When A Sleepy California Town Was At The Center of War in the Pacific

The newsmen ignored the Japanese bombs shaking seventy-five feet of rock above their heads. It was June 1940, and a team of Chinese and Western broadcasters continued their reports from a tunnel beneath Chongqing, China's wartime capital, the "world's most bombed city."

Seven thousand miles away, in Ventura, a dentist woke early to listen to their broadcast. As he did every morning, beginning precisely at 5:53 a.m., Dr. Charles Stuart spent two hours carefully monitoring recording levels as acetate discs recorded the broadcast from XGOY, the Chinese government's radio station. Next to him, wearing dental assistant whites and huge headphones pressed to her ears, Stuart's secretary—and wife—Alacia Held, transcribed every word. Finally, a familiar farewell closed another day's broadcasts.

"XGOY is signing off now," declared Melville Jacoby, a twenty-three-year-old freelance journalist hired to compile and read the station's broadcasts. "This is the Voice of China, the Chinese international broadcasting station, Szechuan, China. Good morning America and goodnight China."

Seven decades later, I've spent years chasing every clue I can about Mel's life as a correspondent in wartime China. A cousin of my grandmother's, Mel grew up in one of Los Angeles's first Jewish families, and I wanted to know more than the family legend about the cousin who became Time's Far East bureau chief and fell in love amid the Chongqing air raids.

On a summer afternoon in a park in Portland, Oregon, 211 pages into Peter Rand's China Hands, I saw Mel's name. I'd known about his broadcasting work for the Chinese. What I didn't know was a detail Rand pointed out. Mel's broadcasts from XGOY were "picked up in Ventura, California, by a ham radio operator, a dentist named Dr. Charles Stuart."

I was floored. Not only was Mel in this book, but his work, I learned, depended on a dentist in my own hometown. Ventura. The sleepy seaside town I'd been so quick to escape was one of China's only links to the outside world during the war.

Without Doc Stuart's radio towers on the California coast, his dedication and technical mastery, China may have been completely isolated from the outside world.¹ So crucial was his work to the Republic of China's war effort that it awarded him its highest civilian honor, the "Special Collar of the order of the Brilliant Star." At the time, he was the only foreigner to receive the award.²

But who was this dentist?

Born in Santa Paula, a rural Ventura County town, Stuart received one of the country's first shortwave amateur radio licenses when he was only thirteen, but he had to shut down his operation when the United States entered World War I. He attended the University of Southern California, where he studied dentistry. Then in 1932, he got back into shortwave and registered W6GRL, the call sign he'd use for the next two decades.

Before the second Sino-Japanese war broke out on the other side of the Pacific and Stuart was hired to work for XGOY, he had won numerous international shortwave competitions. Stuart said he had contacted people in Russian-held Franz Josef Land, the Chagos Archipelago, and Antarctica, among many other remote locales. Once, he claimed, he even reached Howard Hughes's Lockheed 14 Lodestar as it passed over Siberia during Hughes's 1938 flight around the world.

Stuart was not a man who did things by halves. He was as passionate about dentistry as he was about shortwave radio and China. When he finally visited China after the war, he was nervous about leaving his patients behind and asked friends who were also dentists to see them. For the rest of his life—he died in 1981—he traveled the world to teach others about dentistry. When he got home, his granddaughter once recalled in a conversation with me, the first question he had for his grandchildren was how their teeth were doing.

Stuart's dental clinic was on the second floor of El Jardin, a Spanish-style courtyard plaza in downtown Ventura, one of Southern California's first outdoor shopping centers. Growing up in Ventura, I knew "El Jardin" as an outdoor mall of salons, bead stores, and art galleries. But in 1940, El Jardin became the first place where Stuart and his wife began receiving, recording, and transcribing broadcasts from Chongqing to relay to Chinese News Service offices in San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, and New York. They soon moved the operation to their beachside home.

The major networks, with their expensive equipment and technicians, had struggled for years to bring in XGOY. But finally, as Harrison Forman wrote for Collier's in 1944, major US networks "admitted they'd never met a better man and ran their lines into Doctor Stuart's little attic. Now every word and note that America hears from Chungking is funneled through that attic."3

Newspapers across the country covered Stuart's efforts throughout the war. NBC itself lauded him in a 1945 broadcast.4 When General Douglas MacArthur radioed Japan's emperor for surrender terms, he sent a copy of the message through Stuart to make sure it reached appropriate parties.5 Stuart even received Chinese honors reserved for dignitaries.

When A Sleepy California Town Was At The Center of War in the Pacific

Chongqing, China's wartime capital, was devastated by sustained Japanese bombing. Photograph courtesy of the estate of Melville J. Jacoby.

"He proved to be both technically well-equipped to handle the job and faithful in the performance of a function which he voluntarily took upon himself," Chinese information minister Hollington Tong later wrote, also noting Alacia's role in the news operation. "The Stuarts performed a basic and essential service for us throughout six years of war."

As World War II fades into history, few Americans remember that the conflict actually began four and a half years before Pearl Harbor, when Japanese and Chinese forces exchanged fire at a bridge outside Beijing. Over the next eight years, at least fourteen million Chinese died, and tens of millions of people were displaced by the conflict.6

Even in the 1930s and 1940s, California had strong economic interests in Asia, but Golden State media paid more attention to Hitler's march across Europe than the conflict raging between Japan and China. Were it not for Doc Stuart, a team of American-born agents hired by the Chinese government to represent their interests in the United States, and a cadre of journalists working from Chongqing, the suffering in China may have been completely ignored by the Western world.

During the war, Chiang Kai Shek's Kuomintang government operated a complex propaganda and public relations effort aiming for sympathy—not to mention funding and favorable policy—from allies in the United States. The strategy depended on XGOY and its signal reaching the West, but the station had to transmit through Japanese bombs and interference to disseminate official messages to sympathetic editors, philanthropists, and foreign officials. Most American eyes and ears may have been turned to Europe, but people like Hollywood mogul David O. Selznick andTime publisher Henry Luce, who was born to missionary parents in China, were deeply interested in China. They needed XGOY to convey to Americans first-hand reports—albeit propaganda-tinged ones—of the country's resistance to the Japanese invasion. Long before Pearl Harbor, Luce, Selznick and other allies of the Chinese argued that Japan's militarism was a threat to Western interests in the Far East.

Aside from its political importance, XGOY became one of the only ways a tight cadre of foreign journalists could reach newspapers, magazines, and radio networks back home. The station transmitted a weekly "mailbag" of messages from Americans in Chongqing that Stuart relayed to their American family members. At one point, XGOY even broadcast the text, punctuation and all, of an entire book—China After Five Years of War—so it could be sent to New York in the middle of the conflict.

But for any of these messages to reach the United States, XGOY needed more than skilled broadcasters in China; it needed a radio expert—preferably one in California—who could locate their faint signal while advising them on how to improve their transmissions.

They needed Doc Stuart.

When Alex Wilson was a kid in Ventura's seaside Pierpont district during the early 1970s, he and his childhood friends would race to the beach and swap stories about the houses they passed. One favorite concerned the empty Tudor-style home on the corner of Devon Lane and Pierpont Avenue. Now a senior correspondent at Ventura radio station KVTA, Wilson remembers the wild rumors surrounding that house.

"I remember hearing the stories that there was some guy in that house looking for submarines," Wilson told me when I visited Ventura to see whether anyone remembered Doc Stuart in my hometown.

In search of better reception, Doc Stuart had moved his listening post from El Jardin to Devon Lane not long after the Chinese government hired him. Today, Devon Lane runs through Pierpont, a dense neighborhood of beach homes packed one against the other along narrow lanes, but when Stuart moved there, it was a sparsely populated oceanfront subdivision whose development had been interrupted by the Great Depression. Most of Pierpont's lots were still empty, and the flat expanses of sand limited signal obstructions, the salty air improved conductivity, and the location was well-suited for Stuart's unidirectional—or rhombic—antenna. As he bought up neighboring lots, Stuart planted a forest of eight 70-foot receiving towers and one 90-foot tall one, and then strung more than a mile's worth of wiring between them and the equipment in his house.7

Stuart's work for the Chinese began in 1940, when the Chinese News Association, a Kuomintang-run press syndicate based in New York, dispatched Earl Leaf to find someone to receive broadcasts from XGOY. At the time, Leaf was "an ex-logger, miner, cowboy, sailor and accountant" who had worked for the United Press and was one of the first Western journalists to meet and interview Mao Zedong.8 He worked his contacts in California and soon learned that if anyone could help the Chinese, it was Doc Stuart.

It was only through Stuart's guidance that the Chinese information ministry was able to prevent heavy Japanese interference and the 7,000 mile distance across the Pacific from garbling news broadcasts meant for American audiences.

Before Earl Leaf left Asia he befriended Melville Jacoby. Mel was a Los Angeles native, graduate of Stanford University, and newspaper stringer who had studied abroad in China three years earlier, written his master's thesis about imbalances in California newspapers' coverage of Asia compared to Europe, and returned to the Far East to start his journalism career. While Leaf secured Doc Stuart's efforts in California, Jacoby went to work with Peng Lo Shan (also known as Mike Peng), the overworked program manager at XGOY.

Wary of becoming a propagandist and eager for more journalism experience, Jacoby left XGOY in the summer of 1940, but not before forging tight connections with Peng, Information Minister Tong, and, remotely, Doc Stuart. But when he was in Chongqing, Jacoby, like a million other wartime occupants of the city, endured countless Japanese bombings, some of which were strategically aimed at XGOY's facilities.

"Our transmitter out in the country, not here, has made a good target," Jacoby wrote to his worried mother, adding that the Japanese bombs missed even this more vulnerable equipment in the countryside.9 But XGOY's work was too important to leave so vulnerable. "Now while they think we're all destroyed we are moving all equipment in a gigantic bomb proof dugout. In the meantime our work will go ahead unmolested. In a month we'll be back stronger than ever and secure."

While Jacoby and Peng jury-rigged XGOY's equipment—at one point they hooked transmitters up to car batteries after bombs damaged the station's generators—back in Ventura, Stuart regularly scaled his antenna towers to readjust wiring, or told his son, Bud Held, to do so.

"I spent a lot of time climbing poles for Doc Stuart," Held told me when I tracked him down in Ventura. "They grabbed me whenever I was out of school, or on the weekends."

When A Sleepy California Town Was At The Center of War in the Pacific

Alacia Held, Doc Stuart's wife, transcribed XGOY's broadcasts throughout the war. Photograph courtesy of Debra Whitson.

Doc Stuart's wife, Alacia, was even more crucial, transcribing upward of 6,000 words a day and then working by Stuart's side at his dental practice.

"Much credit must be given to my able assistant and secretary, Mrs. Alacia Held, who stays at the typewriter for hours with earphones clamped to her head taking dictation from a source 7,000 miles distant through static and heterodynes, through fading and hash," Stuart told a United China Relief sponsor.10

By 1941, as war between the United States and Japan neared, the Federal Communication Commission's Foreign Broadcast Monitoring Service set up its own network of listening posts. Staff at the service's Portland, Oregon, post could only detect a "negligible" signal from Chungking and turned to Stuart for help. "I note, incidentally, that the Chinese News Service has been getting better reports out of Chungking than we have been able to here," FBMS Assistant Editor William Carter wrote in a letter to Stuart.11

Working for XGOY, Stuart became an ardent partisan in China's resistance to Japanese invasion. Stuart didn't hide his support for the Kuomintang. He was the local chair of United China Relief, an organization set up by Luce and Selznick. When President Roosevelt omitted China from a list of major battlefronts during a speech in 1942, Stuart wrote a pointed letter of complaint to the president.

"Do you realize how great a boon this failure to recognize China's effort is to our Japanese antagonist," Stuart wrote, warning that Free China was the lone force preventing what he described as an all-out "racial war" with the United States from erupting in Asia.12

"China's has been a thankless struggle; a struggle which is without parallel in history; a struggle alone; a struggle against unprecedented odds with self-professed friends, true, who through four and a half years supplied her enemy, Japan, with the major portion of the sinews of war," Stuart continued. "We then found it easy and convenient, and I may add profitable, to supply our enemy. We now find it difficult to supply our friend."

Of course, Stuart profited from his friendship with China. Accounting he provided to the FCC, and letters from Board of Information officials, show that by 1944, the Chinese paid him between $1,250 and $1,400 a month (equivalent to monthly payments of approximately $16,000 to $18,000 today).

After the war, Stuart lobbied C.L. Hsia, who had replaced Leaf at the China News Association, to raise funds for new transmission facilities in Nanjing, where the nationalists reestablished their capital in 1946. A perfectionist as always, Stuart was convinced the equipment for a proper broadcast wouldn't exist in China unless it was designed to his specifications.

Stuart expected the project to cost $30,000 (equivalent to about $360,000 today). Hsia promised the government would pay for the work, and Stuart commissioned Hughes Aviation's radio division to build its main components. He also ordered four Douglas fir poles and dozens of electrical and other components from contractors throughout Southern California. All of the supplies were to be packed up and shipped by boat to China. Stuart and his wife then made plans to travel to China to oversee its installation in person.

Arriving first in Shanghai, Stuart met many of the people with whom he'd been communicating by radio, including Mike Peng and "Newsreel" Wong, a photographer who had been a friend of Melville Jacoby's and whose controversial—and possibly staged—1937 picture of a wailing baby at the bomb-destroyed Shanghai South Railway Station appeared on the cover of Life magazine and numerous Hearst papers.

Before Stuart even arrived in China, the new radio facilities overran cost estimates, and relations between Stuart and Hsia chilled. But the project proceeded. Aside from the new transmitters Stuart installed, he worked with IBM to develop a "radiotype" machine able to transmit text at 100 words per minute. Where once it was crucial for Alacia to carefully transcribe program scripts and other materials, this new technology made her work unnecessary; XGOY could send its scripts with its broadcasts and networks could automatically print them.

But after the Communists defeated the Kuomintang in the Chinese Civil War, Stuart's work with the nationalists ended. By the early 1950s he had dismantled his operation at Pierpont and moved from the beach to a hillside avocado ranch in East Ventura. Memories of Doc Stuart's exploits faded as the United States turned away from its Chinese ally and the Pacific bristled with Cold War tensions. Meanwhile, in Chongqing, the Civil War, the Maoist Cultural Revolution that followed, and decades of industrialization buried all but the shallowest memories of China's wartime capital. Eventually, restaurants, warehouses, and stores filled the underground tunnels that had once housed the radio station on the other end of Stuart's line.

Occasionally, former nationalist Chinese officials, journalists, and others who had worked with Stuart stopped to see him in Ventura during visits to Southern California, but they were quiet, private events. By the time I was a child, there was no sign of Stuart's radio days in the city.

His house on Pierpont was converted into five apartments decades ago. The Held family keeps most of Stuart's personal artifacts at a ranch in the hills between Ventura and Santa Paula, while the XGOY records wound up with a scholar of East Asian history and are now in special collections at the University of Oregon.

I stumbled upon Stuart's story serendipitously, but when I last returned home to Ventura, I strolled past El Jardin and wondered what shoppers would think if they knew what had taken place there a lifetime ago. On Christmas Eve, I went down to Pierpont, stopped at the old Tudor house on the entrance to Devon Lane, and then walked down the street to sit on the beach. There, I stared across the Pacific. I knew that three-quarters of a century earlier Melville Jacoby's voice had come crackling through the air, telling the story of a world being torn to shreds. Thanks to Doc Stuart, that voice reached its home in California.


NOTES

1 G.W. Johnstone, Director of News and Special Features, The Blue Network, letter "To Whom it May Concern," 23 May 1944, New York, NY, p.1, Charles E. Stuart Papers, Ax 415, box 6, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Oregon 97403-1299.

2 Michael Ditmore, "The Original Chinese Fire Drill…How a Dentist got to Nanking," Key-Klix, Santa Barbara Amateur Radio Club, Vol. 57, Issue 5, May, 2010, Santa Barbara, California.

3 Harrison Forman, "The Voice of China," Colliers, 17 June 1944.

4 Ed Souder, "Salute to Dr. Charles E. Stuart," The Blue Network radio transcript, 23 March 1945, 1451 GMT, Charles E. Stuart Papers, Ax 415, box 6, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Oregon 97403-1299.

5 Douglas MacArthur, "Special Service Message for Dr. Stuart from Supreme Commander for Allied Powers Addressed to the Japanese Emperor," 15 Aug. 1945—1329 GMT—9805 Kilocycles, Charles E. Stuart Papers, Ax 415, box 6, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Oregon 97403-1299.

6 Rana Mitter, Forgotten Ally: China's World War II 1937–1945 (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), 11.

7 Federal Communications Commission, Application for Radio Station Construction Permit by Charles Edward Stuart, 4 April 1943, Charles E. Stuart Papers, Ax 415, box 6, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Oregon 97403-1299.

8 Earl H. Leaf, "Behind Chinese Lines," Eyewitness, Robert Spiers Benjamin, ed. (New York, NY: Alliance Book Corp., 1940), 132.

9 Melville Jacoby, letter to Elza Meyberg, 2 June 1940, 10:00 p.m.

10 Dr. Charles E. Stuart, letter to Frances Mason, p.3, Charles E. Stuart Papers, Ax 415, box 6, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Oregon 97403-1299.

11 William Carter, letter to Dr. Charles Stuart, 19 Nov. 1941, Chicago, Illinois, Charles E. Stuart Papers, Ax 415, box 6, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Oregon 97403-1299.

12 Dr. Charles E. Stuart, letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 14 Sept. 1942, Ventura, California, Charles E. Stuart Papers, Ax 415, box 6, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Oregon 97403-1299.


This article was originally published on Boom, as "Radio Free China." Boom aims to create a lively conversation about the vital social, cultural, and political issues of our times, in California and the world beyond.