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Chapter Eight -
The Mayor and the Ham
by Clinton B. DeSoto
THE DAYS of witch hunts are over, and lynchings are no longer regarded with favor in polite society. Yet the phenomenon of mass hypnotism that underlies such pastimes is still encountered. Occasionally it springs up quite spontaneously but more often it is inspired by some contriving rabble rouser with a personal ax to grind.
It is not a pleasant plight to find yourself the object of mass hysteria, as Gerald Coleman of Johnstown, Pa., discovered during the month of March 1936. It is even less pleasant when you've done your damnedest to serve the very people who now condemn you. . . .
The rain began in Johnstown late Saturday night.
By Tuesday noon, thirty-six hours later, the swollen Conemaugh River and Stony Creek were ready to burst their banks. Two hours more, and the streets of downtown Johnstown, Pa., a steel and coal city of thirty-six thousand population, began filling with water, water that had already flooded most of the rocky ten-mile Conemaugh River gorge at whose neck Johnstown waited. People who happened to be downtown then stayed there for another twenty-four hours, marooned.
Horror gripped these people as they recalled that other Johnstown flood, the terrible flood of 1889, when the South Fork dam burst and loosed a forty-foot wall of water that destroyed the city and killed thousands of its inhabitants. But this was 1936, and there was a new dam, a dam that couldn't burst--or could it?
At four o'clock in the afternoon of Tuesday, the seventeenth, all telephones, telegraph wires, and commercial broadcasting services went out. More than that, power was off in most sections of the city. No word of the extent of the disaster, no demands for aid, for food and medicine could be sent out of the inundated valley.
Into the breach stepped the hams of Johnstown.
Gerald Coleman, W8FRC, and Bob Dixon, N8DYY, both members of the Naval Communications Reserve and close neighbors in a Johnstown suburb, were standing by. When the wires went out they were ready.
At 5:05 P.M. the electrifying first message calling for relief--"Worst flood in history. . . . We need everything"--was sent from N8DYY via Pittsburgh to Washington.
That was the start. From then on traffic and news moved in a swift stream through these and other Johnstown stations, for and to the Red Cross, Coast Guard, National Guard, the telephone and telegraph companies and the ordinary residents of Johnstown. At N8DYY alone some eight hundred Western Union telegrams were forwarded before the National Guard took the station over for its own uses. Francis Duffy, W8FAK, Dr Clarke Olney, N8LNZ, Milton Hanson, W8KRF, Rexford Ackley, W8LZS--these amateurs handled thousands of messages, including Red Cross traffic relative to blamkets, cots, medicines, information on road and railroad conditions for the state police and "requisitions" for doctors, nurses and supplies.
Dixon, N8DYY, and Jerry Coleman, W8FRC, agreed before the emergency to split the assignment. N8DYY (assisted by his next-door neighbor, Bill Bossler, W8GYB) used code in the naval-reserve channel, while Coleman worked in a widespread radiotelephone network that covered the entire state of Pennsylvania.
As the water rose anxious citizens flocked to the Coleman home to send messages. Jerry's parents supplied them with blank forms and explained repeatedly, "No, there is no charge." "No, Jerry is an amateur--he can't take pay for helping you." At times the stream of people overflowed the downstairs rooms of the house, as many as thirty persons filing messages to friends and relatives at one time.
On two occasions Coleman's station was picked up and rebroadcast over the N.B.C. networks as he gave firsthand accounts of flood conditions in the city. At other times station KDKA in Pittsburgh rebroadcast his transmissions. The rising tide of the flood crisis was recorded in these transmissions from Coleman's station.
The gathering clouds of dusk found the city under water several feet deep, rising at a rate of two feet every hour, with the rain still pelting down relentlessly and no relief in sight.
An hour later Coleman reported: "Not a light in the city. Water rising at the rate of three feet an hour. We are completely isolated from the outside world. . . ."
Hour by hour the crisis grew. At eight-twenty: "Nine feet of water in the main streets. All highways blocked off. Many persons, most of them store clerks, are marooned in business houses downtown. . . ."
At nine-thirty: "Fifteen feet of water, three feet less than the flood of 1889. Steel plants are covered with water, and hundreds of families are fleeing their homes. . . ."
At ten-fifteen: "Wilmore Dam is reported broken, and if the Quemahoning Dam doesn't hold it's curtains for Johnstown. Three reported dead in Punxsutawney. On dead in Johnstown. . . ."
By midnight Johnstown lay at the bottom of an eighteen-foot sea. But up to then power had been maintained without interruption in the Moxham section where W8FRC was located, a suburban area on higher ground three miles from the center of the city. At 12:10 A.M. W8FRC reported: "The water is now two blocks from my home. There is danger of the power failing here. . . ."
The power did fail, and Coleman was off the air until the following morning. But Herculean work by utilities men restored the broken lines, and by daylight power was available again.
W8FRC went back on the air at 5 A.M., and Coleman stayed at his microphone from then until past noon. Then he went downtown to gather eyewitness data for further reports.
The crest of the flood had passed, he found. The water was flowing out of the city. But it left behind damage and destruction exceeding even that of the terrible 1889 flood--fifty million dollars worth of damage, it was later estimated. And in the wreckage relief workers found the bodies of seven persons.
Shortly after two o'clock, while Coleman was still in the business district, he heard fire and police sirens begin to sound. Tension filled the air; he could feel it grow, People looked at each other questioningly. Then a fireman appeared, yelling, "Get to the hills! The Quemahoning Dam has bursted!"
People started running up and down, screaming the report that the dam had gone. "Run for your lives! The dam has burst!"
To Johnstown resident, bred with the legend of the tragic flood of 1889, that cry was the signal for a frenzied dash for the hills. They knew that in '89 the city's thirty-thousand citizens, wearied after ten years of false alarms, had not heeded the warning that the big earth dam ten miles above the gorge might soon burst. Then in the middle of the afternoon the dam's whole center had given way with a roar. A wall of water forty feet high and half a mile wide came thundering down the gorge. Many an aging survivor of that disaster recalled the old story of the freight train rocketing down the valley under full steam, the bank of water right behind it. As the engine roared along in its race to warn the city, according to that story, its whistle sent a steady chilling screach echoing through the valley. Then the churning sea caught up with it and swallowed it and rushed on to fling its swirling burden of trees, houses, locomotives like battering rams against the defenseless village.
At least twenty-two hundred lives were lost that day in 1889 in the hurtling wall of water, in the giant whirlpool that formed when the water rushed back upon itself and ground to bits the buildings that had escaped the first impact, in the flames when oil-smeared wreckage piled against the Pennsylvania Railroad bridge ignited and the tangled mass covering sixty acres burned for twelve hours.
In the face of that recollection the inhabitants of Johnstown became panic-stricken when they heard the report of a new dam break.
The rumor spread like wildfire. Insane with terror, people rushed pell-mell through the streets and trampled one another in the effort to get out of town. Women with babies in their arms, men whose legs were too short to carry them--all fled in wild, crazed panic. Like a herd of animals suddenly frightened, the crowd stampeded wildly toward the hills, fleeing from what they felt to be certain death.
Coleman started for home. A man picked him up in an automobile and gave him a lift for part of the distance. He ran the rest of the way.
When he arrived he put his station on the air and transmitted reports he had heard downtown: that the water was rising, that the Quemahoning Dam was said to have burst. In Pittsburgh KDKA--and toward the end the entire N.B.C. chain--picked up the report and broadcast it. He described the havoc that the bursting of the dam, if true, would cause in Johnstown. From his radio room he could see people running to the hills and a steady stream of cars moving to higher ground. The local telephone exchange which had been giving him priority on telephone calls over the few lines still functioning called to report that all the remaining telephone operators had been ordered out because the dam had broken.
At this point Coleman's parents and neighbors urged him to abandon the station before it was too late. In the street below police and firemen were hastening the evacuation. He concluded his transmission: "It will be necessary to vacate the house here, and should things recede here I will be back on the air, but it is necessary that I leave the house. Police and firemen are making everybody leave, so W8FRC is leaving."
His parents were waiting in the family car. They drove to the hills at the edge of the city.
Half an hour passed, but the wall of water did not come. Yet in 1889 it had traveled the ten miles in seven minutes. "False alarm," people began saying to each other. Slowly the terrified citizenry straggled back to town. Coleman returned to his station and went back on the air.
The panic was over but it had taken its toll. In the mad flight one aged woman had lost her life; other persons had been injured.
Soon the town was ringing with charges and countercharges laying the blame for the false report. Most of Johnstown's citizens had got there first word from the police and firemen. Where had they got it? This question went unanswered.
It was on Friday that the sensational development which rocked all Johnstown came.
At 10 A.M. two policemen appeared at Coleman's home where he was still on the air handling Red Cross traffic. They told him their orders were to take him in to the mayor's office. They refused to answer his questions.
Puzzled, unable to account for this mysterious order, but more curious than alarmed, Coleman finally agreed to accompany the policemen. They took him before burly, hard-shelled Mayor Daniel J. Shields. The mayor asked him one question: "Did you broadcast about the Quemahoning Dam breaking?" he demanded.
"Yes sir," Coleman replied.
At that the mayor launched into an angry tirade, concluding by ordering Coleman not to operate his radio station any more.
"This town is under martial law," he stormed, "and if you don't obey that order I'll have you thrown in jail."
Coleman opened his mouth to protest but before he could speak he was ordered out of the room. As he left he was told the case was being placed in the hands of the district attorney of Cambria County and that a charge of involuntary manslaughter would be preferred against him in connection with the deaths that occured through fright or injury during the panic.
Coleman was dazed by this blow. But it was only the beginning.
Before the day was ended Mayor Shields extended his order to apply to all amateur stations in the city.
The Johnstown Democrat carried this story:
Mayor Orders Amateur Operators Off Air After Running Down "Que" Report
Mayor Daniel J. Shields ordered all amateur radio stations to close here yesterday after one operator allegedly had admitted he was responsible for the report that Quemahoning Dam had broken, which caused a panic last Wednesday.
The mayor said the order closing all amateur stations had been issued to prevent possible spread of further alarming rumors through their broadcasts. He warned operators would be jailed and held without bail if they ignored the warning.
Gerald Coleman of 528 Highland Avenue was the operator who, Mayor Shields said, admitted responsibility for the false alarm last Wednesday. According to the mayor, Coleman later apologized publicly for the warning which was sent to radio station KDKA in Pittsburgh and rebroadcast. Coleman was not held however.
"He is the man who caused that unreasonable panic here," Mayor Shields said, scoring Coleman roundly.
A storm of controversy followed. The case of "the Mayor vs. the Hams" became a national cause celebre that echoed in the press and on the air rialtos.
Rumors of Coleman's arrest and the subsequent order banning amateurs from the air spread swiftly throughout the amateur fraternity, and as a body they rose in arms. The A.R.R.L. immediately sent a message to the mayor pointing out that amateur stations were federally licensed and he had no authority to regulate them. Milton Hanson, W8KRF, called on the mayor and attempted to deliver the message. "There is no reply," he radioed the League. "Mayor Shields was very abusive and threatened me with arrest. He then threatened to send someone out here to put me in jail if I went on the air Sunday night."
But the amateurs of Johnstown resolved to defy the mayor's edict and they continued operating. Relief messages were coming in by the hundreds, and they felt it was their duty to handle them. Even Coleman went back on the air and worked continuously through the next week, operating the naval reserve net.
Popular feeling against Coleman rose to dangerous heights as gossip and rumor spread malicious tales of his activities during the crisis. Pool-hall hangers-on in downtown Johnstown talked of lynching parties. The other amateur operators in the city were treated as pariahs on the occasion when they did leave their posts. Outside Johnstown, too, the battle waged. Radio editors and editorial writers featured the case in their columns. Walter Winchell, Edwin C. Hill, Boake Carter and other columnists and commentators scored the mayor for his action. "It is palpably absurd for officials to pick on this operator for the sake of finding a convenient goat," Boake Carter said. "This same operator is the one who sat gallantly at his post for hours on end, keeping the world informed on Johnstown's plight. Is the reward for that to be an official kicking around because of overwrought nerves letting go?"
Developments came swiftly. There was discussion about getting a movement underway to finance legal aid for Coleman through contributions through contributions by individual amateurs. Mayor Shields went to Washington. On returning, he announced that he had appeared before the Federal Communications Commission and lodged a complaint against Coleman and that the Commission had promised action. The F.C.C. denied that a formal complaint had been filed.
Other theories were presented. One version held that newsreel cameramen had started the rumor in order that they might film the resulting panic scenes. Another story was to the effect that a broadcasting crew setting up for a spot broadcast near Johnstown had left a microphone circuit open and picked up voices from the street shouting the false report. But these stories were quickly discredited.
The actual source of the rumor was never determined. Whatever its initial origin, however, it was established that members of the state and city police, as well as firemen and other municipal employees, had spread the warning that the dam had burst and urged people to take to the hills.
There was a long and bitter battle in the press, but Coleman's innocence of the charges placed against him was eventually accepted in the minds of Johnstown's citizens. The A.R.R.L.'s investigation had established that his transmissions could not have caused or even encouraged the panic because he was in the heart of the city when it began, and, moreover, there was no radio reception in downtown Johnstown at that time, since all power was off. Therefore his transmissions, regardless of their character, could not have been heard.
Finally evidence was gathered establishing that Coleman's later broadcasts had been as factual a report of the rumors and the resulting panic as could have been expected in that time of stress.
Gradually popular sentiment shifted from antagonism to sympathy. Civic leaders and ministers of the gospel took up cudgels in his behalf. From some of those who had been loudest in their denunciations came grudging admissions of error.
But still Mayor Shields and the Johnstown newspapers continued to press the issue, refusing to exonerate Coleman. Finally Coleman's friends called upon Governor Earle to make an official investigation.
Deputy Attorney General Thomas A. Bender took depositions in Johnstown and Pittsburgh and secured a transcript of a recording of a portion of Coleman's transmissions made by N.B.C. in New York. At last, on May nineteenth, Coleman was finally officially absolved by Governor Earle of blame in the Johnstown panic.
Gerald Coleman was subsequently honored for his performance during the flood crisis in various ways. He was brought to New York City and there secured employment in radio sales work. Rising rapidly, he transferred first to television research organization and then to the broadcasting division of a large electrical manufacturing corporation. Following that he became chief engineer of a Pennsylvania broadcasting station.
And so the story of the mayor and the ham has its happy ending. Inadvertantly the mayor had opened the gates of opportunity, and with characteristic amateur enterprise the ham walked right in.