KGEI, a shortwave radio station in Redwood Shores that was the only voice from home for GIs in the Pacific during World War II, has its call letters back.
The letters on the front of the building located off Radio Road were covered up decades ago by a church that took over the station’s transmitter building, now part of Silicon Valley Clean Water.
“I am happy to report that we have uncovered the letters on the building,” said Teresa Herrera, manager of the wastewater treatment facility. “I think it looks great!”
Herrera said she had no idea of the building’s history until the Rear View Mirror brought it to SVCW’s attention. No extra money was needed for the restoration because the building was due to be painted.
“The letters were just as they were when the concrete forms had been originally removed in the 1930s,” said construction manager William Tanner.
Still, there is no plaque to remind the few visitors to the area that KGEI, the GEI standing for General Electric International, played an important role in World War II. Among other accomplishments, the station broadcast Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s “I have returned” speech that fulfilled his promise to return with victorious American troops to the Philippines, occupied by Japanese forces since 1942.
“The First 24 Hours of War in the Pacific,” a book written by Donald Young, underlines the importance of KGEI. It also reminds readers how successful Japanese forces were during those 24 hours in attacking Malaysia, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Wake Island and Guam, as well as Hawaii.
In recounting the attack on Clark Field in the Philippines, Young writes that the first news of Pearl Harbor came to that air base “when an army enlisted man, listening to shortwave radio station KGEI in San Francisco heard the same announcement that had alerted General MacArthur in Manila.” The studio was located at the Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill in San Francisco, but the transmitter was on the Peninsula.
In 1942, The New York Times wrote a story headlined “KGEI Tells Them.” Nothing, the newspaper reported, stirs the hearts of soldiers and sailors as much as hearing the introduction to the station’s programs: “This is the United States of America.”
The listening soldiers included U.S. Army Capt. Steve Mellnik, who was captured in the fall of Corregidor, an island fortress in Manila Bay. He recalled in his book, “Philippine Diary,” that he depended on KGEI for war news, learning with “dismay as Japanese forces spread across the Pacific.” Mellnik escaped and survived to become a general.
“News of friendly troop movement puzzled us,” Mellnik recalled in the book published in 1969. “A commentator boasted that hundreds of ships were en route to the Far East. We cheered. But almost casually the commentator added that the armada’s destination was Australia.”
The cheers turned to groans. Australia became MacArthur’s rallying point. He eventually made three speeches there in which he vowed to return. The general’s famous “I have returned” speech came in October of 1944 when he fulfilled his promise. The words were first broadcast from a U.S. Navy ship off the Philippines and later spread by KGEI throughout Asia.
After the war, General Electric sold the station to the Far East Broadcasting Company which then sold the building to the Fully Alive Community Church in 2001. Former Far East Broadcasting Company president Jim Bowman said he often visited Manila and would come across Filipinos “who listened to KGEI to keep their hopes alive during the Japanese occupation.”
The building is near a section of the Bay Trail used by hikers and bike riders who pass by an almost unknown part of World War II history. The transmitter, however, is no more. Far East Broadcasting gave it to a radio ministry in Liberia where it was destroyed by rebel forces in the late 1990s.
The Rear View Mirror by history columnist Jim Clifford appears in the Daily Journal every other Monday. Objects in The Mirror are closer than they appear.