historian Susan Thompson noted that by the end of World War II, the Signal Corps “had produced more than 2,500 films of many different types, 1,000 of which were translated and shared with the Allies. For many families, the films and photographs produced by the Signal Corps provided a much-needed glimpse into where their loved ones were and what they were experiencing. The films also galvanized the country, taught life-saving skills, and gave our Soldiers the resolve to continue the fight.”

The Signal Corps and Signal School were responsible for producing training films but also training soldiers in moviemaking. Courtesy National Archives
The Signal Corps and Signal School were responsible for producing training films but also training soldiers in moviemaking. Courtesy National Archives

Motion picture missions didn’t disappear from the fort with the end of World War II. Signal Corps-trained cameramen soon deployed to Korea and new technologies continued to be adopted. Archival records show the Signal School pioneered the use of television in military education and established the Army’s first television training facility in 1951.

By 1971 station WFM operated 24 hours a day, transmitting from two studios to classrooms, conference rooms and theaters. The Television Division, which also had a mobile television van, produced original films to teach Signal School course concepts and support other posts.

This is just scratching the surface of a relatively little-known piece of Fort Monmouth’s storied history. The film and television produced at the fort, and scenes captured across the globe by those trained at the fort, made a critical difference in the training of troops and documentation of military operations overthe years. For a more complete history of Fort Monmouth, see “A History of Army Communications and Electronics at Fort Monmouth, NJ, 1917-2007,” edited by Wendy Rejan. For an overview of Signal Corps history, see “Getting the Message Through: A Branch History of the U.S. Army Signal Corps,” by Rebecca Robbins Raines.

Melissa Ziobro is the specialist professor of public history at Monmouth University’s Department of History and Anthropology. She served as a Command Historian for the Communications-Electronics Command at Fort Monmouth from 2004 to the post’s closure in 2011.

The article originally appeared in the January 12 – 18, 2023 print edition of The Two River Times.