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Chapter Two -
On The Spot
by Clinton B. DeSoto

WHENEVER wire lines break down and the nerves of civilization are severed there is usually a radio amateur somewhere near to step in and bridge the gap.

The reason for this is partly that there are more amateur stations licensed than all others together; there are amateurs everywhere. But it is also because a good ham, like a good reporter or newsreel cameraman, has an instinct that warns him when great events are about to happen. Wherever the going is tough and the need great there is usually an amateur on the spot.

In Florida nowadays hurricanes are accepted as necessary natural phenomena. They are unpleasant occurrences to be guarded against but not worried about. Radio hams are prepared for hurricanes now, with special emergency stations dotting the landscape and a Florida Storm Net that warns the entire state of every approaching storm.

But this was in the days before Florida had learned to prepare for hurricanes--before the amateurs of Florida had the Florida Storm Net. Even in those days there were amateurs on the spot.

It was in the late summer of 1928. Natives knew that trouble was brewing--the weather had been too calm, the air too tranquil. That deathly quiet, marked by swiftly moving clouds and followed by a darkening of the horizon, could mean only one thing--the gathering of a hurricane.

When the wind began to freshen out of the south-east, whipping the palm fronds along the coast, amateurs in Palm Beach began to mobilize. Their brethren in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands were already in the thick of it. All the naval stations on the island--which normally provide radio contact with the shore--had gone out with the storm as it swept over the Caribbean in shrieking fury. Operators at the San Juan naval station had improvised apparatus from the wreckage that would operate in the amateur bands and quickly got on the air. They succeeded almost immediately in lining up an amateur circuit that tied them into the Navy Department at Washington. The naval station at St Thomas, in the Virgin Islands, was also wrecked by the hurricane. But one of the operators there promptly got on the air from his own amateur station, which was left intact, and with the assistance of mainland amateurs the island was soon in direct contact with NAA, the Navy's station in Washington.

Meanwhile Florida's amateurs, aware that the blow was coming their way, were preparing. They located stocks of dry batteries for use if power failed and readied their equipment for action. Some relayed storm warnings as the tempest progressed through the night.

In Palm Beach, Forrest Dana, a young civil engineer, and Ralph Hollis, a fireman, met at Hollis' station which was set up in the West Palm Beach Fire Department building. At 1:30 A.M. they roused a dealer from bed and bought a set of "B" batteries for emergency power. They then borrowed storage batteries and prepared themselves for the worst.

They had not long to wait. Out of the Caribbean swept the hurricane, a howling wind carrying death and desolation. It leaped the channel of the Great Bahamas and fell like a thunderclap on the Florida coast.

In Palm Beach the wind rose furiously. Upstairs in the firehouse Dana and Hollis waited. There was a shrieking gust of wind, then a rending crash. Hollis dropped down the fireman's pole and looked outside. His antenna system had blown down. It lay there in the street, a crumpled mass of wreckage. The structure creaked and tottered; it seemed inevitable that the building, too, would go. There was danger in going outside, but there was even more danger within. Flying bricks and debris finally drove the two men into the open.

In a short time there came a lull, and then the storm relaxed its fury for a moment. Hollis and Dana returned to the firehouse and began transferring apparatus from their station. They found a protected spot at the other end of the building.

As though enraged at losing its prey, the storm rose again in high crescendo. Struggling in winds against which they could not stand erect, they carried the gear to the new location. There, in the lee of a wall, they strung up a makeshift antenna. With deft, capable movements they assembled the stations components. Their voices were drowned out by the high-pitched roar of the wind, and even dots and dashes in the headphones were almost indistinguishable through the roar....

Meanwhile, in Washington, throughout the night anxious officials had clung close to telegraph and telephone lines which were busily clicking off news of the oncoming storm. Then, suddenly, everything had gone silent. With one sharp blow the hurricane cleaved all wire communications. Sounders stopped clicking, telephone wires hummed emptily. A dead, terrifying void opened around the storm area. Florida was an island amid silence....

Silence that reigned until daybreak. Then came the sturdy peeping signal of battery operated 4AFC--the word that Hollis and Dana were on the job. They had got their transmitter on the air again and from Monday through Thursday it stayed on, handling every word that left the devastated sector or seeped in from the outside world.

For four days the station was kept in continuous operation. Dana was told that his home, his automobile and all his personal possessions had been swept away in the storm. But his hand never left the key. The two men ate what food there was whenever someone thought to bring it to them, and neither slept in a bed. But they continued their self-appointed vigil until official communications were restored.

All the information that the Red Cross and the Army got during those terrible days came through this circuit. Everything that was done--all the relief and rescue work--was based on this information. Some eight thousand words of press--many scores of personal messages--these, too, passed through their hands.

"You are to be commended for your untiring effort and loyal devotion to duty which you have so well expressed during the last three days, and we shall always remember this worthy duty well performed." Major General George E. Gibbs, chief signal officer of the Army, told them in the final message to come over their circuit with Washington at the conclusion of the job.

In quiet residential streets in thousands of towns and cities throughout the land these fireside D'Artagnans are to be found, ready to leap into action at the first signal of distress. But it is not alone in the United States that this is true. Amateurs abroad are fewer, more scattered--but when the opportunity arises they show they're of the same breed.

There was an amateur on the spot during all the vicissitudes of the city of Chefoo in war-torn China in the past troublous years. His name was Dr William Malcolm, and he was health officer of the port.

Beset by revolution, counterrevolution and invasion, this port in northern Shantung province has seen the flags that wave over it change so frequently that its nationality seems akin to the chameleon. The ancient city has seen many an extraordinary character in its midst, but none more remarkable that Dr Malcolm. An active amateur, he was for years operator of the only radio station in Shantung province. His station XU3MA was, for that matter, one of the few consistently active in all of China, for at one time or another each of the successive Chinese administrations banned private radio communication.

Dr Malcolm himself was forced off the air for brief periods, his station ordered closed, and his apparatus dismantled. But always the inhabitants of the Shantung Peninsula protested so loudly that his authority to operate was restored.

For the service he rendered more nearly resembled that of a communication center for an entire city than of an amateur station. In addition to maintaining regular schedules with amateurs throughout China he was in frequent contact with British shore stations at Hong Kong, Tientsin, Singapore and other bases, as well as with vessels of the British fleet itself as they plied the waters of the China Sea or patrolled the Yangtze River. The British Navy, ordinarily rather sticky about co-operation with civilians, violated all precedent by communicating with Malcolm whenever he called, on occasion even making use of his services for governmental business. Telegraph lines never stayed up for very long at a time in disturbed Shantung, it seemed, and an always accessible radio link was a very convenient asset.

If Dr Malcolm himself were not on watch because of official business or absence on a visit to Shanghai or elsewhere, his young daughter was very likely at the key taking his place. She learned the radio code when she was still a youngster in school and at fifteen she was a competent operator.

On one occasion or another XU8MA contributed materially to the safety and security of most of the foreign residents of Chefoo. Perhaps the most difficult time of all was during the beginning of the Japanese invasion of China.

During the anxious period at the time of the Shanghai crisis of 1938 the burden of providing the sole communications link for the port of Chefoo fell on Dr Malcolm's aging shoulders.

When the Shanghai cable was cut, leaving the commercial community quite isolated from the outer world throughout the month of January, he was called on to fill the gap by the British Chamber of Commerce and the three large cable companies: the Commercial Pacific Cable Company, the Great Northern Telegraph Company, Ltd, and the Eastern Extension Australasia & China Telegraph Company, Ltd.

Thus rescued from isolation, the Chefoo business community was enabled to function more or less normally while the messages of the three cable companies were forwarded without delay. The Chefoo Chamber of Commerce, too, found the service of extraordinary value.

Despite his age--he was then seventy-seven--Dr Malcolm performed the arduous task of transmitting nearly five hundred radiograms during this period. "I derived much pleasure from the fact that all commercial code as well as other traffic for eighty-two different firms was taken care of with satisfaction to all," he said afterward with customary modesty.

At the Shanghai end J. MacDonnell operated the temporary station XU8DI to receive the messages. MacDonnell was nominally on the staff of the Royal Signals, British forces in Shanghai, but in this case his miniature amateur set was of greater utility in aiding Chefoo than all the Empire's far-flung facilities.

Back on the American side of the Pacific a furious storm that struck the Oregon and Washington coasts in late October of 1934, attaining maximum force off the mouth of the Columbia River, gave Henry Jenkins an opportunity to demonstrate all the amazing in genuity and resourcefulness of the radio amateur.

The violent storm swept across the north Pacific like a Titan's hand, smiting ships and shores with thunderous waves. If ever there was a night when the coastwise vessels plying off Oregon's shores needed the friendly guidance of the Tillamook light and fog signal this was it.

But the Tillamook Rock was silent and dark-dark, that is, until amateur radio lent a helping hand. . . .

The evening began quietly enough. At 10 P.M. a fresh southeast wind was blowing, with light rain. During the night the wind increased to gale force and changed to southwest. By 3 A.M. seas were rolling in high on Tillamook Rock. The swells hit and burst, flinging high showers of stinging spray over the Rock.

At nine-thirty that morning Henry Jenkins, first assistant keeper of the U.S. light station on the Rock and amateur W7DIZ, was awakened from his sleep by a deluge of water that completely covered him; all his clothes and bedding were soaking wet. The heavy seas by this time were breaking against the tower itself; they had pounded against the window shutters of his room until the catch let go, opening the windows and flooding the room.

Driving the water was a wind blowing with hurricane force-one hundred miles an hour or more in the gusts. The seas submerged the entire lighthouse, flooding all quarters. With the water came large rocks, timbers-destructive debris that smashed the plate-glass windows for the lantern high in the tower, one hundred thirty-three feet above normal high water.

Sixteen panes were broken, but the light still burned. Keepers struggled to replace the glass panes with temporary wooden shutters. Unbroken seas flooded the lantern, filling the watch room where the keepers worked. They were submerged at times to their necks before the rush of water could escape through the door into the tower and quarters below.

Battered and bruised, the keepers finally completed the job as best they could. Hug Hansen's right hand was deeply cut, and Henry Jenkins helped him dress the wound. As he did so he glanced at the barometric reading.

Both flinched as another wave of water crashed against the tower and came down with a terrific impact on the roof-tons of water that covered the building. Jenkins had his eye on the barometer. At ten-fifteen a tremendous wave came that enveloped the entire tower and building. It seemed as though the ocean itself had swallowed the Rock. When the water subsided the large eighty-foot derrick and the telephone cable had been washed away. The tremendous power of the wave caused terrific havoc, hurling rocks weighing as much as fifty pounds through tower and roof, smashing shutters made of half-inch wood as though they were paper. The wave actually broke off about six feet of the west end of the Rock, they later found.

The light station was badly wrecked. The shutters at the base of the building had been carried away, flooding the interior and breaking the piping for the heating system. Cutting off the heat represented a genuine calamity, for the crew were all cold and tired and wet.

Still there was no immediate cessation in the fury of the storm. The crashing blows from tons of water and rock came at intervals as little as three seconds apart until nearly noon. Then the force of the waves diminished, and by early afternoon the sea was comparatively calm.

The lantern and the fog signal had both gone out following the disastrous wave that wrecked the building. Shipping would need both badly, for a heavy fog lay thick over the sea, still murmurous and heaving. Yet if a light different from the signal normally flashed from Tillamook were used mariners would be mystified, and if they came up close enough to identify the light the consequences might be disastrous.

Nevertheless, a fixed white lamp was set up. The next problem was to notify the mainland that the light was damaged. But the telephone line had been washed away, and no small boat could live in those seas....

It was then Henry Jenkins yearned bitterly for his little amateur station. If only he could have brought it along with him to the light station.... He closed his eyes with the intensity of thought.

Disregarding the wonder in Hugo's face, Henry went to the room where the battery-operated broadcast receiver was set up. The room was drying off a bit; it was possible to work now. He looked at the radio set. It hadn't played for the past couple of weeks....Batteries dead, of course....

He dug around in the rear of the cabinet until he found the battery tester. Water had run off the top of the cabinet without getting inside, thank God. Now to check the batteries.

The filament dry cells were dead-completely dead. The three "B" batteries had a little life left in them. The three in series gave about eighty volts instead of the normal one hundred thirty-five. Not very much-but enough. But he still needed filament batteries....

His eyes roamed speculatively around the room. It reached the ancient crank-operated telephone on the wall and stopped. Pulling himself stiffly erect-the wet and the cold were already taking their toll-Henry unscrewed the front panel from the telephone box. Inside were two telephone-type dry cells. Thank Heaven, they were new!

So much for the power problem. Henry began to move faster, hope spurring him on. He found two half-dry boards, each roughly a foot square. These would be the baseboards for transmitter and receiver. Removing the Atwater Kent chassis from its cabinet, he began disassembling the principal components. The chassis stripped, he found a length of transformer bell wire and went to work.

Having no sockets, Henry drilled holes in each board to pass the bases of the type 30 tubes from the broadcast receiver. For connections he soldered directly to the base prongs of the tubes. On the transmitter board he placed an inductance coil made out of fourteen turns of transformer bell wire wound over the cardboard container from one of the telephone dry cells. The middle section of the three-gang variable condenser unit taken from the broadcast set became the transmitter tuning condenser. Series fixed condensers for the antenna were made out of alternate layers of tin foil and waxed paper taken from a loaf of bread. Henry used no grid condenser or leak. The plate blocking condenser came out of the Atwater Kent collection. A choke coil with half its turns removed served as a short-wave radio-frequency choke.

When it was assembled this collection of miscellaneous scraps and junk parts became a radio transmitter using the famous "TNT" circuit. And the way it worked proved its name was no lie!

The receiver was equally crude-and equally effective. Wire unwound from one of the radio-frequency transformers in the Atwater Kent was rewound on the shell of the telephone receiver to make the grid and plate coils of the oscillating detector. Fixed coupling Henry used-enough to make sure the thing would oscillate under any conditions. There was no need for regeneration control anyway! Two insulated wires a couple of feet long provided an antenna series condenser, the insulation serving as a dielectric between the two wires. Another tin-foil-and-wax-paper condenser completed the grid circuit; there was enough leakage so a grid leak was unnecessary.... The tuning condenser was a tougher problem. Finally Henry took two brass plates off the doorknob, fastened one plate to the receiver base, placed the other above it with a sheet of waxed paper in between and connected a flexible lead to the upper plate. Tuning was accomplished by sliding the top plate over the bottom plate with a pencil eraser!

He had no conceivable way of measuring the values of the parts he used, but his practiced eye calculated the dimensions as best he could from his long practical experience as an amateur. He was not far wrong.

At last every connection was made.

The receiver connected up, a soft hiss could be heard in the headphones. There was an encouraging "plop" when he touched one of the brass plates with his finger; this established the fact that the detector was oscillating. Gingerly Henry slid the top plate across the other with his pencil. Wait a minute... There was a signal.... No, back a little....There-got it!

The first station he heard was in Seattle. The operator was busily talking to someone else and couldn't be reached. But the signal did show where to tune in the amateur band. A bit further... and there was Henry Goetze, W7CXK, calling in Seaside, Oregon, not ten miles up the coast.

While listening to W7CXK's call Henry turned on his transmitter and tuned the dial carefully until he heard a sharp, swooping beat note as his transmitter came into resonance with the carrier from the other station. Certain now that his transmitter was working, he called W7CXK, tapping the end of a connecting wire against the terminal of a "B" battery with his fingers in lieu of a telegraph key. It was 6:50 P.M. W7CXK didn't hear him at first, but another operator, farther inland, did. The signals were weak and chirpy, and the inland operator couldn't understand all that was being sent but he passed the word along to Goetze at W7CXK.

W7CXK immediately listened for Jenkins, and soon Tillamook Rock was again in contact with the mainland.

The first message transmitted was to the superintendent at Portland, notifying him of the damage and requesting that all vessels navigating those treacherous waters be warned that the lighthouse was darkened.

That was only the beginning of the service accomplished by the valiant little makeshift station however. It performed reliably for Jenkins throughout the next several days, the batteries growing weaker and weaker, until finally their dying energy had given out. Not only to Portland did its messages go, but also to Astoria where the Lighthouse Service supply depot was located and to the lighthouse tender, Rose. A Coast Guard lifesaving crew and boat were sent to rescue those who were injured and ill at the light station. Weather reports, landing conditions, medical advice-these and other data facilitating preparations for permanent repairs were handled. Only when the telephone line was restored did operation cease.

By then Henry Jenkins had written a shining page in radio's history with his ingenuity and resourcefulness.

There are many thrilling episodes in the chronicle of radio's achievements, but none more stirring than the 1927 Pacific flights, climaxed by the installation of short-wave equipment on Captain Erwin's Dallas Spirit and the reception of its signals right up to the time of its tragic end.

The year 1927 was, of course aviation's greatest year. During its first half Lindbergh made the first nonstop New York-Paris flight, De Pined completed a four-continent flight from Italy through Africa and North and South America and return, Chamberlain and Levine flew nonstop to Germany and Maitland and Hegenberger covered the twenty-four hundred miles from Oakland to Honolulu in twenty-six hours.

The first news of each of these triumphs reached the Hawaiian Islands through a schedule arranged between station 6CZR, operated by J. Walter Frates, an Oakland newspaperman, and 6AJL at Lihue, Island of Kauai. Over this circuit went Hawaii's first news of the arrival in Eisleben of Chamberlain and Levine and of Byrd's forced landing on the French coast after missing Paris in a dense fog.

When the west-east route across the Atlantic seemed to be thoroughly vanquished in the first half of 1927 attention focused on the Pacific. Lieutenants Maitland and Hegenberger showed that the California-Hawaii hop could be made, and they were followed by Smith and Bronte in July.

Then came the Dole Prize Race. Five airplanes and crews were readying for the flight when the first of August came, but Major Livingston Irving's Pabco Pacific Flyer-the only ship equipped with short-wave radio, which was then a novelty for aircraft-cracked up, and then there were four.

Of the four only two-the Woolaroc, flown by Goebel and Davis, and the Aloha, piloted by Jensen and Schluter-completed the route. Although unable to communicate with the airplanes, San Francisco amateurs maintained continuous watch on the six hundred-meter SOS wave for signals from the Woolaroc and for naval and marine reports on the fliers' progress, providing the press with news coverage of the flight.

News of the safe arrival of the Woolaroc and the Aloha came swiftly back over the amateur circuit. But still Miss Doran and the Golden Eagle were unreported. An unconfirmed report that the Miss Doran had been located eighty-five miles from Hawaii came over the wire services, but a quick radio check with Honolulu proved it false.

The next development was the dramatic announcement that Captain William P. Erwin would hop for Hawaii in the Dallas Spirit in an effort to locate the missing ships. The radio operators had gone without sleep or food during the tense vigil, but their interest was still keen. They called on Captain Erwin and persuaded him that he needed short-wave radio. The fifty-watt short-wave transmitter that had been installed on the Pabco Pacific Flyer was transferred to the Dallas Spirit. The installation was pushed through in record time, and Alvin Eichwaldt, the navigator and radio operator, made preliminary tests which gave excellent signals.

When the Dallas Spirit winged its way past the Golden gate on the rescue flight the entire amateur contingent was convinced that they would be in contact with the ship for the entire duration of the flight. As the plane passed the coastline the selected corps of operators picked up its transmission and prepared for the long watch. Other amateurs were listening, too, for prior to the flight a request had been broadcast to all amateurs to stand by on the 33.1-meter wavelength used by the airplane. All up and down the coast and as far away as Texas and even New York City amateurs were tuned to that wavelength.

Those who heard the signals from KGGA, the station call of the Dallas Spirit, will never forget the drama and tragedy of that night. From the start of the flight the signals were powerful, and as the airplane sped farther out over the gray waste of the Pacific the signals even increased in intensity. For hours the steady drone of the transmitter brought news of the progress of the plane. Amateurs all over the continent heard the informal Morse code remarks rapped out from time to time by Eichwaldt, the radio operator, in his humorous, human fashion.

When darkness fell the note became unsteady, its frequency rising and falling at intervals. The changing tone told a tale of "bumpy" weather conditions and uneven speed. To those who could read the story of the varying note this caused considerable concern which was only partially relieved by Eichwaldt's jocular and unconcerned comments. The air was electric with mounting drama.

Then at nine o'clock that night the first grim SOS was sounded from the void in which the Dallas Spirit flew. It was followed almost immediately by a terse "Belay that!" and the further announcement that the ship had gone into a spin but emerged on an even keel.

Right on top of this report, however, there was a second SOS and the curt announcement that the Dallas Spirit had shuddered into another spin. The rising and falling whine of the note told its own story to those ashore.

The second SOS was cut short by the crash. The instant the aviators were plunged to death in the sea the fact was known to the radio operators listening, for Eichwaldt was still sending when his trailing antenna hit the water.

Here amateurs, in recounting the tale, pause a moment to pay tribute to the cold nerve and supreme courage of Eichwaldt, the operator. He could not have failed to realize the danger they were in, yet during the half-hour preceding the crash, when the plane was bucking squalls one after the other, he continued sending out his unconcerned comments and jokes.

His first SOS and the remarks immediately following it were still in the same light vein. There was no trace of nervousness or fear. When the second spin came and the plane started down to its end Eichwaldt continued with the same even, unhurried tempo he had used throughout the flight. He stayed at his post until the end, sending calmly and evenly right up to the time the plane hit. With the note rising to a shrill shriek and falling almost to zero-denoting violent movement of the ship--the dots and dashes came through like clockwork until they were actually heard sputtering out as the antenna hit the water. To know that he was heading for his death and then to stick by the key telling the world just what was happening right up to the last second required courage of the highest order. Alvin Eichwaldt preserved the finest traditions of the radio-operating fraternity.