by Jack Baines


Better the Coast Guard than the CCC - A pre-WWII tale. Ignore the "sparky jargon" if you are not an RM type.

How and Why I Enlisted

I had my amateur radio operator’s license when I graduated from high school in Sheridan, Wyoming in 1934. My parents did not have the money to put me through college and I needed a job. One day I noticed in the back of QST magazine an advertisement, "Radiomen needed for the USCG. General knowledge of radio and a code speed of 20 words per minute are required. Write to Ensign Comstock at USCG Headquarters, Washington, DC."

This seemed to be the answer because my ambition was to be a radio operator on a merchant ship, and I thought this experience, as a Radioman in the Coast Guard, would be of great help.

After sending my letter off, I received an answer that said, "Report to Coast Guard recruiting station, Seattle, Washington, for examination." I went to Seattle on a train, took the code, materiel test, and physical. I flunked the physical. I had to weigh at least 124 lbs. And I was 118, so I went out and ate a bunch of bananas and came back with the required weight in my stomach, temporarily. Then it was discovered that I somehow had a fever of 102 degrees. The recruiter turned me down; I went back to Wyoming, paying $80.00 for train fare. My paper route had allowed me to save the money (a dollar was worth much more then than it is now).

When I wrote to Ensign Comstock at headquarters, I had furnished a copy of my physical condition, including my weight. I mowed Senator O’Mahoney’s lawn at that time, so I wrote and explained what had happened. I told him, "they knew what I weighed before I went to Seattle—I want my $80.00 back for the train fare."

The senator sent a quick telegram (I still have it for a keepsake) which said, "go back to Seattle and you will get in the Coast Guard." My mother drove me back to Seattle. When I walked into the recruiting station, the Ensign there said, "I don’t know who the hell you know, but sign here. Do you want to go aboard the TALAPOOSA as a Radioman or do you want to go to radio school?"

"Oh, I want to go to radio school."

"Radio school is in New London, Connecticut and the government is broke, so you will have to pay your own way there." Remember that this was during the Depression.

I borrowed another $80.00 from my mother and rode a chair car to New London, where I handed my orders to the guard at the gate. He would not let me in because I was not in uniform; but he did report this to the Commanding Officer, who told him to let me in.

Radio School

In radio school, we had code and materiel classes. We had positions like school desks, each assigned a ship’s call sign. The Chief sat at the head desk and would send messages to different call signs. One time one of the operators receipted for a message and did not have it all. The Chief told me to get a bucket of water and bring it to him. When I returned he said, "wake that stupid Radioman up." I doused him, desk and all, with the bucket of water.

The Chief said, "I didn’t think you would do it."

"You told me to," I replied.


Thursdays was usually reserved for training in repairing transmitters and receivers. Each Friday we had Field Day, where we had to clean up the grounds and buildings. We marched to chow usually to the tune "Three dits, four dits, two dits, dah, radio, radio, rah rah rah." (I won’t mention what that is in Morse code, but here is a clue: it starts with "SH" and ends with "IT").

Those were the good old days!

Most of the guys in radio school were foul-ups from Cutters—they were sent to radio school to get rid of them. I spent most of my time beating out code practice and helping them in materiel classes. I didn’t learn anything new except the procedure for making up messages.


After radio school I was sent to the USCGC CALYPSO in San Diego, which was also the homeport for the PERSEUS. I wasn’t rated yet, so I stood radio watches and also worked on deck—wheel watches and the like. We were extremely short of radiomen in those days. Sometimes we came in from patrol (we did 10 days out and 10 days in) and the ship going out would be short a Radioman, so one of us would be assigned to that ship for its 10 day patrol.

Usually we just went from the Mexican border up to Seattle and back again, never stopping in one port. The only time we would vary from this routine would be for a distress call or a yacht in trouble. Once we were on patrol and a tuna boat got in trouble down near the Guadeloupe Islands. The tuna boats operated on 36 meters and we had to relay information through commercial shore radiotelegraph station KOK in Los Angeles to them because the high frequency transmitter could not operate on their band.

The CALYPSO had a low frequency transmitter, a high frequency transmitter that only went to about 4 mcs, and National HRO receivers with plug-in coils for different radio bands. I kept a homebrew transmitter built in a small wooden soapbox that I used on 40 meters to work other amateur radio hobbyists. The captain came into the radio room and declared, "Damn, I wish we could work them direct."

I said that I could work him on my soap box radio, but I wasn’t sure if it was legal or not. "If you can contact him direct, do it, legal or not," the captain said.

I got my little trusty 40-meter soapbox out, substituted a coil for a crystal, and got on the air. Quite a few of the fishing boats contacted me and wanted to know when the hell the Coast Guard got on 36 meters. (In those days, the radio operator on tuna boats got $125.00 a month plus a share if they helped fish, and many Coast Guard radiomen quit and went on the tuna boats because that was a lot of money.)

I managed to contact the fishing boat. While they were getting it ready for towing, the skipper let those of us who were not needed go ashore on the island and stretch our legs and take pictures of those queer-looking seals. I think they were called elephant seals because they had a nose with a small trunk.


There were quite a few fights between the Navy and the Coast Guard. They called us the "Hooligan Navy" or "Shallow Water Sailors." Quartermasters and Signalmen would challenge Navy ships when we came into port and try to snow them under. I used my Vibroplex‚ "bug" and hooked it up to the blinkers. It was great fun to make the Navy ask us to slow down.


Once a year we went on the Marine rifle range and were put under Marine sergeants for instruction. If you made Expert, you got $5.00 more in your pay for the next year. I had no trouble getting Expert because I had a .22 rifle since about 10 years old and went rabbit hunting almost every weekend.

Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!

In 1937 I was at Coast Guard Radio Station San Francisco, call sign NMC, which was located on the beach behind Flieshacker Park in San Francisco. When we got off watch, we would put on our bathing suits and go out on the beach. One Sunday a cute little gal was down there and we started "yakking," and I asked her if she would like to see a Coast Guard radio station. She liked the idea. There was no one there except one operator on watch, and I was his relief.

I showed her the galley and radio room, and she didn’t mind if I showed her where we slept on the second floor. After we got upstairs, I heard a car drive in and looked out the window to see four officers getting out, heading for the building.

We had a small compartment off the barracks for stowing our seabags and suitcases; I put her in there and told her to be quiet. It turned out to be a surprise inspection of the station, which went off smoothly. But after they left, I got the girl and took her back to the beach where I found her. I don’t even remember her name.

From Coast Guard Stories by Don Gardner


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