HEDGE HOPPING Ocean Station Sugar

By Charles W. Lindenberg

 

Before jetliners plied the rare air making intercontinental travel a matter of hours, prop-driven planes took a more circuitous route, staying closer to land whenever possible. When out over the big waters, they relied on ocean station vessels operating within a square sector of ocean defined on four sides by latitude and longitude coordinates. Operated by the U.S. Coast Guard, these ships served as radio beacons, check points—and a place to ditch if necessary. It helped knowing skilled sailors, drilled constantly for just such emergencies, would quickly pluck them from the water if the unthinkable ever did happen. Between California and Hawaii were two ocean stations, later reduced to one as jets began flying the route, then eventually eliminated altogether. Ocean Station Nan was one-third of the way from San Francisco to Honolulu, with Ocean Station Uncle two-thirds of the way. In the northern Pacific, several ocean stations dotted the air routes between land masses.

Ocean station duty was a boring job for the young sailors stationed aboard the cutters, and anything out of the ordinary was good for days of animated discussion. The radiomen, the only personnel in contact with the outside world—other than with aircraft—kept track of all the merchant and military ships anywhere near their location. If one even promised to show their smoke on the horizon, all hands flocked to the rails, just to know there was someone else out there.

Mounted below decks, in the bow of the cutter, was a low-frequency transmitter—a non-directional radio beacon used by both aircraft and ships—broadcasting the call sign of the ocean station in Morse code. When on Ocean Station Nan, for example, it transmitted "4YN" over and over, 24 hours a day; Ocean Station Uncle's call was "4YU."

 

Aircraft prepares for landing on Ocean Station Sugar.


In the Combat Information Center (CIC), the radarmen were the contacts for overseas flights. Commercial and military aircraft flew far too high to be anything but a speck in the sky, but nevertheless, those specks contained human voices from a world temporarily denied the cutter's crew.

Approaching an ocean station, the aircraft called in, requesting a radar plot of their course and speed. Only too glad to accommodate, radarmen plotted the track of the aircraft on a large plotting table. They then calculated its speed and course and relayed the information back to the airplane. Occasionally, the pilots of commercial flights, appreciating the loneliness aboard the white ship far below, would have one of the stewardesses come forward to the cockpit (it was cockpit back then, not flight deck) and handle the voice communications. To the crew below, this was frosting on the cake. Occasionally, the stewardesses would go one better and use their most seductive voices, much to the mixed delight and frustration of the young sailors below. But the morale boost they gave to the crew was incalculable. It made the remaining weeks almost worth the wait, reminding them there were young ladies waiting for them at the end of their voyage. Meanwhile, there would be many more transoceanic flights, hopefully a few with sultry voices.

January 1953. Ocean Station Sugar—48 degrees north, 162 degrees east—lying approximately halfway between Tokyo and Dutch Harbor on the Aleutian chain, tossed the 311-foot Coast Guard Cutter Bering Strait around like a toy boat in a bathtub. Day after day she rolled, pitched and wallowed, occasionally driving even seasoned crew members to the rail. Bracing themselves against the heavy seas, the radarmen in CIC worked the overseas flights, which at least diverted their attention from their miserable environment.

During this bleak, wintry month, a day finally came when the seas died down to a relative calm condition and the winds abated enough that they no longer shrieked and moaned through the antennas and rigging. It was on this day that a Northwest Orient DC-4 had departed Tokyo with a skeleton crew aboard, ferrying the ship back to the United States. High in the lead-gray skies, the copilot picked up his microphone and called to the white speck on the ocean below.

 

Storm-tossed crew on Ocean Station Sugar.

 

"Ocean Station Sugar, this is Northwest Orient ferry flight. Over."

The senior radarman quickly answered. "Northwest, this is Ocean Station Sugar. Go ahead."

"Good morning sir. We're en route Tokyo to Anchorage, about 20 miles from your position. Request a radar plot."

"Roger, stand by."

The radarman at the SRA radar turned his full attention to the basket-ball-sized amber screen in front of him and watched the sweeping beam of yellow light paint the target. He cranked a small handle and read the numbers off the display.

"Coordinates – two-two-eight at one-eight."

"Roger. Keep 'em coming."

"Two-two-eight at one-six."

"Two-two-eight at one-four."

The senior radarman marked an "X" at each position on the large plotting table with a grease pencil. After several fixes, he nodded.

"OK, that should do it."

With a pair of dividers, he measured the distance between fixes, made his calculations, then picked up the microphone and called the airplane.

"Northwest, we have you on a course of zero-four-eight degrees magnetic at a ground speed of one-eight-five miles per hour. How does that jive with your figures?"

"Right on the money. Thanks."

The man at the radarscope turned to his supervisor. "Didn't he say it was a ferry flight? Why don't you ask him to come on down and buzz us."

"C'mon, I can't ask him to do that."

"Well, think of some diplomatic way. You always did have a way with words."

He thought a moment, then picked up the mike again. "Uh-h, Northwest, this is Ocean Station Sugar. At what altitude do you estimate you'll be passing over our station?"

Both men waited anxiously for the reply. Maybe the pilot would take the bait.

"How high's your mast?"

Word spread like a grass fire in summer. In no time, every man not on duty crowded the rail, looking up into the cloudy skies for the first sight of the big transport. Men climbed up to the flying bridge, and a couple tried to scale the mast. Nowhere could the airplane be seen or heard. Suddenly, one of the men shouted and pointed to the horizon. The DC-4 wasn't coming down from above; she was hugging the waves, headed directly for the cutter!

The next few moments seemed to play out in slow motion for the crew of Ocean Station Sugar. The big airplane, her four Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp-D engines roaring, her left wing slightly lower than our bedspring-like radar antenna, passed the Bering Strait off our port side. Crewmen could count the rivets on the wings. A stewardess waved and blew kisses from behind one of the round windows. The pilot waved, pulled his ship up into a climb, and within minutes, the sound of the engines was lost in the immensity of the North Pacific Ocean. As quickly as she had come, she had gone.

This small, insignificant event took place nearly 50 years ago. Ocean stations are now history, replaced by satellites, inertial navigation systems, and other modern technology. Overseas flights are higher, faster and safer. But such a simple thing—a low pass by a beautiful DC-4 out in the middle of the trackless ocean—remains indelibly etched forever in the memories of that entire cutter's crew.

Whoever that pilot and his crew were, I hope they knew how much that little act meant to us. It was truly a moment to remember.

 

Visit the authors website www.interisland.net/cwlindenberg.

 

 

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