I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

“Yankee Rhythm Every Time”: Hand Signals

by Tom Keiser
July 28, 2012

After over 150 years, Morse code has become all but obsolete for most things. You no longer have to be proficient in sending Morse code (at least a steady 5 words per minute, or a blistering 20 wpm if you want to master it) to get an amateur radio license, nor do most maritime military bodies even listen for it anymore.

However, you might be that guy who can only express himself fully by using dots and dashes (or dits and das). If that’s the case, android, you can do worse than watching International Morse Code - Hand Sending, a 1966 film by the United States Army that is more entertaining than any military filmstrip has a right to be.

You can tell that this officer (who seems to be a Master Sergeant) Young, has been waiting his whole career for this moment to shine. He is authoritative but seems to believe that the best way to teach is with a sense of humor. Hokey footage is used to convey what some of the letters sound like, such as the old-timey cowboy galloping to get to the hotel. “Hotel”, for those who’ve never listened to Wilco, is the NATO phonetic alphabet code for the letter H. A gawky officer steps to rhythms demonstrating the letters C (Charlie) J (Juliet) and Y (Yankee), with help from a gawky lady representing Juliet, walking away from Charlie.

While most of the first half focuses on learning the letters, the rest of the film focuses on execution. The U.S. Army’s entire fiscal 1967 military film prop budget must have been used for this filmstrip, as a giant prop hand comes down from the sky to demonstrate the perfect way to handle the key. They must not have had enough to hire censors, as the head officer has such lines as: “It’s what experienced operators mean when they say another officer has a ‘good fist’”.

There’s even a love story, where a young man and woman communicate by timpani drum and piano, respectively. The young couple has an happy ending, although Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is not the most romantic music in the world. However, this is actually an inside joke, as the British Broadcasting Corporation started each broadcast during World War II with the song. The first four beats, dit-dit-dit-da, represent the letter V (Victor), and the master German composer’s opus was used as code for Allied victory.

And yet for all its humor and double entendre, this entire filmstrip uses all within its disposal to teach hand sending. In less than twenty minutes, you get the gist of what International Morse Code is (not to mention the NATO phonetic alphabet). Years before a generation of toddlers learned their A-B-Cs from “Sesame Street” in a similar fashion, American soldiers heading off to Vietnam learned their dit-da/da-dit-dit-dit/da-dit-da-dits through International Morse Code - Hand Sending.

I’d love to see the Army’s version of the 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11-12 pinball video.

Resources And Further Reading

Morse Code - Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia

NATO Phonetic Alphabet - Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia

Why Did The Beginning Of Beethoven s Fifth Symphony Become An Audible Symbol Of Allied Victory ?” - Answers.com

Tom Keiser has written for Network Awesome Magazine, The Awl, and the United Football League website.  He lives in New Jersey, and has a Twitter and a Tumblr.