THE ADVENTURES AND MISADVENTURES OF A BRASS POUNDER

by Frank M Stinson

 

The following is my first attempt to record my adventures and misadventures during 35 years of brass pounding for the U.S. government, as both military and civilian radio operator.

In September of 1932, I enrolled in a New York City YMCA radio school, where my brother had started a few months before. While we were there, Tom Bicket also joined the class. In January or February of 1935, Tom and I, both with 2nd Class commercial tickets, joined the U.S. Coast Guard and were enlisted as Seamen 2/c on the strength of having radio licenses. We wound up together as seamen--very unhappy seamen--on the CGC PEQUOT, a cable-laying ship plying the coast of Maine, for the magnificent sum of $36.00 a month, minus a 10% Depression cut.

The plan for us was to be on the PEQUOT all winter in New England, go south with her, return to Boston and then go to radio school. Tom, however, figured it was possible we would never get to radio school, and that our only chance was to get off that ship. We devised a plan to get the Captain mad at us. I don't remember now what Tom did, but for my part, I began in the chain locker where I was sent to flake out the anchor chain. Somehow the chain got tangled while it was being hauled aboard, and it took all afternoon, winding it in and letting it out, to untangle it.

After a few more such boners, I was assigned as combination officer's messcook, waiter, and swab jockey. After serving watered-down coffee and not passing inspection with my housekeeping, Tom and I were put ashore at Rockland, Maine, and sent to radio school at New London, Conn.

After graduating from radio school, we were sent back to Boston. I was sent to the CGC OSSIPEE at Portland, Maine, an old cutter left over from the days when the Coast Guard was called the Revenue Cutter Service. I was back on the hated North Atlantic, to spend six years on three different cutters.

After hurricane duty in Rhode Island, I made one trip as radioman/passenger on the PEQUOT, returning to Boston. Fortunately, the entire crew and officers had been replaced, and no one knew me.

My second enlistment expired in February of 1941. Paid off, I loafed for a month until, broke and able to see the writing on the wall, I reenlisted at New York. Meantime, the Coast Guard was preparing to take over the Navy Radio D/F station. I was sent to the RDF station at Manasquan, N.J. The New York Harbor group consisted of Fire Island, Manasquan and Amagansett. I spent two years at Manasquan, with a short tour at the Rockaway CG Radio Station, NMY.

While at Manasquan in 1941-42, when the torpedoing was at its height along the N.Y.-N.J. coast, we shifted our radio D/F from our regular frequencies to 500 kcs to take bearings on ships in distress. To cover this, the Coast Guard sent us a regular communications receiver so that if we received a call, we could shift back and give a bearing.

Duty at a D/F station was quite dull during non-foggy daylight hours, so I used the receiver to monitor commercial radio station WSL. One evening, I received a landline call and, instead of turning off the set, I just flipped the dial off WSL and promptly forgot that the receiver was on. When I heard a ship call SOS, I tried to take a bearing on him, but found that I couldn't get a null. Then I realized that the SOS was coming from the communications receiver. I had accidentally tuned to a ship's working frequency, probably 468 kcs. I entered the SOS in my log and put it on the teletype system with the frequency. Next day, the Coast Guard wanted to know just how I heard the ship on that frequency. I couldn't very well tell them what really happened, so I told them that I monitored off frequency in the event such a thing would come to pass.

I should have told them the truth, because after that they divided up all the ship working freqs. and assigned portions to each D/F station to monitor.

In the fall of 1942, the Coast Guard moved into the big leagues by leasing commercial radiotelegraph stations WSL, KFS, WNU, KEK, and others that I have forgotten. I spent the winter of 1942-43 at WSL, and learned a few tricks about traffic handling that were to put me in the middle of a rhubarb a few years later.

After WSL, I was transferred to the "Invasion Barges," which turned out to be the LST flotillas. Mine was LST 204, being built in a corn field at Seneca, Illinois. We sailed down the Mississippi River to Cuba, and then over to New Guinea.

I spent over a year in the New Guinea-New Britain area, carrying U.S. Marines and Australians into many Japanese-held islands, and being bombed all the way back to where we had started from. This was before we had air supremacy.

My time ran out in 1944. The New Guinea campaign was about over and I was given the records of a dozen assorted ratings plus their anxious bodies, and told to hitch-hike them back to the U.S.A. We were then in Hollandia, I believe, and after listening to much griping, I went out in a small boat to the merchant ships anchored in the harbor. I managed to get passage on the SS Uriah Rose to Milne Bay and turned the group over to the Navy. We were then booked on the SS Schomelsdjyke for our return to San Francisco. This vessel belong to the Holland-America Line, having a Dutch crew, officers, and radio operator, and carried a group of Navy radiomen and a Navy communications officer, who dragooned me into being assistant to the Dutch chief. It was the first time I had ever seen a full-size radio room, and it was bigger than the bridge and radio room of any USCG cutter I had ever been on.

Every operator in history seems to have a moment of glory. Mine came when the Dutch chief was taken ill for a couple of days and I sat in for him. The Captain and his officers found that I could copy WSL press solid, instead of missed words and gibberish English.

We made the run from New Guinea to San Francisco alone and could not break radio silence until we were almost there. But when the time came, the transmitter would not work. I remembered having seen one of the Navy kids cleaning around the open transmitter with a foxtail brush. We looked into the set and found a resistor had one end disconnected. The chief hooked the loose end to where he thought it should be, and held it there with a broom handle. I turned on the rig . . . and we were back in business.

Relations were never better between the Hollanders and the Americans. We arrived in San Francisco on a Saturday, but were too late to get through the nets, so we spent that night watching the sights of the big city from the deck of the ship. When we pulled into dock on Sunday, various bands came down to serenade the passengers as they marched off the ship: Navy people to the Navy band, the Marines to theirs, and the Salvation Army band for the civilians. Finally, for us came . . . a Coast Guard truck, sans band.

August 1944 to the following May, I spent at the Coast Guard Receiving Station (an old Simmons bed factory at North Beach), then over to the leased commercial radio station WNU, New Orleans, for the rest of the war.

The Coast Guard personnel handled anything in the distress line; the civilian personnel handled the point-to-point traffic with the banana plantations. When the war ended, about half of the Coast Guard people (who were really USCG reserves and former employees of Tropical Radio) donned civilian clothes and went back to their former jobs. In order to have plenty of liberty for all hands, I took a radio watch just like the rest.

First off, I had a message for one of the banana boats. I called and called the ship, but never got an answer. The ship arrived in New Orleans with a bunch of spoiled bananas, and rumor was that the loss was $75,000 and the Coast Guard would be stuck with the bill.

For those who never kept a Coast Guard radio log, rules said that everyone who was on watch would enter everything he heard or transmitted into the radio log--the operator was a slave to his log and his typewriter, and in the event of an SOS, all logs would be recalled, and God help the operator whose log didn't jibe with the rest!

That is what saved me. My log showed maybe 50 entries where I had called the ship, so the Coast Guard was off the hook and I was saved a possible courts-martial. It seems the ship's operator had spent the trip in his bunk for some reason or other.

Things got kind of boring at WNU, and we started to go in for heavy traffic handling--a skill learned at WSL. The first month, we picked up about $1,000; the next month about $1,500--and then the roof fell in.

WPA (RCA) in Port Arthur squawked to the Coast Guard about unfair government competition, pickpocketing, etc., and we were forbidden to handle any commercial traffic. We had to use the radio call NMG, and whenever a ship had traffic for WNU, we had to call a Tropical Radio operator to handle it. Eventually, I was sent to CG Radio Station, Galveston, NOY, and was there when SS Texas City blew up. I spent a week or so on a Coast Guard communications truck that was parked alongside city hall when the second ship blew up that night.

Next, I found myself on a loran station supply ship stationed at Kwajalein, Marshall Islands. We supplied three loran stations with mail, movies, food, and beer. Very dull and boring, except for one Sunday when I received a message from Bikati, in the Gilberts, that a seaman had done a knife job on his commanding officer.

The summer of 1949 finally rolled around and I was transferred to the 2d Coast Guard District in St Louis, Mo. In 1951 or so, the Coast Guard sent a bunch of us to the Navy radio school in Bainbridge, MD., where we joined with some Navy instructors trying to make radio operators out of Navy boys and girls and Coast Guard boys. The Korean War was supposed to become WW III, so we started turning out code copiers by the gross.

This activity eventually folded, and I went to the Coast Guard radio school at Groton. After about three years there, I retired and moved to St Louis County, MO., where I went to work for the civil service at the Federal Records Center in St Louis.

 

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