As Union Maj. Gen. George G. Meade approaches Federal headquarters on Cemetery Ridge, a signal crewman in the background wig-wags signals to a distant flag crew. Meade enters the headquarters and tells Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock, “It’s so dark out there I can’t see a d— thing.”
“Only a signalman would notice they’re signaling out there with flags instead of torches. How are they going to see them [the flags] if the guy can’t see his hand in front of his face?” said Ken Kadz about the error in the classic Civil War movie “Gettysburg.”
And the Round Lake Beach resident certainly knows when to use flags and when to use torches, for 13 years ago Kadz founded the Midwest’s first group of Civil War Signal Corps reenactors, “The Blackhat Battalion,” U.S. Signal Corps.
During the war, the Union signal corps communicated messages across the battlefield and even was used for scouting and reconnaissance, Kadz explained. He pointed out that the signal corps occupied Little Round Top near Gettysburg before the fight for it began in July 1863.
At reenactments, working in three three-man flag crews, Kadz and his men are every where they are needed, whether with artillery batteries or infantry regiments. Spectators can watch them at work during the narrated battles and artillery demonstrations.
“Any military order that we get we can break it down to its lowest common denominator and send it,” he said. Because wig-wag signaling (or aerial telegraphy) uses only one flag, messages are sent in numerical code.
“Left is 1, right is 2, down is 3. Three is always used at the end of a word,” Kadz explained.
However, his crews don’t signal alphabets as they would with the general code–it would take too much time. Instead, they use a pre-concerted code in which the number sequences stand for commands and whole words, such as “Move,” “Need water,” “Begin engagement,” “End engagement,” “Stop,” “infantry,” and “artillery.”
One of the signal corps’ most important reenactor duties is to help keep the infantry and artillery batteries positioned a safe distance apart. Hence, “Medical emergency,” a code that obviously is not used in war, is used at reenactments, Kadz said. Four years ago he said he had to stop a reenactment when a reenactor was injured when someone fired a pistol too close to his ear.
Earlier in this reenactment season Capt. Ken Kadz, chief signal officer, accepted his first promotion, to major, a bit reluctantly.
“I didn’t seek it. I never wanted it. These guys wouldn’t leave me alone,” Kadz said. “It’s amazing how it evolved. But here it is 13 years later and all my new guys are saying, ‘Look, you started this. You earned it. Besides, you’re complacent.’
“I said, ‘No, I’m happily relaxed in what I got now. I’m confident.’ To go to a bigger rank now it’s a whole can of worms sometimes, but luckily I’ve been in this hobby for 22 years. Just about everybody knows me. I’m not trying to pull rank or anything like that,” Kadz said. And, in a spirit of fair play, he immediately promoted his executive officer from lieutenant to captain.
By the way, reenacting runs in the family. Kadz’s wife Ann was once a reenactor and their son Joseph, a student at St. Joseph’s, Round Lake, and a military history enthusiast, also joins the unit in the field.
With the new responsibilities of higher rank also comes a new identity. Kadz is no longer himself, a fictitious officer from the period—he is now a first-person reenactor portraying Maj. Albert J. Myer, the real-life founder of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Fortunately, the 54-year-old postal worker and community theater veteran who once played the title role of “Mr. Roberts” is comfortable with that.
“I’ve got this wonderful group of guys right now,” he said fondly of his nine-man unit, all but one of whom are members of the American Legion. Kadz himself and his son belong to the Sons of the American Legion.
“The neat thing about it, they have the enthusiasm of 18- and 19-year-olds but they have the wallets of 50-year-olds, where they can afford to get this stuff. And they just said, ‘You know, Ken, you really should portray Myer. You started this all on your own,’ which I did. There was no signal corps in the Midwest. I was actually artillery. I was artillery for eight years. I had to fight with the captain then to get more authentic all the time. His idea of having fun was to have a bunch of empty beer cans in the tent and empty powder cans. It was time to move. So alright. Communications was always one of my better things in school. So, let’s start this out,” he recalled. “And at one time I even had a real army major who was in the signal corps reserve, in the army reserve. And he said, ‘I can’t believe this. You never went into the military and you started this out all on your own?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’
“It’s something that has always been in my blood,” Kadz said.
Kadz has been passionate about military history since he was boy, inspired by a Disney movie about the life of Maj. Gen. John L. Clem (“Johnny Shiloh”). He said after that it was very easy for him to wonder what life was like in 1863 instead of in 1963. He also has a deep pride in his family’s service in World War II. Throughout his house abound wartime photos of his Navy father and his three uncles who served in the Army and Army Air Corps. One of his uncles was for a time, at 17 years old, the youngest soldier in the army.
“I think of myself sometimes, ‘How did I get this way? Why? Am I a military groupie? I don’t think it’s that way. I just respect my family and what they did,” he said. “I do believe that the World War II generation is America’s greatest generation. They never bragged about it; they never talked about it. They just wanted to go on with their lives and raise families. We had the greatest family gatherings for the holidays and they never said a word about it ever [the war], until when I got older and I did my homework and I inquired about it and got military records to my uncles and discharge papers. I’ve been a longhair since 1969, so I’m the least person they’d ever figure to be a military historian.”
Copyright (c) 2007 by Daniel J. Johnson. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint this article or any of my stories on this blog, please write to me at email@example.com