When the United States entered WWII after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service, the then-President of the Coca-Cola company, Robert Woodruff, declared: “Every man in uniform gets a bottle of Coca Cola for five cents, wherever he is, and whatever it costs the company.”
Little did Woodruff know that a 6 oz. bottle of Coca-Cola provided to a Florida Panhandle Airman would become a life-saving component in his squadron's ability to intercept, send, and receive potentially life-saving intelligence via radio communications.
Lt. Col Curtis R. Ehlert, who lived in Ft. Walton Beach after his retirement and until his death in 1985, passed the story down through the years. His son, Washington County resident John Ehlert, explained the use of the bottle.
"Dad was serving in Guadalcanal at the time, and they had to use the bottle as a ground to make the radio work," he said. "It just goes to show the ingenuity of that generation."
Lt. Col Ehlert, an avid writer, journaled about the experience, which took place in March 1942 while he served with the 6th Fighter Squadron.
"Our little detachment moved up to Carney Field, near Koli Point. This was the field that we would use as a base of operations after the ground radar station was complete," wrote the Lt. Col. "Our main task consisted of digging trenches for the antenna counterpoise for the radio transmitter. The counterpoise was an effective ground for the antenna and consisted of copper wires buried in the sand and emanating from the base of the antenna like spokes in a bicycle wheel."
Lt. Col Ehlert went on to explain he encountered trouble with the communications system - trouble he solved by setting the antenna on a Coca-Cola bottle, guyed at 120 degree increments.
The radar station was competed, and Ehlert's squadron - known as the "Night Fighters" - flew a few flights to assist in the calibration of the ground station, an airborne ground system Ehlert says was being committed in a combat area and operated by people who had little to no experience in controlling airborne intercepts.
"Where the English had used radar, sound, and visual inputs to a combat operations center where the information had been correlated and plotted on a table, our controllers were going to control directly from information on the scope," he wrote.
"I often wonder how many people knew that the entire success of the Ground Control Intercept Station depended largely on the use of an empty Coca-Cola bottle."