previous | next 

Chapter Ten-
Radio Nomads
by Clinton B. DeSoto


FOR A CLAN who boast that they roam the world in their armchairs, radio amateurs are a remarkably active lot.

Not all of them manage to visit in person the exotic spots they call at in fancy. But there are a few radio nomads whose customary ports of call bear the strange names that are found in a DX man's log.

Tales of their peripatetic adventures are among the more exciting pages of short-wave radio.

George W. Polk is a newspaper correspondent who has operated amateur stations in Alaska and Shanghai. A foot-loose free lance, he roams the world at will and can usually be found wherever there is trouble and excitement.

It was in Aden, near the mouth of the Red Sea, while chasing down a war yarn that Polk met Rex Purcell. Purcell was one of the crew of the Pang Jin, a Chinese junk in which three adventurous Americans set out from Hong Kong to sail to the New York World's Fair.

This is the story of the cruise of the Pang Jin as told to George Polk by Rex Purcell:

" 'QST de VS6BF, QST de VS6BF, QST de VS6BF, AR K.' Over and over I pounded my call. The heavy crashing of the junk sounded dangerous and labored down in the shack. Waves cascaded over the deck, thundering and smashing. The barometer was dropping alarmingly and had already passed a figure lower than I had ever seen before.

"I tuned through the twenty-meter band in the hope that someone had heard my call; traffic was heavy. Suddenly the mounting tone of a stronger carrier whistled into the headphones. I tuned into it, heard nothing and then gradually dialed past. Slowly I tuned back. Sharply a voice was saying, 'Hello, VS6BF, calling VS6BF, Venezuela-Spain-six-Boston-France. ZS6DY, Johannesburg, South Africa, is answering your QST and standing by. Go ahead, please.'

"I flipped my generator switch and keyed out my reply. 'ZS6DY de VS6BF. Chinese junk, Pang Jin, in severe storm off east central coast Madagascar. Urgently need weather reports and forecasts on direction of cyclone this vicinity. Can you arrange? AR K.'

"The 'phone came right back. 'ZS6DY to VS6BF. Will try to obtain weather info for you imeediately. PLease QRX while I check.'

"The sea was so rough that my receiver would not hold its frequency setting steadily, but I heard bits of ZS6DY's rapid-fire calls for weather data. There was one to Durban, another to Cape Town. Then he asked a local station in Delagora Bay to telephone the local Coast Guard and weather stations. I did not hear the answers, for I was afraid of losing ZS6DY, constant tuning being necessary. Overhead the shouts of the men battling with wind and waves were dimly audible. Conditions were undoubtedly becoming worse. After what seemed hours but was actually only minutes I heard my call. 'Calling VS6BF, VS6BF, VS6BF. ZS6DY is calling and standing by.'

"I immediately answered. This message came through: 'Cyclone off east central coast of Madagascar plotted as progressing east to west, speed twenty-eight miles per hour. Weather bureau advises you proceed northwest in order to escape danger zone. Can stand by for you long as necessary or will arrange sked for later contact. Go ahead, please.'

"A few seconds later my thanks had been acknowledged by ZS6DY and he agreed to a contact for that evening, at which time he would furnish me with further storm reports. Twelve hours later we had sailed far enough to the northwest to be in much calmer waters. Thus was our Hong Kong-to-New York voyage interrupted. We had planned on exhibiting the Pang Jin at the New York World's Fair by July first; the cyclone was but the first of a series of misadventures which threw us farther and farther behind schedule.

"Eight months before Jim Peterson, Homer Merrill and I had met in Hong Kong to build the Pang Jin. Months of planning and preparation had gone into the making of our ship. We personally selected each piece of timber, coil of rope and bucket of paint used in its construction. While we were building another junk was on the ways in a near-by shipyard. This second junk was the Green Dragon, owned by Richard Halliburton. The Green Dragon sailed from Hong Kong on March eight carrying a crew of twelve Americans, her destination the San Francsico World's Fair. Since March twenty-fourth, when her radio failed during a storm, the Green Dragon has been unreported. She is now given up for lost.

"When plans for our trip to New York had become definite I appealed to Leroy Lewis, radio engineer for the Philippine Aerial Taxi Company, for technical advice and practical assistance on the radio equipment we planned to install. He designed a compact portable transmitter which operated on phone or c.w. from a motor generator; output was forty-five watts. The single wire antenna was stretched from mast to mast, but since the booms rose above the tops it frequently broke as the sails were shifted.

"I was familiar with radio communication, both phone and c.w., because of my experience in the U.S. Army Air Corps. For the past four years I have been flying for the Philippine Aerial Taxi Company and, as much of our communication was handled through the medium of aircraft radio, I felt capable of assuming the role of operator aboard the Pang Jin.

"The British Government agreed to grant me a special license assigning the call VS6BF. Power was limited to fifty watts, and the license was to become void upon arrival in New York. Little did any of us imagine how important those forty-five watts at work on 14,136 kc. would become during a cyclone in the Indian Ocean...

"An amusing feature of a few of these QSOs has been the sounds of civilization which have been heard yet not experienced. As we roll and dip our way across various oceans and seas toward America the noise of an auto's horn or the ringing of a telephone bell emanating from the loudspeaker sound strangely out of place. So long unheard are they that they are practically forgotten. Our longest at-sea stretch has been seventy-seven days. Almost at the end of this period we heard Lowe (ZS6DY) talking with his wife and family. Again we recognized the splash of a tub being filled. How we longed for a hot bath, we of the dirty fingernails and long, flowing beards! The unattainable pleasures of civilization can be trying at times.

"Originally our route had been planned to take us from Hong Kong through the Straits of Malacca and on to the southern tip of the island of Ceylon. Here we expected to take advantage of the northeast monsoon season and sail to the southwest across the Indian Ocean to the Cape of Good Hope. From Good Hope we were to continue to New York over the waters of the Atlantic. These plans have been altered, however, because of the cyclone which drove us from our course in monsoon season.

"The monsoons of the Indian Ocean are steady winds which blow from the northeast to the southwest from December to June and then turn and blow in the opposite direction for the next six months. A sailing ship finds beating against a monsoon all but impossible. We took the chance of completing our passage to Cape Town before the change in season although we realized how late our start had been. We figured without the gale off Madagascar. The monsoon turned and blew against us after the storm. We then decided to attempt to reach the United States via the Seychelle Islands, Aden, the Red Sea, the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean.

"Here in Aden at the southern tip of Arabia we are still faced with adverse winds in the Red Sea. New York is yet thousands of miles distant, but we are determined. It is New York or bust!"

And so ended Rex Purcell's account of the cruise of the Pang Jin as told to George Polk at Aden. The sequel to the story was told in this news bulletin in the London Times a few days later:

Five days out of Aden, Arabia, the Chinese junk, Pang Jin, bound Hong Kong to New York, sank in the Red Sea. All members of the crew were saved by the Greek freighter SS Olga E. Embiricos. Due to extremely rough seas and high winds the survivors were unable to salvage anything but a few personal belongings.

There was another of these radio nomads behind a mystery radio station on the air on winter a dozen or more years ago with the call sj5BX. The station was operated by an adventurous young Texan named Haskell Watson. He went to Mexico to hunt gold and operate a short-wave radio station. He got out too. He had literally to shoot his way out but he got out.

Actually very few of the amateurs who worked sj5BX ever learned he was in Mexico. Over the air and on his QSL card he gave his location as "Pablo Island--ninety degrees west, six degrees south." At first this puzzled a good many in the fraternity, since there is no Pablo Island in that part of the world--in fact, no island of any kind. A glance at the map will show that ninety degrees west and six degrees south lies in open ocean about five hundred miles west of the coast of Peru. Before long it was rumored that sj5BX was really in Peru, that the prefix "sj" signified Peru, or rather its old Spanish name of Juinan. The official identification prefix for Peruvian stations was "sp" but someone recalled that a few of the old aristocracy of the country preferred the ancient name and persisted in its use.

So that became the accepted version--that sj5BX was a blue-blooded Peruvian, too stiff necked to use a prefix based on the hated modern name for his country.

A version farther from the truth would be hard to imagine. The real operator of sj5BX was a hard-boiled, devil-may-care yanqui adventurer with a complete disregard for tradition or custom or even the law.

That, in fact, was why he was in Mexico. He and his party were down there in the mountainous regions of southern Mexico searching for gold. And they were finding it, too--finding it at the bottom of an extinct volcano.

The expedition made its camp in the dead crater of the old volcano. The crater was little more than a huge well, its walls in most places a sheer three thousand feet high. Considering the inaccessibility of the place, the camp was a good one too. The living quarters were in an adobe hut, with rooms and even a porch. This was where Watson lived, and Paul, the only other American in the party. And Watson's wife, Donna. It would not do to overlook Donna Watson. Not only was she as pretty as a picture and a crackerjack radio operator, but when the shooting began she proved herself as gallant and self-reliant as her husband. However, that's getting ahead of the story.

They found the gold they sought. That part of their plans worked out well enough; the trouble lay in the radio end of the project.

Haskell had bought a collection of radio parts back in the United States when he began accumulating equipment for the expedition, but there hadn't been time to assemble the stuff into a working unit before leaving. As soon as they had organized the camp and the mining operations were under way he started building a transmitter.

But when it was finished the obstreperous outfit refused to get a signal out of the crater. Try as he might, he could not work another station. Haskell had a fair knowledge of radio. He had been a ham before the war and had picked up more experience overseas. Friends of his in Texas were active in radio and they had instructed him in current practices.

But they hadn't told him enough to enable him to solve this problem. He had an idea what was wrong; he came to the conclusion finally that he was trying to transmit from the bottom of a well three thousand feet deep and that it just couldn't be done.

There were other complications too. They were in a brigand-infested district. As autumn passed and winter came on it grew cold in the mountains, and some of the bandits got the habit of hanging around the cabin where it was warmer. Watson had reason to believe that a few of his own helpers belonged to the gang.

Late one afternoon when he was working on the transmitter a shadow fell across the littered table. A rasping voice with a heavy accent spoke. "Steeck 'em up, gringo," it said.

Watson looked up sharply, shading his eyes to see a huge Mexican with an equally huge revolver.

"Oh, it's you, Sandoval," Watson said. "What's the big idea?"

"What you are making, eh? Ees eet somet'ing of thees what they call the rad-ee-o? Queek now, tell me!"

"Radio? What do you know about a radio? Where have you heard that?"

"Caramba--I know. Some business weeth the evil spirits. I have hear José and one other who have been to Mexico City tell of thees. ¡Vamos!--ees eet el radio? Queek, or, by damn, I shoot!"

"No, this is no radio. I know nothing about a radio. What makes you think it is? And what difference does it make?"

"I no weel have such a thing someplace by me. Eef weeth thees radio you can talk for a many miles, Madre de Dios, could you not tell them that I, Sandoval, am here?--that same who has keeled a many men? Sacristo, I t'ink yet that ees radio. I take no chance. I break eet up."

The hulking Mexican moved gingerly toward the littered table strewn with apparatus. Haskell, by now genuinely alarmed, began talking rapidly.

"No--no! This is no radio. This is--it's equipment to assay metals with. Tells where there is gold, you know. I don't know anything about a radio, I tell you!"

Sandoval paused. His attention was attracted by the phrase, "to assay metals." He had heard about such apparatus before, and Haskell was soon able to convince him that he had no cause for alarm.

It was shortly after this incident that Watson mounted a telescope trained on the one entrance to the crater. The crater was like a huge hole in the top of the mountain, approachable only in one direction, with a solitary twisting trail. By keeping watch on this trail they had an hour's warning of the approach of any doubtful character, ample time to hide the radio gear and other valuable equipment.

After finishing the wiring of the transmitter and trying for days to work someone Haskell came to the conclusion that he had told Sandoval no lie when he said he knew nothing about radio. Finally he wrote back to the States for help, enclosing detailed sketches of his location and a complete list of parts.

In the course of time instructions arrived from his amateur friends in Texas. Explicit instructions that told him how to assemble the parts he had on hand for maximum efficiency, how to string a line across the crater from wall to wall, how to hang a radiating system on it, how far it must be located from the side wall of the crater--everything.

Haskell followed the instructions to the letter, and they worked. Soon sj5BX was one of the most consistent stations on the air. When Haskell wasn't able to operate his wife would be at the key. He had started to teach her the game when they first landed in Mexico and he insisted that she become letter-perfect before he allowed her on the air. So perfect, in fact, that soon she was a better operator than he. "She was the Helen Wills of the key," Colonel Clair Foster, W6HM, wrote in tribute, "and you didn't have to soften your game for her! How she liked to bawl a feller out for sending double or for sending slow when he could go faster."

The Watsons made a good showing with the station from the operating standpoint. They worked all districts of the United States and every continent but Africa. The station was operated primarily as a hobby outlet but it served them in more tangible ways as well. The nearest telegraph station and post office were six days away, a hazardous burro ride over a treacherous trail. Moreover, a strict censorship prevailed, and everything was scrutinized. Whether for reasons of stupidity or suspicion, their mail and messages were often delayed and occasionally witheld. Radio was invaluable in this situation, for it aided in keeping them in touch with their headquarters in Texas.

But, apart from radio, the expedition had hard going, and the vicissitudes and exciting episodes surrounding it were many. Their relationship with Sandoval's bandit gang gradually developed into a feud and finally broke into actual guerrllia warfare. The later phase was reached when Watson arranged with the leader of the brigands for the purchase of dynamite which was badly needed in their operations. The fact that the bandits had probably acquired the explosive originally by the process of holding up a mine did not disturb him too much, but when they attempted to hijack him on the trip back it became a different story.

Making his way along the treacherous trail out of the crater with a string of three burros early one morning, Haskell led his reluctant pack train to the rendezvous of the bandits. There the three animals were loaded with the dangerous explosive. When the specified sum had changed hands he started back.

But along the return route another lot of the brown-skinned Mexican outlaws lay in ambush for him, their object to reclaim the merchandise he had just bought. Watson, keenly alert, saw them as he rounded a bend in the trail. Outnumbered, he took refuge behind a jutting rock. Bullets chattered against the rock and chipped off fine bits of stone that showered down on him. Frightened, the burros bucked and plunged. Finally one broke away and went trotting stiffly down the trail.

Then it happened. A stray bullet caught the dynamite packed on the animal. The hot lead detonated the explosive and it blew up just as the animal passed the point where the bandits lay in ambush. Beast and men were blown down the slope in a mighty, shattering burst of cataclysmic wind.

Sickened, but unharmed, Haskell marshaled his two remaining burros and drove them hurriedly the rest of the way down the trail to the mine.

From then on the trio were constantly on the qui vive, in frequent danger of ambush. They dared not venture out at night for fear of attack. One dark night Haskell and Paul were caught just outside the camp and had a dangerously close escape. Two of the bandits died, but the Texans escaped unscathed. Another time a lone bandit assaulted the houseboy, but the servant's frightened screams brought Haskell and Paul on the run, and they dissuaded the dark-complexioned gentleman from his larcenous habits--permanently. After that they made a habit of staying home nights.

Then came the June afternoon when the bandit gang attacked en masse. There were nine of them. They surrounded the house and made a surprise attack from behind plenty of cover and under a heavy barrage of rifle fire. Ordinarily the Mexicans were chary of wasting ammunition, for cartrideges cost them a dollar apiece, but this time they were staking everything on a major assault and they went at it all out.

The Watsons, although outnumbered, were not unprepared. They returned the fire liberally and, for a time, with good effect. Haskell and Paul flipped .45s as fast as they could finger the triggers, and Donna filled the guns as fast as they were emptied. Paul screened the front porch of the hut with a curtain of stinging lead while Haskell covered the segment leading up the trail. The rear should have been protected by the sheer walls of the crater against which the shack was built.

But toward the end of the afternoon one exceptionally enterprising bandit lowered himself down the wall and attacked them from the rear. This proved their undoing. When the smoke cleared away two of the attacking party were dead, others were wounded, and the three Americans were overpowered.

Roped up too tight for comfort, they were imprisoned temporarily in the adobe hut. There they were left undisturbed to ponder their probable fate. Nothing seemed more certain than that when nightfall came they would be taken out and shot.

Instead, when darkness came Manuel, the houseboy, who had sneaked quietly away when the shooting started, slipped them out into the rubble where he had hidden their horses, all saddled and ready to go.

It took the trio seven days to reach the nearest town, riding over the bandit-infested trail only in pitch darkness to avoid being seen. They had nothing except their clothing, Haskell's pistol and a few pesos with which they bought two cans of sardines from a native. Together with three quail that Watson shot this was the only food they had during that seven-day ride.

At last they arrived at the Mexican town--and food and water and safety. At least, they thought they were safe. But shortly after they arrived Haskell learned that news of the battle at the mine had preceded them. Moreover, they were being accused of having murdered the dead Mexicans in cold blood.

The prospect of being thrown into a filthy jail to await the decision of the law in a region where that law might well be controlled by the bandit gang they had escaped did not appeal, particularly since their own status in conducting mining operations there was uncertain.

At this point a stranger called on them. He was a fellow Texan, and he had heard of their plight. When they told him their story he agreed to help. "But if I do it'll be found out, and I'll have to beat it out of town myself," he said. "Here's some money. I'll line up a car or something for you, and then you'll have to give me a few hours to get away."

That night they made good their escape. Their benefactor had provided a Chevrolet truck, and they hired an armed guard of eight men, mercenaries who could be trusted as long as there was prospect of payment.

With these they slipped out into the night, headed for a larger city on the coast. The journey was eighteen hours long, most of it spent extricating the truck when it became mired along the trail or pushing it up steep grades that only a burro could negotiate under its own power.

With the liberal exercise of bribery and brawn they finally reached the coast and a ship bound north.

And there the story of sj5BX ends. Haskell and Donna Watson returned to the United States sans gold, sans equipment, sans radio, but alive and safe and ready to go again the next time adventure should call.

Out on the edge of the world, at 77° 31' east and 38° 43' south, in the middle of the south Indian Ocean, approximately equidistant from Australia, Africa and Antarctica, there lies a barren rock called St Paul Island.

Sailors call it "the accursed island." Of volcanic origin, the island is actually the peak of an old volcano jutting up from the ocean floor. The rim is broken on one side, the result of an ancient explosion, and the sea forms a natural harbor within the crater.

Nothing green grows on this volcanic rock which has a total area of less than three square miles, but the surrounding waters abound in spawning lobsters. Few fishing grounds are richer. They have long been a challenge to fishermen, and at least four expeditions have been organized to cash in on the bonanza.

But every attempt has ended in failure. The Austral disappeared into the fog that constantly hovers around St Paul. A 1931 attempt b the French to colonize the island ended in tragedy, rescue ships finding a dozen persons dead and fifty others suffering from malnutrition. There is nothing to eat on St Paul but lobsters and fish, and such a diet can only end in scurvy. The survivors of the 1931 expedition were repatriated to Brittany. Of two other expeditions there were no survivors.

Yet in all the world there is no chance so long nor spot so dangerous but that somewhere humans will be found to brave it. In 1938 it was a Dutchman, John de Boers, who resolved to defy the dangers of St Paul Island once again, dreaming of the fortune in lobsters he might take out of its cold waters.

He bought a Newfoundland trawler, L'Île Bourbon, and with the blessing of the French Government he spent a small fortune transforming it into a floating refrigerator. The equipment for storing and preserving the expected crustacean harvest was magnificient.

But there De Boers' care in making preparations ended. For the rest of the expedition was badly organized, poorly supplied and poorly manned. There was not even enough coal in the bunkers for the voyage to the island and return, it developed.

A motley and ill-assorted crew it was that walked up the gangplank as L'Île Bourbon prepared to sail from St Malo, France, in May of 1938. There was John de Boers himself, the avaricious, visionary Dutchman. There was his wife, a buxom, motherly woman who had once lived with natives in Madagascar. There was the ship's doctor and his wife and a Turkish engineer. There was a blond artist (niece of Paul Chabas, a painter of September Morn) and a Parisian hairdresser who filled her trunk with useless sport clothes. There was a Breton radio operator (a professional) and his bitter-tongued fishwife and a mechanic and his wife. Finally, there were twenty-five common seamen and lobstermen.

They sailed away from sunny St Malo harbor out of the English Channel and through Gibralter into the Mediterranean. By the time they reached the Suez Canal the womenfolk were bickering fretfully in the scorching heat. They fought their way through the Red Sea with hair pullings and caterwaulings, and at Djibouti the radio operator and ship's doctor and their wives were driven ashore by the unbearable strife.

De Boers finally took aboard a doctor whom he found in French Somaliland, and the trawler steamed on to Madagascar. There most of the white crew mutinied, and blacks were signed in their places.

There, too, he replaced the radio operator--replaced him with an ardent young French amateur named F. Paul Bour. Just why Bour should leave his comfortable life in Tananarive and his lovely wife and family and go on this expedition remains a mystery, a mystery not solved even by Bour himself. Perhaps the chance to go on a journey to an uninhabited island was an overpowering lure to a confirmed DX hound. Possibly other factors not so obvious melted his sounder judgement. Nevertheless, Bour sailed with the De Boers expedition when it set out again for frigid St Paul and the fabulous fortune in lobsters....

The time and the scene change now to a point two months later and eleven thousand miles away. It was eight forty-five on the morning of December eighteenth in Bremerton, Wash. At the Bremerton Navy Yard Dispensary, Chief Pharmacist's Mate Edwin R. Gibson was on duty. But at that hour of the morning the dispensary was quiet, and Gibson, a radio amateur, was passing the time by listening in on his short-wave receiver.

As he turned the dial idly from signal to signal he almost passed a husky whisper in the background at 7015 kilocycles. Turning back and straining to read the weak signal, he pieced together a strange message:


Gibson tried vainly to communicate with the mysterious XFB8AB but he could not hear the faint signal again. Shifting his transmitter over rapidly to the naval reserve channel, he forwarded the message to the commandant of the Third Naval District who informed Naval Operations at Washington, D.C. Adding strings to his bow, Gibson also telephoned the Coast Guard at Seattle and notified the French Consul at San Francisco via the Army amateur net.

Meanwhile, down in the mists of desolate St Paul Island, Paul Bour did not know that his appeal had been heard. He sat patiently at his key, hour after hour, repeating his interminable plea. Early the next morning, at six-twenty Pacific time, Paul heard the first answer to his call. It was from Neil Taylor at Coronado Beach, Calif. Almost overcome with relief and gratitude, Paul told Taylor that his was the first station worked by the ship in thirty-three days and then repeated his tale. Other amateurs were listening by then, including Airways Operator Irving Astman on Donner's Summit near Norden, Calif. Mate Gibson, too, up in Bremerton, was again spending his early shift at his receiver and heard the contact.

Taylor told Paul Bour that he would do everything he could to help and then talked it over with Astman. The latter telegraphed the Coast Guard at San Francisco, asking the French Consul and the steamship lines be notified.

Meanwhile the Navy Department was acting on the message originally intercepted by Gibson. From Washington it was radioed to Rear Admiral Henry E. Lackey on the American cruiser Omaha, commander of Squadron 40-T in the Mediterranean. Admiral Lackey was instructed to transmit the message to the nearest French radio station, since the L'Île Bourbon was of French registry.

On receiving the message in Paris the French Colonial Ministry immediately ordered a French warship to speed at once to St Paul Island from Madagascar to rescue the ill-starred expedition.

The relief ship arrived at the island with fuel and provisions before any serious consequences resulted, and the De Boers expedition limped slowly back to Europe, another broken and beaten victim of grim St Paul Island.

Paul Boer at length returned to Madagascar, a poorer and wiser ham, his health impaired and his resources drained. His lust for adventure was sated--temporarily, at least.