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Chapter Four -
To The Ends Of The Earth
by Clinton B. DeSoto

TO DATE no radio amateur has yet adventured on Mars or explored the craters of the moon--at least not outside the comic strips and the pseudo-science magazines. But there are very few spots on this little old earth where some ham has not yet ventured, from high in the troposphere to the depths of the Carlsbad Caverns and from the tangled jungles of Matto Grosso to the ice and snow of the Arctic.

It all began back in 1923 when Commander Donald B. MacMillian, the noted Arctic explorer, was preparing for another of his journeys to the Far North.

This was to be his ninth expedition. Eight times before he had made the long journey above the Arctic Circle, and there was nothing he feared more than the isolation, the relentless, inescapable realization of being cut off from the civilized world for a year or more at a time.

"It has spelled disaster for many an expedition." he said. In 1922 he had carried a radio receiver along, listening to the general traffic of the air. But this was tantalizing rather than useful. What was needed was two-way communication.

About that time Commander MacMillan met Hiram Percy Maxim, president of the American Radio Relay League. They talked about his problem, and Maxim suggested that radio amateurs would undoubtedly be overjoyed to help. MacMillan was keenly interested, but unfortunately there was no money to provide a radio station aboard the vessel and an operator to run it.

But by this time Maxim, too, was interested in his idea. Perhaps the A.R.R.L. could help. More discussion followed, and then an agreement was worked out. The League offered to help in securing apparatus and to pay the expenses of an amateur operator for the duration of the trip.

And so it happened that when the MacMillan Arctic Expedition sailed from Wiscasset, Me., on June 23, 1923, aboard the tight little auxilary schooner Bowdoin there was aboard an amateur operator from the A.R.R.L. and a complete two-hundred-meter station donated by Commander E.F. MacDonald of the Zenith Radio Corporation.

The operator was Don Mix, known throughout the amateur fraternity as the "sleepless wonder of 1TS," a tall, lanky Connecticut Yankee, redheaded and freckle faced and a superhuman performer behind a radio key.

Besides standing his watch as a member of the seven-man crew through the months that followed Mix transmitted a weekly five-hundred-word message to the North American Newspaper Alliance, stood regular watches for incoming press, handled the expedition's personal message traffic and sent back lists of calls of the other amateurs that he heard.

Two months after the expedition left Wiscasset it reached Cape Sabine above the Arctic Circle, the most northerly point of the trip. There WNP, "Wireless North Pole," established a new world's long-distance record.

The crossing to Cape Sabine was accomplished only after several unsuccessful attempts had been foiled by the ice in Baffin Bay. Once at the Cape, the expedition erected a National Geographic Society bronze memorial to the Greely expedition which there perished of starvation and exposure.

Turning south, the sturdy little Bowdoin pushed its way back at Etah, Greenland, a few miles below the Arctic Circle, before it was frozen in by the winter ice.

Then the radio installation came into its own. Communication through the summer static had been spotty, but autumn brought good conditions. Mix strung a huge antenna from a cable suspended between the cliffs on either side of the ice-locked harbor. The radio installation on the Bowdoin annihilated isolation. It brought entertainment and news of the world. Through the eagerly listening amateur stations back in the U.S. and Canada business messages and news reports to the outside world were generally handled with the speed and reliability of a wire-line connection. When President Coolidge filed a message of Christmas greetings to the party it was delivered like an ordinary telegram.

Despite the static and aurora borealis, despite the two-hundred-meter wavelength (this was before the days of short waves), despite the handicaps of cramped quarters and insufficient fuel supplies the expedition was in contact with home until its return in September 1924.

"No polar expedition will attempt to go north again without radio equipment," predicted MacMillan on his return, and he was right.

The barrier of silence, the greatest single obstacle to all explorations, was broken for all time. Other explorers heard of MacMillan's success and eagerly sought the help of amateurs for their ventures. In 1924 another expedition secured amateur communication; in 1925 there were five; in 1926 this number increased to six, and the following year to seven.

Since 1923 well over a hundred scientific expeditions and other parties wandering the face of the earth have depended on amateur radio for communication. Usually there has been an amateur along as operator, too, for explorers quickly learned that the ham's innate resourcefulness could be depended upon to keep them on the air.

The adventures encountered by these operators would fill hundreds of volumes. Some traveled by airplane, others by boat. Bert Sndham sweated and bounced in a Ford touring car on a motorized expedition breaking the international "highway" from Los Angeles to central Mexico and later to El Slavador. A caterpillar tractor hauled the short-wave stationof the Haardt Trans-Asia Expedition. Ray Meyers traveled in the submarine Nautilus under the polar icecap when he operated the radio equipment of the Wilkins-Ellsworth Transarctic Submarine Expedition which attempted to reach the North Pole by the underwater route. Other short-wave operators have toured the wilds of darkest Africa in a luxurious motor trailer, climbed the peak of Mount Crillon, floated down the Orinoco in an oil-prospecting houseboat, braved the jungles of Matto Grosso, sailed with sealers in the Antarctic, mushed behind dogsleds in the Arctic and roamed the isolated corners of the world from top to bottom.

The experience of Harry Wells may be taken as a sample.

Harry penetrated territory never before seen by a white man, came close to losing his life a dozen times, created a Dyak shrine, thwarted a native uprising--and it all started with a football game.

A native of Washington, D.C., Harry returned there in the fall of 1928 for the home-coming game between the University of Maryland and the University of Virginia. It was after the game that he found out that the All-American Lyric Expedition was outfitting to leave soon for Borneo, its purpose to make an anthropological study of the primitive natives, obtain geographical data and take observations on tropical and equatorial radio conditions.

To Wells, an indefatigable amateur, this sounded like opportunity knocking. After demonstrating his operating experience and technical training to Professor Theodore Seelman, an anthropologist of the University of Chicago, who was leading the venture he was placed in charge of the radio portion of the project.

Preparations, including the provision of a fifty-watt gasoline-powered base station, a low-powered emergency rig and a battery-operated portable outfit, were completed by the end of March, and the party embarked from Seattle on April third.

The journey to Borneo constituted an odyssey in itself. It was two months before they arrived. In the meantime they stopped at Japan, China, the Philippine Islands, the Celebes and Java.

The long-awaited first glimpse of Borneo proved something less than enticing. "The heat seemed to come rolling out to meet our small coastwise steamer," Wells reported. "The shore line was indefinite and appeared as a rather depressing maze of swamp and jungle."

They disembarked at Bandjermasin, capital of Dutch Borneo, on the southwestern coast. After completing final preparations the party traveled up the Barito River bound for Poeroek Tjahoe, the last Dutch military post, some two hundred and fifty miles from the coast and forty miles south of the Equator. There the main base was to be established.

Wells found the journey up the Barito intensely interesting. At times the progress of the little Dutch river boat, the Negara, was almost completely blocked by water hycinths, vast quantities of which formed a solid mass from bank to bank."The strange jungle odors, the bright-hued tropical birds flying overhead, the herds of chattering monkeys playing along the banks, the occasional wild boar or deer seen cautiously quenching its thirst, the crocodiles or snakes gliding through the muddy, sluggish water--all seemed to be crying, 'This is the road to adventure and the real things of life!'" he observed.

A week later they arrived at Poeroek Tjahoe. The entire white population--the post commander, two young lieutenants and a doctor--turned out to welcome them. Captain J.C. DeQuant, the post commander, was controleur of a portion of central Borneo larger than all Holland.

The work of setting up the base camp was begun immediately. All hands pitched in and helped set up PMZ, the expedition's main transmitter, and that evening the station was on the air. The very first call resulted in a contact with a station in California. All those months of traveling and thousands of miles of distance were wiped away at the touch of a key!

The sound of the gas-engine generator attracted the attention of the brown-skinned natives, and the news quickly spread that the white men had a strange contraption that made a noise like thunder and revolved like lightning. Soon the entire population of the kampong was squatting around the network of wires and instruments. Whole families would travel for days through the jungle to see the white man's wonder.

To show that the sounds were coming from the air Wells would disconnect the antenna and then put it back. Unable to comprehend the functioning of the radio system, the natives believed the white men induced friendly anthos or spirits to carry forth their messages.

The stolid Dyaks showed little surprise on hearing the moanings of a saxophone or the melodies of an orchestra for the first time--mostly amusement and curiosity. Curiosity, in fact, was an outstanding trait. When the toy phonographs were played some native invariably tried to climb inside the horn to see where the noise was coming from. They crowded around the set, becoming tangled in the wiring or knocking the units out of adjustment, until one day Wells let one of the boys touch the terminal of a 108-volt battery. He jumped back, yelling, "Panas [Hot]!" After that all their curiosity would not induce them to come within ten feet of the white man's magic.

As the Americans gradually grew accustomed to the equatorial heat and the direct rays of the sun plans were started for the first real exploration trip. The Dutch Government had very courteously offered military assistance wherever possible, and so it was agreed to make an attempt to reach the headwaters of the Murung River, in territory never before seen by a white man, at the same time carrying on a search for the nomadic Punan Dyaks, the most primitive natives then known.

By middle July all was in readiness for the start. The field party consisted of Professor Seelman and Wells, together with Captain DeQuant wh was in charge. John H. Provinse stayed behind at the base camp, operating the main PMZ transmitter.

Besides the three white men five convicts who were serving time at Poeroek Tjahoe were assigned to do the paddling. Cooking was added to the paddling assignment when the Chinese cook, Lim, decided that he did not care to see any wilder people than those he had seen already at Poeroek Tjahoe and refused to leave the base camp.

For the first day or so the two heavily laden boats plowed through sluggish, muddy water. On the third day the banks became higher and the water faster, and by evening they were on the edge of Kiham Hatas, Borneo's longest single rapid--six hundred yards of water fury.

The month that followed was one continual story of man's battle with the elements. There were days of hard paddling and days of roasting in the intense heat. Sudden showers would soak them through, and then the slightest breeze would chill them to the bone. Swarms of insects troubled their rest at noonday and at night. The river was a continual succession of rapids, waterfalls, narrows and whirlpools where the slightest error in judgement might mean disaster.

At the fork of the Barito and Murung rivers they turned east along the Murung into the land of the Punan Dyaks, the little-known branch of the Dyak race which Dr Seelman desired to investigate. A tribe of aborigines--of Malayan speech, but differing in stature--with Caucasion features, they were known only to have a low civilization level and to be far from peaceful.

The explorers had been warned that these primitive aborigines, while not cannabalistic, were dangerous. But Seelman and DeQuant disregarded these warnings, and their unconcern communicated itself to Wells. "We were too busy and tired to heed any rumors of unfriendly natives," he said.

Actually, such disregard of the very real danger, while courageous, was also reckless. They were yet to learn that the Dyaks' hatred for the whites could be satisfied only by killing.

This hatred stemmed from the outrageous treatment of the Dyaks by the Malays which was tolerated by the Dutch. Throughout the journey they observed that the Malays exploited the Dyaks shamelessly. At the village of Tombangolong a Malay trader had even speared and killed a Dyak the day before, and the villagers were vainly searching for the killer.

In this case Dutch authority upheld law and justice. The All-American Lyric party arrived in time to witness the tribal burial, and then Captain DeQuant set out to track down the assasin. He succeeded in catching the Malay and told the Dyaks the killer would be held for trial at Poeroek Tjahoe.

That night the murderer was chained by the neck to a post in the center of the shack the explorers occupied. The men's camp beds occupied the remaining space in the room. The Malay was instructed to sleep on the floor but he was afraid to do so because he thought the Dyaks might spear him from underneath.

"Personally," said Wells, "I could only think, 'Gosh, what if they miss him?' That canvas spread on my bed felt awfully thin . . . ."

But the Dyaks did not attempt to avenge their dead, and the party continued on its way unmolested.

Three days later they arrived at Toembang Topus, the last village on the Murung. This was to be the take-off point for the dash to the headwaters. The next day it was necessary for Captain DeQuant to make an overland journey to another isolated kampong. That night, as usual, Harry Wells had a long radio contact with the Philippines and reported on their progress.

The next morning Dr Seelman and Wells, leaving the portable radio outfit and the collection of primitive weapons in camp under guard, started their dash for the headwaters. They were now in territory never previously penetrated by white men.

The four--two Dyaks and the explorers--paddled steadily, and their light boat moved swiftly through the water. Before noon the waters became so shallow that it was necessary for them to wade. Logs and overhanging creepers impeded their progress, but by early afternoon they reached the uncharted source of the Murung.

It was there Harry Wells erected his shrine. A small clearing was cut in the virgin jungle and a raised platform constructed. A signed statement was sealed inside a gourd. Together with an old battery and a radio tube, the gourd was placed on the platform. The official expedition flag, made by Mrs Seelman before their departure and bearing the diamond shaped A.R.R.L. emblem and the letters PMZ, was raised. The shrine was dedicated to the Goddess of Fate who had guided them safely thus far, and several salutes were fired into the air. The Dyaks seemed deeply impressed by the solemn ritual.

Then the party returned to Toembang Topus. Aided by the downstream current, they arrived at nightfall. The message they would send back to the U.S. was already drafted: "Reached destination. Starting back tommorow. Batteries getting low, so expect next QSO from base station."

But they were a little late. The batteries were already too low--they had even then given double the expected usage. Rain water had destroyed the spare batteries. To make matters worse, Manila, the relay point, was in the throes of a typhoon, and the message never did get off. The next day they were obliged to start back for the base. Before they left they gave the dead batteries to the natives as souvenirs.

In Manila the expedition's silence led to newspaper reports that they were believed lost, perhaps killed by natives. But the downstream journey went swiftly, and before the growing anxiety in the States reached great proportions they were able to report that they had arrived back at the main base in at Poeroek Tjahoe late on the afternoon of August seventeenth, fagged by exposure and hardship but safe.

The All-American Lyric Expedition stayed in Borneo throughout the remainder of the winter, and PMZ remained actively on the air. On a number of occasions other field trips were made, accompanied by the portable outfit, which made some amazing performance records. These trips were shorter than that up the Murung and less dangerous.

Still, danger was always lurking ahead in that primitive country. On one trip into the jungle the party arrived at a kampong to find the Dyaks armed to the teeth with knives, spears and blow guns. The woman and children cowered fearfully in their huts not daring to venture out of doors.

An enemy tribe was hiding in the jungle, they said. Two hundred warriors were preparing to attack and massacre them all. One man had been shot at with a poison dart.

The explorers prepared to defend their lives along with the natives. There was no attack, however, nor did they hear or see any of the head-hunters. The lurking death had avoided them another time, but yet it was always there in the shadows.

Shortly before the expedition ended and the party returned to America there occured the tragic happening that climaxed the growing unrest among the natives. The Dyaks had been in a sullen mood for weeks. Their resentment directed primarily at the Malays but it included the Dutch authorities who in their minds apparently shared responsibility for the ill-treatment they received.

And then, on Christmas Day, Captain DeQuant was brutally murdered only one hour from the base.

There was high alarm at Poeroek Tjahoe. This assassination could bring anything--more murders, even an uprising that would result in the massacre of all the whites at the post. It was vitally important that word of the tragedy be got to the Dutch colonial government authorities at Bandjermasin in the shortest possible time. To send it by boat to the coast and have a reply returned would take two weeks. In the event of a serious uprising the whole place could be wiped out in that time. . . .

So Wells offered his services. On Christmas night at six o'clock PMZ sent an official message for the garrison at Poeroek Tjahoe to an amateur in the Philippines. There it was rushed to a cable office, and news of the tragedy reached its destination on the very day it occurred.

Thereafter all official reports concerning the subsequent disturbance and its political consequences were handled through this circuit. Replies were cabled from Bandjermasin to Manila and then radioed back to the isolated posted through PMZ. Several months' time and much expense were saved thereby, apart from averting what might have developed into a serious uprising, and the colonial government was sincerely grateful.

Not long after conditions returned to normal, PMZ said good-by to its friends of the air. The little gasoline engine was shut down for the last time, the telescopic mast was lowered, and Harry Wells boarded a steamer for home.

As he stepped on the gangplank he was struck by a sudden thought. "Say!" he exclaimed. "I wonder who one the Maryland-Virginia game last fall?"

In exploration lore 1926 is remembered as the year in which three expeditions raced to be first across the North Pole by air.

They traveled by different methods and different routes, but each used both of the newest marvels of science to be adapted to exploration: avaiation and radio.

Apart from the glory and adventure, these expeditions provided a conclusive test of the value of short-wave radio.

The Detroit Arctic Expedition was first to leave. It differed from previous U.S. Arctic expeditions in that no ships were used. Captain George H. Wilkins, its leader, planned to fly over the Pole in a large three-motored Fokker monoplane piloted by Lieutenant Carl B. Eielson, taking off from an advance base to be set up at Point Barrow, Alaska.

Comprehensive short-wave equipment especially designed for the expedition was provided, with a pair of outstanding Seattle amateurs, Howard Mason and Bob Waskey, as operators. In early March all of the personnel and equipment, including the big airplane and a smaller single-engined Fokker for supply work, were assembled at Fairbanks, the railhead. From there an advance party set out overland with a snow-sled caravan, transporting aviation gasoline and a powerful short-wave base station, its mission to establish the base at Port Barrow. Mason accompanied this party when it started out, carrying a small battery-operated portable for communication back to Fairbanks.

At Tolovana, sixty miles out, the snow motors were abandoned because it was discovered that they were consuming fuel so rapidly that there would be none left for the airplanes when they would arrive at Barrow! Five dog sledges were substituted for the motor sleds. Mason returned to Fairbanks, and Waskey joined the advance party, and they started again on the long six-hundred-mile overland trip.

After seven harrowing weeks the advance party--"Sandy" Smith, the leader, Earl Rossman, photographer and correspondent, Waskey and the drivers--reached Point Barrow. They ran short of food en route and for a time were unable to proceed. The temperature was thirty-five degrees below zero, and it was necessary to shoot some of the dogs. Finally they succeeded in killing sufficient game for the men and the remaining dogs and pushed on. The bulky gasoline-engine generator for the base station was temporarily abandoned one hundred sixty miles outside of Point Barrow, to be later retrieved.

Throughout the seven weeks' mush Waskey was in contact with Mason back in Fairbanks every night over the little battery portable.

In the meantime Wilkins had begun freighting gasoline and supplies between Fairbanks and Point Barrow in the smaller Fokker. On the third trip radio signals from the airplane went out after three hours and nothing was heard of the explorer. He failed to return on schedule. A puzzled world wondered about his fate for two weeks. Then it was learned that the wind-driven generator had burned out in flight. Wilkins had arrived safely in Barrow, but that night the tent hangar burned, damaging the propeller on the ship so badly that two weeks were required to repair it with the limited facilities available.

When the overland party from Fairbanks drew near a fast sledge was sent out to get Waskey and his portable outfit and bring them into barrow in advance of the main party, and it was through Waskey and his little transmitter that the world first learned that Wilkins was safe.

Trouble continued to dog the expedition's footsteps however. A series of mishaps finally forced abandonment of the plan to fly over the Pole, and thereafter Wilkins confined himself to the less spectacular activity of carrying on exploration flights over uncharted regions of the Arctic.

The one striking accomplishment of the 1926 Detroit Arctic Expedition was its demonstration of the reliability and range of the low-powered shortwave radio equipment. The tiny battery-operated sets gave unprecedented performance with power inputs of but a few watts. Waskey at Point Barrow was heard as far away as Transaval, South Africa, on one of his transmissions reporting the safe arrival of Wilkins from a ferrying trip.

This performance was especially striking in comparison with that of the radio on the Amundsen-Ellsworth-Nobile Expedition which carried no shortwave apparatus and was equipped only for the longer commercial wave lengths.

The Amundsen Expedition planned to fly from King's Bay, Spitsbergen (Svalbard), over the Pole to Point Barrow in the dirigible Norge. The two-hundred-watt British Marconi transmitter, operating between six-hundred and fifteen hundred meters, succeeded in maintaining contact with Spitsbergen up to the time the airship neared the Alaskan coast. Then the orthodox equipment failed, and the dirigible itself was not heard for the rest of the twenty-seven-hundred-mile flight.

When the Norge approached Point Barrow, however, it was seen by Bob Waskey of the Wilkins party who flashed the news down to Howard Mason at Fairbanks. Mason informed the correspondent of the North American Newspaper Alliance, giving the newspapers of the N.A.N.A. a big scoop. This was a heartbreaking disappointment for the New York Times correspondent who had started mushing overland to Point Barrow two months before with a radio operator and a portable short-wave station just to get that story; they were still some thirty-five miles outside Barrow when the airship passed overhead.

The Norge continued on until it landed at Teller on May fourteenth. For two days the anxious world had no news of her. Twenty-four hours after the landing, however, her radio officer located an ancient spark transmitter on a reindeer ranch near Teller and finally got word out that the party was safe.

Then Mason and the N.A.N.A. correspondent at Fairbanks scooped the other services again, enabling N.A.N.A. to beat its competitors by an hour and one-half with the news that the Norge was safe at Teller.

The third expedition in the race, the Byrd Arctic Expedition, was the winner. Short-wave radio played an important part in its success.

The expedition, under Lieutenant-Commander Richard E. Byrd, sailed from New York for Spitsbergen on the SS Chantier in April. Lloyd Grenlie and George James were the radio operators in charge of the short-wave sets on the Chantier and the three-motored Fokker, Josephine Ford, with which the polar flight was to be made.

The story of that expedition is now history. On arrival at King's Bay preparations were rushed to quick completion, and on May ninth Commander Byrd and Floyd Bennett took off in the Josephine Ford for the fifteen-hour flight to the Pole and return.

No radio operator was taken on the flight, and in consequence amateurs missed the opportunity they had hoped for--a chance to talk with the first airplane in flight across the Pole. The Chantier, however, continued to maintain contact with the United States via short-wave radio, both at Spitsbergen and on the trip home.

Even before before the expedition reached American shores on its return rumor had it that before long the Byrd party would shove off for the Antarctic, to be the first to conquer the South Pole by air as well.

It was not until 1928, however, that the involved arrangements attendant upon such an expedition were completed. That summer the first Byrd Antarctic Expedition set sail from New York on the SS Eleanor Bolling and the SS City of New York.

Commander Byrd had learned the value of short-wave radio on his earlier trips, in the command of MacMillan's aviation party in 1925 when John Reinartz operated WNP, as well as on the 1926 Byrd Arctic Expedition, and radio preparations for the new venture were even more extensive. Five radio men--Lieutenant Malcolm P. Hansen (who had built much of the gear used previously by Byrd, Wilkins and others), Carl Peterson, Lloyd Berkner, Howard Mason and Lloyd Grenlie--accompanied the party from New York. At Dunedin, New Zealand, they were joined by Neville Shrimpton, a New Zealand amateur.

Immediately upon departure from New York schedules were instituted from the two vessels. All the way down the coast of South America and through the Antarctic Ocean contact was maintained. In January 1929 the radio equipment was landed on the ice floe. The three huge masts supporting the antennas were raised, and the transmitters were installed. Almost at once Little America was heard round the world!

All through the long winter night that followed, past the time of the momentous polar flight which climaxed the two-year struggle, Byrd and his men were in regular communication with the outer world. Contact was sure, speedy and reliable. More than two million words were handled by the stations of the expedition, a great part of the traffic going through amateurs. Even on the final lap of the undertaking when the City of New York left Dunedin on April 1, 1930, homeward bound, the contact with civilization was unfailing.

"The greatest radio achievement of recent months was the constant radio communication with the Byrd Expedition and the part played by the amateurs. Time and time again these youngsters of the American Radio Relay League kept in touch with Byrd when the big fellows lost him. It was the amateur who really discovered the value of short-wave radio." Thus did Dr Lee DeForest, inventor of the vacuum tube and one of the foremost radio men of all time, acclaim the performance.

The first man in history to reach both the North Pole and the South Pole, Commander Byrd's name rapidly became synonymous with exploration and expeditions in the minds of Americans. No short-wave operator could conceive of a higher honor than a chance to join his subsequent ventures. Some of the finest members of the fraternity participated in the Second Byrd Antarctic Expedition in 1933 and in the U.S. Antarctic Service Expedition of 1940, commanded by Byrd in his new rank of rear admiral.

Their spirit is the same that inspired Columbus is 1492 and Lindbergh in 1927; the same spirit drove Galileo and Hertz and Marconi and it is alive in the explorers and the radio hams of today.