It was a tale of espionage, now virtually forgotten, centered in, of all places, an old farmhouse in Scituate.
The clandestine mission that went on up there on Chopmist Hill from 1941 through 1945 not only helped defeat the enemy, historians say, but brought to Rhode Island the representatives of a new organization called the United Nations, looking for a headquarters location.
Incredible, perhaps. But true.
“They even had plans to build an airstrip if the United Nations ended up here,” says Scituate Town Historian Shirley Arnold. “Can you imagine that? In Scituate?”
No one knows the story anymore, she says. “All the old-timers are gone.”
There was nothing remarkable to see on Chopmist Hill in 1940 when, a year before the Japanese would attack Pearl Harbor and bring America into the war, a Boston radio technician by the name of Thomas B. Cave drove up Darby Road.
England was already at war with Germany, and Cave knew it was inevitable that the United States, already fortifying Great Britain with supplies and weaponry, would enter, too.
Cave worked for the Intelligence Division of the Federal Communications Commission, charged with finding a hilltop in southern New England that could serve as one of several listening posts to detect radio transmissions from German spies in the United States.
What he discovered up at William Suddard’s 183-acre farm was nothing short of miraculous.
Because of some geographic and atmospheric anomalies, Cave reported he could clearly intercept radio transmissions coming from Europe — even South America.
As a Providence Journal story revealed after the war, military officials were initially skeptical. They wanted Cave to prove his remarkable claims that from Chopmist Hill he could pinpoint the location of any radio transmission in the country within 15 minutes.
The Army set up a test. Without telling the FCC, it began broadcasting a signal from the Pentagon. From atop the 730-foot hill in the rural corner of Scituate, it took Cave all of seven minutes to zero in on the signal’s origin.
In March 1941, the Suddards obligingly moved out of their 14-room farmhouse, leasing the property to the FCC.
Workers set off erecting scores of telephone poles across the properly, purposely sinking them deep to keep them below the tree line. They strung 85,000 feet of antenna wire — the equivalent of 16 miles — around the poles and wired it into the house.
They fenced off the perimeter, erected floodlights and established armed patrols to keep people out. They filled six rooms with banks of sensitive radio receivers, transmitters and directional finders.
Then the FCC turned loose a 40-member spy team of men and women to listen in on the world —although none of them knew the full extent of the information they were cultivating.
The interceptors kept tabs on more than 400 different enemy radio transmitting stations broadcasting on any given day. They ferreted out secret low-frequency transmissions hidden under the beams of commercial radio stations abroad.
Much of what they intercepted were coded messages that were then recorded and sent electronically to Washington’s “black chamber” for decoding.
Shaping the war
The Chopmist Hill listening post soon became the largest and most successful of a nationwide network of 13 similar installations. Its ability to eavesdrop on German radio transmissions in North Africa, for instance, was so precise that technicians could actually listen in on tank-to-tank communications within Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s infamous Afrika Korps.
The Germans’ battlefield strategy was then relayed to the British, who under Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery eventually defeated Rommel at El Alamein.
The Chopmist station is also credited with saving the Queen Mary, the pride of England’s maritime fleet, as it was about to sail with 14,000 troops from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to Australia.
The station intercepted orders from Germany to the Nazi’s submarine wolf pack operating in the south Atlantic to sink the ship. The radio station alerted the British, who ordered the ship to change course.
Cave, who supervised the Chopmist Hill station, told The Journal in November 1945 that virtually all the wartime messages sent by German spies working in the United States were intercepted in Scituate.
Often, those German spies were allowed to continue operating so counterintelligence officers could run down their sources of information.
One of Scituate station’s most important jobs was to intercept German weather reports from Central Europe.
The reports, broadcast at a frequency undetectable in England, flowed easily across the Atlantic to Chopmist Hill. The information proved vital for British bombing raids over Germany.
Occasionally the station assisted in air and sea rescue operations. On one occasion a plane carrying actress Kay Francis got lost off the coast of Florida en route home from a USO tour. No other radio installation on the East Coast had picked up the pilot’s distress calls, but the Chopmist Hill station did, guiding the plane home safely.
In 1981, George Sterling, who had been the FCC commissioner during the war, told a Providence Journal reporter that he never understood why the United States was caught by surprise in the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor since the Chopmist Hill listening station had for months been intercepting Japanese messages in the Pacific indicating an impending attack.
Once war broke out, the station thwarted Japanese attempts to bomb the United States using unmanned hot-air balloons laden with explosives. The Japanese had placed radio transmitters on the balloons to track them as they rode the jet stream across the Pacific in the hope they reached the West Coast of America. Many did, and the Scituate eavesdroppers heard the balloon signals. They relayed the information to Washington. U.S. fighter planes intercepted and destroyed the balloons.
Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945, a week after Hitler committed suicide in a bunker in Berlin. The Japanese agreed to surrender on Aug. 14, 1945, five days after the U.S. dropped a second atomic bomb, on Nagasaki.
UN takes a look
The remarkable radio capabilities of Chopmist Hill captured world attention after the war when, in November 1945, the FCC permitted a Providence Journal reporter to visit the monitoring station.
Two months after her story ran, seven inspectors from the United Nations Organization were climbing an icy fire lookout tower on Chopmist Hill and scanning the rural landscape below for what might become their new headquarters.
The Jan. 26, 1946, issue of The Providence Journal carried the lead headline: “Chopmist Hill District is rated One of Top Potential Locations for UNO Quarters by Committee.”
The story described how inspectors were seriously considering the site as its headquarters because of area’s unmatched capability to reach every corner of the globe by radio.
“This is a possible site,” Dr. Stoyan Gavrilovic, of the Balkans and chairman of the inspection committee, told reporters during the tour. “It meets most of the technical points. It is good.”
During the tour the inspectors went into a room in the Suddard farmhouse where on one bank of radio equipment signs hung listing the cities of Lisbon, Madrid and Cairo — the cities the radios were tuned to.
One of the inspectors asked Cave, directing the tour, what was the range of the radio station?
“Well, Sydney, Australia,” replied Cave. “That’s about the farthest place there is.”
The inspectors said they were also looking for a wide tract of land to build an airport as well as a headquarters. Cave said the site offered about 50 square miles of property spanning Scituate, Foster and Glocester that could be available, although about 1,000 people would have to be relocated.
The inspectors were in town for only a couple of days before heading off to inspect possible sites around Worcester and Boston.
In the end, the United Nations officials settled on New York City after John D. Rockefeller Jr. offered them $8.5 million to purchase a six-block tract of land along the East River.
Today the Suddard house still stands behind the same ornate stone wall it did more than 70 years ago. But the hill around it, once mostly pasture and scrub, is covered with tall trees and dotted with new homes.
The house, privately owned again, reveals few clues to what happened there the last time the world went to war, save for a tall, thin radio tower in the yard, now covered in ivy, reaching for the clouds.