Civilian Conservation Corps and the AARS

Scott Hedberg, AD7MI

During the Great Depression, the Army finds ham radio an effective solution for communicating with remote CCC camps.

The Army Amateur Radio System (AARS) was an organization set up by the US Army Signal Corps in the fall of 1925 to accomplish the following:

(a) To secure additional channels of communication throughout the continental limits of the United States that can be used in time of an emergency such that the land lines, both telephone and telegraph are seriously damaged or destroyed by flood, fire, tornado, earthquake, ice, or other causes.

(b) To provide channels of communication for the civilian components of the United States Army; National Guard and the Organized Reserve, such that they may carry on portions of their business through these channels.

(c) To provide a reservoir of radio operators trained in army methods of procedure and in the basic principles of the army’s methods of using radio in the field.

(d) To provide a means of establishing considerable number of radio operators and popularizing the Signal Corps and its activities with them as well as the exchanging of views on experimental work.1

The AARS met these goals with a domestic organizational structure based around the nine corps areas that the continental United States was divided into by the National Defense Act of 1920. These corps areas were designed to provide leadership and administration for all US Army activities within them. Each corps area, with its administrative staff, had a signal officer who was responsible for everything that involved communications. When the AARS was first established, it was up to the corps area signal officer to manage the program. That experience helped prepare the corps area signal officers to deal with arguably one of the Army’s most significant challenges of the 1930s: the operation of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).

Keeping Remote Camps in Touch

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s immediate priority once taking office in March 1933 was to provide relief to the multitude of Americans impacted by the Great Depression. The Army was formally tasked in April to help run the CCC. The program gave responsibility to the Army to take in thousands of unemployed men around the country for purposes of providing them housing and administrative management as the men supplied the labor for public works projects.

The implementation of the CCC put the corps areas under “war-time pressure” and the signal officers supporting CCC operations were fully engaged. “Radio stations capable of operating as amateur stations were highly desirable because of the possibility of enrollees sending and receiving messages from their folks and friends and because the operation as an amateur station would result in considerable interest among enrollees and enhance the possibilities of working up worth-while educational and recreational activities around the radio station, with a qualified radio operator as the keystone.”2 Many of the camps existed well outside the reach of telephone service and radio was an able solution to fill the communications gap.

At the Third Corps Area headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland, the radio normally dedicated for the AARS nightly nets was used to support a daytime net with the CCC camps. By bridging the CCC and AARS nets, traffic originating from the CCC camps destined for family back home could easily (and with no cost) be passed to the AARS net for handling and delivery. This not only provided a valuable service to the members of the CCC but also provided training for the radio amateurs of the AARS net.

The Sixth Corps Area (Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan) was an exception the development of a radio net to support the CCC was not necessary due to the existing communications infrastructure in the area. Yet, the demand by the CCC members to have Amateur Radio stations at the camps led to the creation of a CCC network of radio stations in the Sixth Corps Area. The Army quickly saw the vocational applicability of having the stations despite no real operational requirement being fulfilled.

The Seventh Corps Area (North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas) had a different approach. Amongst their CCC camps were radios that initially allowed for a dedicated daytime net to support CCC operations. To expand the existing usefulness of these radio stations, the Seventh Corps Area signal officer provided each with an additional crystal that allowed the radio stations to operate at night in state specific nets using AARS frequencies.

A Frugal Approach for the Great Depression

Using radio to support CCC camp operations and integrating CCC radio nets with AARS nets proved to be effective in reducing communications (telephone and telegraph) costs. In the Seventh Corps Area the average cost was $3842.83 per month between  September 1934 and August 1935. After the introduction of radios, monthly costs dropped by almost half to $1984.25.

In January 1936 the Fourth Corps Area (Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida) fielded 13 radios to support the CCC camps in their area. Growing to a total of 37 radio stations supporting CCC camps across the Fourth Corps Area, the signal officers realized in addition to the cost savings accrued through the use of radio as compared to telephone and telegraph, the men who manned the CCC radio stations were in effect becoming experienced Army radio operators.

Civilian Operators Gain Army Skills

The CCC radio operators use of Army radio procedure during the CCC nets as well as participation in the nighttime AARS nets quickly caused them to develop a high level of proficiency. The Regular Army Signal Corps officers assigned to provide instruction to the CCC members also greatly benefited from the high operational tempo of the CCC operations to hone their own skills in the field of radio as well as those of an instructor.

Although each corps area met the challenges posed by the CCC based on the conditions present in their respective locations, the overall experience helped prepare the Signal Corps across the Army to become more adaptive and innovative in how it set up communications networks. For many civilian participants in the CCC, it was their first introduction to Amateur Radio. The CCC was disbanded in 1942 and some CCC graduates went on to become radio operators in World War II . The CCC and AARS cooperation is a great historical example of Amateur Radio getting the message through.

All photos courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

Scott Hedberg, AD7MI, a Life Member of the ARRL, is a 1991 graduate of The Citadel, with a Bachelors of Arts in Political Science. He has served in the US Army for the past 19 years. His previous education includes a Master of Arts in International Relations from Webster University. In May 2010 Scott graduated from the School of Advanced Military Studies, Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas with a Master of Military Art and Science degree. His next assignment will be in South Korea with the 2nd Infantry Division where he hopes to obtain an HL call sign for some recreational HF contacts during his year-long tour.

Scott’s interest in Amateur Radio stems from his father, Larry, KD6EUG. Scott was licensed in 2001 and his Amateur Radio highlight so far was operating from Iraq as YI9MI during his 2007-2008 tour. Scott can be reached at 3008 Gatewood Ct, Leavenworth, KS 66048.


1K. B. Warner, 1BHW, “The Army Links Up With The Amateur,” QST, Oct 1925, pp 22-24.

2H. O. Bixby, “The Third Corps Area Civilian Conservation Corps Radio System,” The Signal Corps Bulletin 80, Sep-Oct 1934, p 31.