Hank Abajian put radar on anti-aircraft guns in the field during WW II

Being recognized—Gen. Courtney Hodges, commanding general of 1st Army, presents Hank Abajian, a civilian, with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for perfecting and installing radar on 90 millimeter anti-aircraft guns on the front line in World War II. Sun photo by Don Moore.

Besides the 16 million service men and women who took part in World War II, there were also thousands of civilians on the front lines involved in fighting against the Germans and the Japanese, too.

Hank Abajian of Port Charlotte was one of those civilians. With a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Yale, he helped design and install the newfangled gadgetry on 90 millimeter anti-aircraft guns both in the war in Europe and the Pacific.

At the start of the Second World War Abajian was working on radar while serving on the staff of Radiation Laboratory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His group perfected improved radar for anti–aircraft guns.

The contract for building the radar units was split between General Electric and Westinghouse. Bell Laboratories designed the computer for the guns that provided them with precision sighting.

“I was sent to England to show the troops how to use and maintain the radar units,” the 93-year-old local man explained. “They were getting ready for the D-Day Invasion. The German’s had perfected the “Buzz-Bomb,” (V-1 Rocket) that they were beginning to send over England.

“The Allies had worked out a plan to stop the Buzz-Bombs. American and British fighter planes would attack them over the English Channel. Once they got in range of our 90 mm guns along the coast the fighters would drop off and we’d open up on them,” he said.

After Abajian was reassigned to the Pacific Theater of Operations he received a letter from one of his buddies that brought him up to speed on how effective the radar-sited American anti-aircraft guns were.

“On a single day the Germans sent 101 Buzz-Bombs toward England. Fighter planes shot down 20 of them and our gunners took care of 77 more. Only four of the flying-bombs got through,” his friend wrote.

It was mid 1944 when Abajian arrived in the Pacific. He set up his headquarters at Guadalcanal. The fighting for the island was over. U.S. Marines and Soldiers had already taken the island away from the Japanese. Abajian was able to bring the radar maintenance staffs from the various 90 mm gun emplacements in the area to his school for a few days training.

War for him didn’t actually begin until he started preparing for the Philippine Invasion. Abajian relocated his headquarters on New Guinea and started working with the radar maintenance people who were on the verge of taking part in the Battle of Leyte Island.

“I got on an LST (Landing Ship Tank) and headed for Mindoro Island in the Philippines when all hell broke lose,” he said. “The Japanese attack the cruiser USS Nashville with kamikazes. One of the planes struck the cruiser. I happened to see the attack because I was on an LST near by waiting to go ashore.”

It was on Mindoro where Abajian hooked up a 40 millimeter anti-aircraft gun to a search light and added the new radar unit to the gun emplacement. It was an immediate success. They could automatically continue firing at the enemy while keeping the search light on the attacking plane.

He came closest to front line action when the Japanese conducted a surprise attack at night on his radar unit at Lingayen Gulf Invasion in the Philippines.

“I had been sleeping on the tailgate of our radar unit. That evening one of the guys, who had duty, invited me to use his cot located on the front end of the radar unit,” Abajian said. “That night the Japanese attacked and blasted the hell out of the rear of the radar where I would have been sleeping.

“All of us ran to our headquarters when the gun fire started. The officers had their weapons out and were firing at Japanese who were dancing in the light of a fire they started when they blew up a 55-gallon barrel of gasoline under the radar.

“The major in charge gave me his .45 caliber pistol and a quick lesson on how to fire it. I fired one round at some shadows out behind headquarters. I learned the next day I had fired on American forces. It was the only shot I fired in the entire war,” he said.

After a year of service in the Pacific Abajian asked his commanding general for permission to return to his wife, Anne, in the United States. His request was immediately granted.

It wasn’t long after he left for the States that he received another request to return his unit. It was preparing to attack the Japanese main islands.

“Since I was personally requested by Gen. William Marquat, my division commander, I decided I should do my duty and go back to work for him. I was about to sail for Japan when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and the war ended.”

Hank and Anne Abajian moved to Port Charlotte in 1979 after retiring as a radar expert in a laboratory on Long Island, N.Y.

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida June 2009 and is republished with permission.

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