Published in The Jewish State on August 16, 2002 by Deborah Klee

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They said it was impossible: That radio waves could never break the barrier 
of the earth’s atmosphere and flow into space.
     Even if, by some fluke, the radio waves did manage to escape the ionosphere,

PIONEER. Gilbert Cantor, 90, was part of Project Diana which, in 1946, inaugurated the space age by successfully bouncing radio waves off the
moon’s surface and back to the earth. He shows off framed plaques commemorating his presence at two atomic bomb tests: Operation Teapot, 1951,
and Operation Redwing, 1956.


the outer layers of the earth’s atmosphere, they would never be able to get
back in after being bounced off something — the surface of the moon, for example.
People had tried, and failed — in spite of the fact that radar, which stands
for radio detection and ranging, had been used during World War II to locate
unseen objects such as distant planes and deeply submerged submarines.
But the moon remained out of reach. 
Until a cold January morning in 1946, at Fort Monmouth’s Camp Evans in Wall,
N.J., Gilbert Cantor, along with a small team of scientists guided by
visionary Lt. Col. John H. DeWitt, Jr., succeeded.
      Using a powerful radio antenna, the Project Diana team — named after the
Greek lunar goddess — aimed radio waves at the rising moon and, 2.5 seconds
later, the beam bounced back, audible as a faint beep.
     “There was such an ovation from all of us in the building,” said Cantor,
“that the concrete floor under our Quonset hut about bounced up!”
     Cantor was interviewed recently at the Central New Jersey Jewish Home for
the Aged in Somerset by Fred Carl, volunteer director of InfoAge
Science-History Center at Camp Evans. Cantor’s recollections will be
included in an oral history project designed to further the preservation and
dissemination of radar history. The all-volunteer project is expected to
take several years to complete. In the meantime, volunteers such as Carl
have been instrumental registering 37 acres of Camp Evans as a state and
national historic district. (The museum is open to the public 1-3 p.m.
Sundays. For more information call (732) 280-3000 or log onto
www.infoage.org.)
     “Project Diana opened up the space age,” said Carl, a former science teacher
and now a computer scientist.
     The ability to send radio waves beyond the atmosphere made possible
satellites and moonwalks, safer travel for planes and more accurate weather
forecasts — all because Project Diana proved it was possible to communicate
beyond earth’s atmosphere.
     About a year ago Cantor, curious about his old Project Diana colleagues, had
his son, Irving, of Edison, do an Internet search. In the process they found
out about the InfoAge center and contacted Fred Carl, who then arranged the
interview.
     So, on Aug. 7, Cantor told his story to Carl around the family dining table
at the Jewish Home. Also at the table were Irv Cantor, and Diane J. Mael,
the home’s director of community relations, and Elizabeth Salston, social
worker.

Box of radio parts

     Born in Harlem, on May 29, 1912, Gilbert Cantor first became interested in
radio and electronics at a young age.
     His mother died of tuberculosis when he was 4 years old and Cantor was
raised by his grandmother, along with her seven children. He celebrated his
bar mitzvah then went on to high school.
     “My high school in Brooklyn had mandatory shop training, one year wood
working and one year metal working,” said Cantor. “I have always felt that
stood me in greatest stead in learning how to do practical things.”
     One day one of his grandmother’s sons, who owned a hardware store, gave
Cantor a call.
     “I have a box of radio parts for you,” he said.
     Cantor picked them up and dove right in, eventually putting together a radio
from scratch. His interest was so keen that, in 1927, he started the first
radio club at the school.
     After a little more than a decade working with radio equipment, Cantor’s
attention shifted to the armed forces.
    “I had heard that the army was hiring people without a written exam,” he
said. “We just had to attend a meeting, and the captain would decide who got
the jobs.”
     Cantor was hired on August 25, 1941, as a civilian and began work at Fort
Hancock, assigned by the Signal Corps. He became part of a group testing
radar on a spit of land jutting out into the ocean, by a lighthouse.
     “The radar lab had originally been at Fort Monmouth, but a Nazi spy, Gunther
Rumrich, had infiltrated the main post there, and the FBI found out,” said
Carl. “The radar lab was relocated to Fort Hancock until the army realized
that spot was vulnerable to submarine attacks. They bought the old Marconi
Belmar station, which included 30 large antennas, and gave it a new name,
Camp Evans.”
     “Most of my days were at Camp Evans,” said Cantor, who retired in 1973.
In all, about 8,000 people were involved at Camp Evans, but the various
projects were on a “need to know” basis.
     Spread out on the table in front of Cantor was a large black and white
aerial photo of Camp Evans, taken in 1945, which Carl had brought to the
interview.  Included in the compound was the massive antenna, a tall
structure with a rectangular piece of metal on top resembling a bedspring.
     Crisply dressed in a striped shirt and black pants, head covered with a
knitted kippah, Cantor would lean forward periodically from his wheelchair
to point out various sites.
     In September 1945 Project Diana was set up, under the direction of Lt. Col.
DeWitt, to develop a radar system capable of transmitting and receiving
signals to the moon. Previous attempts had ended in failure due in large
part to insufficient sensitivity in the receiver antenna. Among the four
scientists assisting Col. DeWitt was E. K. Stodola of Evans Signal
Laboratory.
     “I was the tool-in-hand for E. K. Stodola,” said Cantor, whose job was to
rebuild and modify the equipment.
     The Project Diana team, however, was unofficial, said Cantor. From 8 a.m. to
4:30 p.m. each day he worked his regular job as an electronics engineer. But
starting at 4:30, and continuing until about 11 each night, the team donated
its time to find a way to bounce a radio signal off the moon.
     After the success of Project Diana, Cantor was involved in other projects,
several of them top secret, virtually all of them requiring a high level of
security clearance.
     For example, Cantor showed off framed plaques commemorating his presence at
two atomic bomb tests: Operation Teapot, 1951, and Operation Redwing, 1956.
     But that was not the only heat Cantor was involved in.
     “We really suffered at Camp Evans because of Senator McCarthy” and his
search for those with even the most remote association with communists, he
said. “I was interviewed by him. A close friend of mine was interviewed as
well. His father, an elderly Jewish man, had a heart attack and died because
of the questioning of his son. I was not suspended. The other fellow was
suspended, but was ultimately cleared and returned.”
     The interviews themselves were conducted at the Project Diana area of Camp
Evans, by McCarthy himself.
     “The table was like this one,” said Cantor, taking in the boardroom-style
table. “I was on one side and he was on the other.”
     Cantor was one of the few Orthodox Jews at Camp Evans. He and his wife,
Lillian, moved to Bradley Beach in 1941, when he took the job at Camp Evans.
They and their three children, son Irving Cantor and daughter Janet
Rivenson, of Edison, and Arnold Cantor of Toms River, were members of
Congregation Agudas Achim in Bradley Beach. Lillian died in April, 2001,
after 61 years of marriage.

Beyond the chain link fence

     Testing radar equipment took Cantor far from home, sometimes for months at a
time.  Each place needed to be removed from the hustle and bustle of urban
life to test the sensitive equipment, whether on a Pacific Ocean atoll 900
miles south of Honolulu or to the isolated woods of Maine.
     All this made quite an impression on Cantor’s family. His son, Irving,
shared some of those memories.
     “My mother’s favorite story is about when my father came home from Palmyra,
after being gone for six months,” said Irving Cantor. “I was a year old,
maybe two.”
The baby was asleep in bed when his parents walked into his room at 2 a.m.
He awoke and took a long look at the shadows silhouetted against the hall
light.
     “He said, ‘Who that big man?’” laughed Gil Cantor, picking up the story.
“Then he cried.”
     Fortunately, as Irv got older, he could accompany his father to work at Camp
Evans — up to a point.
     “As a little boy I would go with my father to the gate,” said Irving. “He’d
turn to me and say, ‘I have a badge, but you don’t have a badge. You have to
wait here.’ I remember sitting in the car, looking through the chain link
fence. That was as close as I got to where my father worked.”
     In 1967 Gil Cantor’s work took him to an isolated location in Maine.
     “We were taken in on a plane,” he said. “Then we went even further in with a
pick-up truck on an old logging road. We were sending probes into a deep
lake.”
     “I went out with him to the camp in Maine,” said Irv. “I was 12. There we
were in this very rustic area, and he opened the door to a cabin. Inside the
entire room was filled with racks, electronic equipment and oscilloscopes.”
     Irv recalled his father, while maintaining the equipment, got an unexpected
mouthful of red ink.
     “I don’t remember that,” his father smiled.
     But he did recall an incident in a desert area in Nevada that had given Irv
a big scare as a child.
     “We had set up camp in what they call a ‘wash,’” said Gil Cantor. “Then we
got a heavy rain. We had to outrun the flood. Afterwards, they found
equipment — trucks, trailers — 2 1/2 miles down.”
     But the sacrifices Cantor made to test and perfect the equipment is why Fred
Carl came to meet him.
     “As I interview more persons, I have realized that veterans need to know
their sacrifices will be recorded and honored,” said Carl. “The Signal Corps
veterans had to keep their work to themselves, due to its secret nature.
They consequently missed the public honors afforded the men in arms. World
War II Signal Corps vets went back to work fighting the Cold War, again in
secret, again with advanced electronics.”
     As the interview drew to a close, Carl, touched by the man and his story,
said to Cantor, “You’ve had a unique and challenge-filled career. Thank you
for your service.”

page created August 24, 2002 – Used with Permission