by Charles W Lindenberg
Speed Key ... or Bug ... was not a Coast Guard-issued item. Each one was
privately owned, and radiomen took great pride in their bugs. Lined carrying
cases were available, as were several models of these speed keys. The major
manufacturer of bugs was Vibroplex which used the symbol of a bug on their
products, hence the name.
particular bug was assembled in 1953 from bits and pieces found in a locker in
the radio shack of the USCGC Bering
Strait, and with a little help from the damage control crew (who made the
brass weight and plastic paddle) it was resurrected and returned to service.
bug allowed a radioman to send CW (Morse code) much faster than with a straight
hand key. Pressing the paddle to the right with the thumb allowed the long shaft
to vibrate against a set of points, the speed determined by the position of the
brass weight. The closer to the far end of the shaft, the slower the speed. It
took practice to know when to release the pressure so as to make only the
correct amount of "dits." Pressing the paddle to the left with the
first finger made manual "dahs," or dashes. Spacing of the two sets of
points also had a lot to do with the sound of the bug. The "dits"
could be made crisp and staccato, or mushy, depending on the point gaps.
practicing under the watchful eye of the chief, or senior radioman on board, the
operator was ready to take his examination for a Speed Key Certificate. The
Coast Guard, and other branches of the service, insisted on their operators
being qualified to operate a bug. The test was given at the district
headquarters, and after successfully sending code to the examiner's
satisfaction, the treasured blue laminated certificate was issued. Although they
were supposed to be turned in when the owner was discharged, many seemed to
follow their owners home.
of the traffic sent with this bug was aboard the USCGC Bering
Strait and consisted of periodic weather reports put together by civilian
weathermen carried aboard ship while on Ocean Station duty. These were coded
groups of numbers which the weather department stateside deciphered. Other
traffic included communications with merchant ships, other Coast Guard vessels
and shore stations.
a cutter assumed ocean station, it also assumed the radio call of that station.
The Bering Strait's call, NBYG, was put aside temporarily while on
station. (Ocean Station Sugar was known as 4YS; Ocean Station Queen as 4YQ,
etc.) When relieved after several weeks on station, the relief ship assumed
ocean station duty and radio call, and the relieved cutter assumed its own
identity once again.
bug's next duty station was at Westport, where the Coast Guard had its primary
radio station for the 13th district. With long antenna arrays stretched over the
damp sandy peninsula, ships could be worked far out to sea, as well as
point-to-point communications with Alaska. Here the bug "guarded"
discrete Coast Guard frequencies and the International Calling and Distress
frequency, 500 KC. Merchant ships, primarily Japanese vessels, called in
periodically with their "OBS," (weather observations) put together by
the merchant radio officers for which they were paid a small sum by the weather
final tour of duty for this particular bug was aboard the buoy tender, USCGC Fir, based in Seattle, and now retired. Buoy tenders did not have
much traffic to send, but enough to keep the bug busy.
it had been reconstructed from parts, and no one claimed ownership, when its
owner was discharged in 1954, this bug came along, going back to work on the
busy CW traffic nets of amateur radio. When a newer and smoother-working bug was
acquired, this one went into storage.
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