HOPPING Ocean Station Sugar
Charles W. Lindenberg
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
crew on Ocean Station Sugar.
Station Sugar, this is Northwest Orient ferry flight. Over."
senior radarman quickly answered. "Northwest, this is Ocean Station Sugar.
morning sir. We're en route Tokyo to Anchorage, about 20 miles from your
position. Request a radar plot."
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.
– two-two-eight at one-eight."
Keep 'em coming."
senior radarman marked an "X" at each position on the large plotting
table with a grease pencil. After several fixes, he nodded.
that should do it."
a pair of dividers, he measured the distance between fixes, made his
calculations, then picked up the microphone and called the airplane.
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?"
on the money. Thanks."
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."
I can't ask him to do that."
think of some diplomatic way. You always did have a way with words."
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
men waited anxiously for the reply. Maybe the pilot would take the bait.
high's your mast?"
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.
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
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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