The "Bug"

by Charles W Lindenberg

The 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.

This 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.

A 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.

 After 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.

Most 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.

When 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.

This 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 department.

The 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.

Since 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.

Satellite communications, single-sideband and modern methods of communications have all but obsoleted the bugs. They were once the fastest, most efficient method of message handling. It seemed only fitting for this bug to return to where it began life; in the U.S. Coast Guard. It underwent a complete cleaning and polishing, and along with my official speed key certificate, which never was turned in, along with one of my old dog tags it now lives in the Coast Guard Museum, Pier 36 in Seattle.

Return to Coast Guard Stories