Pittsburgh Signal Battalion had ‘will to communicate’
The unexpected discovery in 1985 of World War I documents stashed away in the Coraopolis armory led a North Huntingdon man to write a book detailing the exploits of a Pittsburgh field signal battalion that laid radio lines so commanders could communicate with their front-line soldiers.
“They were the most vulnerable. They worked in the dark and under a barrage of artillery” as well as poison gas attacks, said Richard J. Matason of North Huntingdon, author of the recently published book, “The Will to Communicate: A History of Pittsburgh’s 103rd Signal Battalion.”
The Pittsburgh-based unit was formed in 1904 by two men interested in communications and became part of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. They laid down several hundred miles of wire and cable, which provided command and control communications for the 28th Division. The battalion, composed of electrical and civil engineers and those in the budding telephone industry, saw action in battles in France, including the Battle of the Marne and the critical Meuse-Argonne offensive by the Germans shortly before the war ended on Nov. 11, 1918.
Nineteen members of the battalion were killed in action and 167 were wounded or gassed, Matason said.
“The wire was the primary means of communications. They (signal men) laid hundreds of miles of radio lines,” said Matason,who served 29 years as an army signal corps officer in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. From 1989 to 1993, he commanded the 28th Signal Battalion, the successor organization to the 103rd Field Signal Battalion.
The book came out of the discovery of the papers, maps and documents of Col. Sidney A. Hagerling, the 28th Division Signal Officer during World War I. Hagerling was a prominent member of the early Pittsburgh Signal Corps units, including the 103rd Field Signal Battalion.
Hagerling’s papers were discovered in an oversized steel foot locker when Matason was the administrative officer of the National Guard’s 28th Signal Battalion in Coraopolis. The locker was found during a clean-up prior to an inspection.
The locker contained a treasure trove of “primary source” documents that started Matason, who has a master’s degree in modern European history, on a mission to write the book, he said. He began working on it in 1985 and his retirement in November 2011 as the executive director of the Westmoreland County Department of Public Safety afforded him more time to work on it.
The 133-page book is replete with vignettes and personal recollections from the soldiers who served with the battalion during the war, as well as reproductions of maps showing the radio lines they laid and letters from officers. Matason supplemented the documents in the storage locker with extensive research he conducted into the field signal battalion at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and the Pennsylvania State Archives in Harrisburg, where, he said, he found information on many of the men who served in the battalion.
“I tried to include as many personal stories as possible,” said Matason, a White Oak native and McKeesport High School graduate.
Matason’s book describes the dangerous conditions the signalmen faced as they installed, operated and maintained the wire and radio communications in the trenches and no-man’s land between the two opposing forces. In addition to wire- and cable-based communications, as well as radio, Matason said the signal battalion also used pigeons, lanterns, motor messenger and foot messenger.
“They were deeply involved in trench warfare. The conditions were terrible.
“You really had to want to communicate” in fulfilling that mission, said Matason, a retired Army National Guard brigadier general. They truly demonstrated ‘the will to communicate.’
The unit endured in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard for 98 years, first as the 28th Signal Co. and then as the 28th Infantry Division until 2006.
The limited-edition book, published by Gallant Warrior Publishing, is available through Amazon for $15. It also is at the Norwin Public Library on the local author’s shelf.