S O S Relay

By John R. Smith

Suddenly, through all the static came the Three Dreaded Letters, a barely audible SOS ............................

Remember your "learning curve" to becoming a competent watchstander after reporting to your first duty station following RM School? Well, my curve was flat. It took me forever to get into the swing of things at CG Radio Station Kodiak (NOJ), and I had been sitting the Distress position on watches for about a month when a Radioman's nightmare happened on a mid-watch. Communications were nearly impossible due to static from one of Alaska's infamous November gales. The only way we could communicate with CG Radio Station Juneau (NMJ) and CG Radio Station Adak (NOX) was on the District landline teletype.

Suddenly, through all the static came the Three Dreaded Letters, a barely audible SOS Off came the earphones, on went the speakers, and we all tried desperately to copy this frantic plea for help. Between the Ship/Shore operator, the Supervisor and myself, we were able to determine that the SS Panoceanic Faith, a large freighter with a crew of 45, was foundering in 30 foot seas, about halfway between Kodiak and Adak. Not exactly the most promising situation. He could hear us, but not NOX, and NOX couldn't hear him at all. He reported his power was failing, so our supervisor, RM1 Thom Frye (deceased), had the Navy fire up modulated CW on the old 500 kcs. transmitter. We were told by the Kodiak Search & Rescue Coordinator to send an SOS Relay (SOS DDD) every 15 minutes for the Panoceanic Faith. Hopefully, someone would be nearby and be able to come to his assistance, because no ship in Kodiak could even get underway before the Faith slipped into Davie Jones' Locker.

Shortly thereafter, the eerie tones of an MCW Auto(matic) Alarm followed by DDD SOS, as we transmitted on 500 kcs. every 15 minutes, especially during the Silent Period.

Was that combination of signals so haunting because we were the only link between the vessel in distress and assistance, or because we knew exactly what it indicated? Maybe a little of both. Anyway, about two hours after the SOS Relays began, we received a message from a tanker more than 1000 miles out in the Atlantic Ocean asking if we could please discontinue our Auto Alarm. The Radio Officer was sympathetic to the Panoceanic Faith’s plight, but stated he was completely helpless to render assistance, considering he was more than 4,000 miles from the stricken ship. With a message back to the tanker in the Atlantic, it was determined he would turn off his Auto Alarm receiver, and we would continue to send our message.

We sent our SOS Relay for more than a day, including using 2182 kcs, when a fishing boat in the vicinity located a piece of wooden railing and a single life jacket bearing the name, SS Panoceanic Faith. The ship had disappeared virtually without a trace, taking the entire crew of 45 to an icy grave, a very sad ending to my first encounter with a true distress call.

In spite of the sad nature of this incident, we were intrigued by the fact that our little 500 watt medium frequency transmitter would send a signal across the top of the world, more than 4000 miles, especially considering the terrible atmospheric conditions. Radio propagation can be quite amazing at times.


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