War Stories No. 1: Shipping overseas

The Villchur Blog posts articles about the life and career of author, educator, and inventor Edgar Villchur. This is the first of three articles about Villchur’s experiences in World War II.

Edgar Villchur was a free thinker and a believer in individual liberty and responsibility. He had no use for things military—the uniforms, the superior and inferior ranks, the blind obedience to orders, and in general the glorification of war and conquest. He was not strictly a pacifist, but rather one who felt that war should be considered a last resort.

Edgar Villchur, reporting for duty, 1941
Edgar Villchur, reporting for duty, 1941

World War II, however, was a just war, as far as Villchur was concerned. He served his country for five years, including twenty-eight months in the Pacific theater. He may not have liked the principal of military obedience to authority, but he understood the need for hierarchy and discipline in a wartime environment. When he was drafted in early 1941, the United States was not yet involved in the war. Americans were divided on whether the country should join the war effort. Many felt that neutrality was the best way to ensure our national security. Others deeply regretted our failure to help our allies in the Great War (the United States did not enter World War I until it was nearly over), and felt we should make up for that mistake by allying ourselves with the United Kingdom to fight Nazi Germany. Refugees from Germany were pouring in to the United States with stories of German persecution and violence against Jews, Gypsies, and other non-Aryan ethnic minorities. American isolationists were unconvinced, but among Jewish Americans like Edgar Villchur, there was no doubt that Nazi Germany was on a mission of genocide and needed to be stopped.

The first peacetime draft in United States history was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on September 16, 1940. It limited service to twelve months, but was extended in August 1941 as the prospect of war loomed ever larger. Men between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-five were required to register at local draft boards, and were chosen for service by lottery. Many objected to the extension of service, but the issue became moot when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and declared war on the United States. The next day, FDR asked Congress to declare war on Japan, and that declaration was passed by both houses within forty minutes. Within a week, Germany had also declared war on the United States, and Congress declared war on Germany and its ally Italy.

Thousands of men and women volunteered for service as soon as the threat to national security was apparent. Once the US entered the war, service was extended to the end of the war, and all men from age eighteen to sixty-five were required to register.

Edgar (on the right) and three friends, ready to ship out, 1942
Edgar (on the right) and three friends, ready to ship out, 1942

Villchur was called up in the draft lottery in March of 1941, nine months before Pearl Harbor and the US entry into the war. He was part of the 340th Fighter Squadron, which was one of three squadrons in the 348th Fighter Group of the Army Air Corps. This branch of the armed services changed its name over time, becoming the Army Air Force, which was one of the combat arms of the army. After World War II, it was incorporated into the Air Force.

At Fort Dix, on his first day, he learned how to salute and whom to salute. You would be reprimanded if you didn’t salute an officer on the street (but not in a building), and also if you saluted a sergeant, who is not an officer. The enlisted man’s salute is the whole hand, and the most important part of the salute is putting the hand up to the forehead. The officer’s salute is with three fingers, and the important part is briskly removing the hand from the forehead, which is a signal for the soldier to release his salute. Villchur said there was not a lot of attention paid to saluting when they were overseas.

Villchur started training at Mitchel Field near Hempstead on Long Island, and was appointed Technician 5th grade in April of 1942. He decided that the best course of action was to apply for Officers’ Candidate School. He was intelligent and college educated, and entering the war as a trained officer rather than an enlisted man would make it more likely that his skills would be used where they would do the most good. When asked to pick an area of specialization, he chose meteorology, thinking that would be an interesting field and a skill that would be useful to the war effort.

Instead of weather reporting, they assigned Villchur to communications, and send him to Scott Field in Illinois for four months to study engineering and electronics, where he learned to repair and maintain the radios on Army Air Corps airplanes. He was near the top of the class, so they said he had the choice where to go, and he chose New York City. They sent him to LaGuardia Air Field.

He also went to Massachusetts to train on P47s, and his girlfriend (and later wife) Rosemary visited him there. Soon after that he attended Fighter Command School in Orlando, Florida, and took the Communication Officer’s Course, receiving his certificate on October 24, 1942. In May of 1943 he completed the Army Air Force Technical Training at Fort Monmouth Radio School in New Jersey. The 348th Fighter Group was informed that they would soon be sent to North Africa. They marched with full pack several miles to the train station, and boarded the United States Army Transport (USAT) ship Henry Gibbins. They traveled with an escort of four destroyers. Only after they had been on the ship for two days did they receive information about their true destination, the Southwest Pacific arena.

© Miriam Villchur Berg

Welcome to the Villchur Blog

Welcome to the Villchur Blog. I am Miriam Villchur Berg, the daughter of Edgar Villchur (1917-2011). My father was an inventor, an educator, and a writer. Audiophiles know him as the inventor of the acoustic suspension loudspeaker, which revolutionized the high fidelity industry. Audiologists know him as the inventor of the multichannel compression hearing aid, whose basic design has become the industry standard for hearing aids. In this blog, I hope to tell you some of the details of Edgar Villchur’s history, to introduce you to different sides of his life, and to shed some light on him as a person.

Edgar Villchur was always mechanically adept, even as a young boy growing up on a farm. His family gave him confidence, drive, and a strong leaning toward intellectual pursuits. He studied art history, earning a master’s degree from New York’s City College in 1939. He planned to be a set designer, but World War II changed all that. Villchur was drafted in 1941, a few months before Pearl Harbor, and spent four years in the Pacific—New Guinea, The Philippines, and the Japanese island of Ie Shima. He rose to the rank of Captain in the Army Air Corps (which later became the Air Force). His job was repair and maintenance of the radios and other electronic equipment for the P-47 Thunderbolt fighters of the 348th Fighter Group.

After the war, he decided to put his army training to good use, and opened a small shop repairing radios and building sound systems. Things were very different in those days. The term “high-fidelity” was not coined until the early 1950s, and stereo sound did not become popular for home systems until the late fifties. Radios in those days were large pieces of furniture, centrally located in living rooms and parlors, and families sat around them in the evenings listening to news, music, comedy, and serial dramas. Phonographs played 78 RPM records, which lasted four to five minutes per side. Recording tape was not used commercially until the late fifties.

Villchur took some engineering courses at night to supplement the hands-on education he had received during the war. He analyzed the state of the home sound equipment then available, and realized that the loudspeakers were the weakest link in the systems. In 1954, he came up with a new idea for how to reduce distortion in loudspeakers. He applied for a patent for the acoustic-suspension loudspeaker in 1954, and was granted US patent No. 2775309 in 1956. The story of how he got that patent, and how he started Acoustic Research, Inc. to manufacture loudspeakers, will be the subject of future blog posts.

Villchur’s first speaker, the AR-1, provided better bass response than any speaker then on the market, at the same time radically reducing the size of the cabinet. His next speaker, the AR-2, was a no-frills model designed to be as economical as possible. Despite its low price, it was given the highest rating for quality by the independent testing agency Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine.

Villchur continued to improve loudspeakers, coming out with new models roughly every two years. Acoustic Research continued to produce new loudspeakers and other components for the home audio market. AR’s market share grew to 32 percent by 1966. No audio equipment company had ever achieved that high a percentage of the market, and none has done so since then.

Villchur’s AR-3 speaker is on display in The Smithsonian Institution’s Information Age Exhibit in Washington, DC.

In 1967, Villchur sold AR to Teledyne. When he left AR, Villchur went back to working as a researcher. He chose the field of hearing aids, since he felt that there was considerable room for improvement in these devices. By 1973, he had come up with a revolutionary concept in hearing aid design—the idea of using multi-channel compression to make up for the variable loss of loudness. Each patient’s audiogram, combined with individual testing, would determine the correct program for that person.

He never sought a patent for his hearing aid invention, preferring to offer it freely, through publication in journals, to companies who wanted to use it. Today, virtually all hearing aids make use of his multi-channel compression system.

In future blogs, I will provide more details on Villchur’s inventions, including some of his ideas that have never been published. I also intend to write about his family history, his life outside of work, and his unique personality.

Please contact me if you have specific questions about Edgar Villchur and his work. If I can’t answer them, I have technical experts who probably can.

© Miriam Villchur Berg