To Sea on the Alexander Hamilton

By William A. Ogletree

 

When I reported aboard the CGC ALEXANDER HAMILTON in June, 1941, Chief Radioman West had just arrived after having been stationed at USCG Headquarters for 10 years. He was out of touch with communications equipment and shipboard radio procedures. I don’t know what reputation preceded my arrival, but the Chief welcomed me like a long-lost friend, and promptly put me in charge of the radio room.

USCGC ALEXANDER HAMILTON (WPG-35)

Photo Courtesy of Ken Laessar's CG History Site

The first challenge was to repair the Model T-26 transmitter, manufactured by Western Electric Co. It had 10 pre-set channels, which were selected by a telephone dial conveniently mounted at the Radioman’s operations position. During the previous month’s duty on Weather Station 2, the transmitting frequency had to be selected with a 3-foot length of 2x4. The Radioman would dial the frequency desired and the coils would rotate to the pre-set points for that frequency. Then a second Radioman would use the 2x4 as a pry-bar to lift the appropriate Bakelite rod on which were mounted horseshoe shaped leaf contacts to connect the pre-set coils to the vacuum tube amplifiers in the oscillator, intermediate power amplifier, power output amplifier and antenna matching network. By standing on the 2x4, the man maintained the connections during the transmission.

Boxes of parts arrived from Western Electric the day I reported aboard, and we soon found that none of them corrected the problem. I then took the side off the transmitter and began dismantling the mechanism, until I found a broken aluminum casting that actuated the rod risers. A study of drawings and parts list did not show it. I took the broken pieces to Machinist Mate Costigan—he agreed to machine a replacement from stainless steel stock. That afternoon I installed the part, reassembled the mechanism, adjusted solenoids and dashpots so that the pre-set frequencies could once again be selected simply by dialing the right number. While the back and sides were off the transmitter, I decided to check the tuning; sure enough, the coils had either been pre-set wrong or had become de-tuned with age.

It took three men to do the tuning properly, and required more than one day. We had re-tuned all channels, but the sides were not replaced when CWR Arlington came aboard with CRM Hiller, who knew the T26, having been Chief on the HAMILTON before being transferred to the District Office.

Chief Hiller said for us not to fool around with the transmitter, because it was too complicated for anyone but an expert to understand. When the CWR made that official, I said, “Chief, I wish you gentlemen had arrived two days ago. We didn’t know that the T28 was beyond mortal comprehension, so we fixed it. I will say, thought, the 2x4 was some substitute for such a hard-to-find part.”

“It kept the transmitter on the air,” the CWR snorted. He did not like criticism of any Chief, Navy or Coast Guard. They left, and neither man ever set foot on the HAMILTON again. They did not even send a replacement when Chief West was detached to Sound School in Key West.

The Radioman on duty sat at a glass-covered desk attached to the front of a rack of radio receivers. There were two such operating positions, each with two typewriters on stands that swiveled on each of the two pipes supporting the front of the desk. The two operating positions, the Chief’s desk, two transmitters, a work bench, storage rack for the emergency radio transmitter, and book racks took most of the radio room space; but the space behind the transmitters was open and spacious enough for four off-duty Radiomen to sit and play cards, which they often did.

Regulation telegraph keys were installed at each operating position. Every Radioman had his own idea about how much gap and spring tension were best for sending Morse code—partially accounting for differences in operators’ fists. I owned my Bug, as semi-automatic keys were called. While telegraphic keys were pounded, the Bug was slapped. Dots were made automatically while the thumb of a right-handed operator was pressed against the paddle on the operating lever of the Bug. Dashes were made by tapping the opposite side of the lever with the fore and middle fingers of the hand. Springs and gaps could be adjusted for tactile choice and the length of the dots. The maximum sending speed was determined by positioning a weight along the length of the vibrating arm of the Bug.

Two weeks after reporting aboard, the HAMILTON sailed on Weather Patrol. In addition to the usual radio equipment, we had a special receiver in the radio room, with its own chart recorder, used to record transmissions from radiosondes, which were sent aloft, suspended from hydrogen filled balloons 8 feet in diameter. On board CAA weather observers supervised the balloon launchings, interpreted the recordings and wrote the reports, which we Radiomen transmitted to Washington, in addition to periodic surface weather reports addressed to the U.S. Weather Bureau.

When on Weather Station 2, the HAMILTON became NNWS2 instead of NRDH, our International Call Sign, and served as the base station in communicating with Pan American Clippers on legs between the Azores and Portugal on flights between New York and Lisbon.

Every 30 minutes the planes sent tracking reports that contained position, course, speed, ETA, etc., as well as other messages, which NNWS2 relayed to Washington. (Weather Station 1, located between Bermuda and the Azores, performed the same services on that leg of the PanAm flights.)

Before my transfer to the HAMILTON, a Radioman had an attack of appendicitis while on weather station and a PanAm Clipper landed, took him aboard and delivered him to a Bermuda hospital for a timely and successful appendectomy.

On my first patrol, without a Chief aboard, and having to run the radio room while learning my new duties, I had little time for intercept work. Near the end of the patrol, as we were waiting for the relief Cutter, Radioman Liebman called me to his position. He was copying a plain language message on 500 kcs, the International Distress Frequency: “HOVE TO IN HEAVY SEAS NO IMMEDIATE DANGER WILL REPORT SAME TIME TOMORROW AR.”

Liebman had heard no preliminary call or receipt of the message. I told him to get the vessel’s call sign. He sent: “QRA? V NNWS2 ANS 500 KCS” [What is the name of your ship? This is NNWS2, answer 500 kcs.]

There was no response.

The received message was passed to the bridge and copied to NMH as a possible distress.

The next day was darkened by storm clouds as the HAMILTON continued to cruise slowly against strong winds and high seas, making just enough headway to maintain position on station.

In the afternoon, I manned position 2 in the radio room and listened intently for the unknown vessel’s transmission. Promptly at 1500 GCT I heard a weak signal and copied a message without any preamble: “ENGINE DISABLED ADRIFT 80 MILES FROM YESTERDAYS POSITION BATTERIES GETTING WEAK AR.”

As I tuned across the band of frequencies below 500, Rowe suddenly called out, “He’s sending again.” I copied “XXX XXX XXX NEED IMMEDIATE ASSISTANCE AR”. I answered, “CQ XXX V NNWS2 WHAT IS CALL SIGN AND POSITION OF VESSEL SENDING XXX.” There was no answer.

I thought, “This must be a German sub. It is not broadcasting a distress message, and it is in contact with another sub that we cannot hear, probably because it is transmitting on one of their regular operating frequencies.” Leaving the receiver tuned to 500 on my right earphone, I listened to the left one as I tuned a second receiver across the lower frequencies that I knew the U-boats used. I heard nothing for almost four minutes, then the mystery vessel began sending on 500: “NNWS2 V NYKD DISABLED PITCHING IN HEAVY SEAS NEED ASSISTANCE.”

I responded: “NYKD V NNWS2 WHAT IS YOUR POSITION’ and received an immediate reply. “NNWS2 V NYKD ADRIFT 80 MILES FROM YESTERDAYS POSITION.”

Radioman Herrin, who was searching lists for the identify of NYKD, called out, “There is no NYKD in the Navy or Coast Guard call sign books.”

I felt a shiver run up my spine, probably reflected in my keying: “NYKD V NNWS2 PLEASE REPORT YESTERDAYS POSITION IN LAT AND LONG AR.”

Rowe, at position #1, copied the exchange of messages to NMH, then received a terse message: “NAA REPORTS NYKD IS CALL SIGN OF NAVY TUG IN SEATTLE HARBOR.”

NAA was the Navy HQ station. We knew the identity of NYKD, but not that of the vessel in distress. We continued to monitor 500 and scan the lower frequencies, but no more messages were received. All messages had been passed to the bridge as received, but no question or comment came back to the radio room.

Opinions voiced by the Radiomen about the sender gravitated toward the belief that a German sub was trying to lure a ship into firing range. I thought it was a German U-boat in actual distress. Remember, the weak batteries and worsening situation from yesterday to today. When he got our call sign, the operator grabbed a U.S. Navy call sign at random, so that we would think it was a U. S. Navy ship.”

“If in distress, why didn’t he tell us his latitude and longitude?” Herrin asked.

“I think he didn’t know. When a group of ships or subs go on a mission, usually only the SOPA[1] knows the plan and determines the group’s position. He couldn’t send his latitude and longitude unless SOPA would tell him. Looks like SOPA told him to pipe down.”

“I hope SOPA came to the poor bastard’s rescue. I’d sure hate to be wallowing in these seas in a disabled sub,” Herrin said, and we all agreed.

Nothing more was heard from the vessel in distress. That night, our relief Cutter reported on position and assumed Weather Station 2 duties. The HAMILTON changed course toward Norfolk and increased cruising speed.

The report I mailed to CNI after the HAMILTON returned to port contained all relevant messages and the conclusion that engine failure had occurred on a U-boat, a member of a wolfpack in transit to or from Europe, and that the message had been first to inform and later to ask assistance of another U-boat. The transmission was on 500 because the pack would monitor that frequency, listening for ships to attack. The U-boat was probably listening on some other frequency for replies that we did not hear. Plain language was used because a message in code on the International Distress Frequency would arouse great suspicion. In those waters, English was a safer language than German.

The call sign NYKD may have been a random choice. It’s possible that the U-boat, or the wolfpack leader, copied the NMH message from NAA, giving the identity of NYKD, or the wolfpack leader may have ordered the U-boat to stop communicating with NNWS2 because the U.S., while not at war with Germany, was nevertheless a “hostile neutral.”

It was morning on a dark overcast day in September, 1941. The HAMILTON was on location at Weather Station 2. A lookout reported an aircraft, low on the southern horizon. It disappeared to the south, but the bridge was alerted and in a short time, a Quartermaster also spotted an aircraft low on the horizon. This time, it came nearer so that it could be identified through a binocular as a fighter aircraft. General Quarters was sounded and I took over duties from one of the Radiomen on watch. The plane once again disappeared to the south. It had to be a plane from an aircraft carrier, because fighter aircraft could not fly our distance from Europe. The men did not get orders to stand down from General Quarters, so they stayed at their battle stations.

A few minutes later, three planes came within view from the south and flew directly toward us. The gun crews kept their guns trained on them. They circled HAMILTON at a distance of a few miles, then one of them flew directly overhead about 500 feet. It was black and carried a star insignia. As it approached, its signal lamp flashed ROZ repeatedly. ROZ was not a signal known on the bridge or in the radio room. Signalman Jaehne flashed back, “This is the USCGC ALEXANDER HAMILTON.” I was directed to see if I could establish radio contact. On 500 I sent: CQ V NNWS2 QRA NRDH QTC?”, meaning, “All ships and station from Weather Station 2, this is USCGC ALEXANDER HAMILTON, do you have any messages for me?”

There was no reply and I reported to the bridge that either the plane was not monitoring the frequency or was maintaining radio silence.

The HAMILTON was then a beautiful white ship, flying U.S. colors. On the foredeck painted in big red letters was the radio call sign NRDH. The aircraft pilot could not have missed seeing it. As that plane flew away toward the south, the other two appeared to be scouting the seas a few miles from the HAMILTON. As the departing plane was watched from the bridge, ships were seen, rising on the southern horizon. Before long, there were ships spanning the entire southern view, ranging from battleships and aircraft carriers to destroyers and merchant vessels.

It became apparent to Captain Hall that we were to be overrun by a large convoy of British and American ships. He ordered the gun crews to unload their guns and to secure from General Quarters. The HAMILTON simply hove to as ships in the great convoy steamed by, on into the night.

It was a frightening experience, especially for the gun crews. One man remarked, “It was scary when we thought an enemy was going to attack us. Later when we saw all those British and U.S. Navy ships, it was like being in a stampede, where your own cattle will trample you to death.”

Before the HAMILTON returned to port, we received several encoded messages. The day before we docked, the XO, LCDR Moody, had all hands assembled and read an order making it a court-martial offense to discuss the movement of any naval vessel. He read the account of two Navy Ensigns we had been court-martialed because their wives were on the dock waiting for them when their ship arrived at a new port. We were told not to discuss, or even mention, anything that we might have seen while at sea.

I had bought German-English, English-German language dictionaries and textbooks, as well as some self-help books to learn Japanese. Mr. Manning. One of the CAA weather observers picked up a German-language text and began reading from it. He spoke German like a native. I asked him to be my tutor and we settled on a fee of 50¢ an hour. After that, I didn’t see movies at sea, because I spent those hours in Mr. Manning’s stateroom, learning German. The scholarly Finn could speak, read and write 10 languages and was taking time out from his study of the eleventh, Arabic, to teach me German. Beginning with the first session, he told me that the way to learn a language was to have to learn it—best as a small child, but since I had missed that opportunity, “Just think, if you wake up and find yourself in Germany, and a kind man who speaks only German tries to help you; he will speak his language and you will speak English, but as you get to know the German words and phrases, you will be eager to speak them. There are many clues to tell you meanings, and of course you may guess wrong, but that’s the way to learn a language. Henceforth, when you enter this room, you are in Germany and I am that kind man who tries to help you. You will hear German spoken the whole time you are here. Even if you do not understand one word I speak, try to imagine what I am saying. When I read from a book, try to figure out what I am reading—it will always relate to Germany. If you mispronounce a German word, I will correct you. You are free to study any books you have outside this room, but do not ever bring a dictionary with you or make notes here. Listen, listen, listen!

He sometimes read from a French or Spanish text which he translated instantly, reading it in German. At first, whenever he told me to do something, I didn’t have the foggiest notion what he was saying, but he would repeat until I did the task. A clue I soon learned: A statement repeated is telling me to do something!

When the patrol ended two weeks later, I could not speak much German, but I understood, come in, close the door, take a walk, listen carefully, and some German greetings. It was most frustrating when listening to a text, to have no idea what it was about. I learned that it was best to interrupt and ask, Was ist das?” until I got an idea of the meaning, the request Wieder lesen Sie, bitte.”

Mr. Manning put great value on my exposure to German customs and said, “Never learn a language without also learning the customs of the people and understanding their culture. If you have to choose, then learn about the people. Without that knowledge, you will get into more trouble than you ever will from being unable to speak the language.”

In port Mr. Manning refused payment, saying, “Wait. After the next patrol, it will amount to more.” The CAA rotated their men and I was not sure I would see him again, so I was pleased when he came aboard for the next patrol. The first day at sea he came to the radio room to tell me that it would take three days to get his sea legs, then we could resume classes. I was pleased to understand more of the spoken language, and I knew that Mr. Manning’s tutelage at 50¢ an hour was a great bargain, but when we returned to Norfolk, he again deferred receiving payment. That was the last time I saw him.

After World War Two, I tried to find Mr. Manning and was able to obtain from the CAA, a P.O. Box number in Baltimore. I sent a brief report on my activities since we last met, invited my old tutor to visit me in Philadelphia. Figuring I owed for 100 hours of tutelage, plus interest, I sent a check for $100 and received a Post Card thanking me, auf Deutsch.)

War Preparations

NERK was the collective call sign used for ANY U.S. NAVAL VESSEL. On weather station 2 in the summer and fall of 1941, we noted a sharp increase in the number of radio calls from NERK and messages addressed to NERK. Such messages were sent in 5-letter code groups. The precedence of Navy and Coast Guard messages had been “O” for Urgent, “P” for Priority, “R” for Routine and “D” for Deferred. With increased NERK traffic came messages with the new “OP” precedence for Operational Priority, between “P” and “O” precedence.

In commercial shipping, the international signal for an immediate emergency, such as a ship sinking or in danger of sinking, was “SOS”, which was agreed to the year after the Titanic sent CQD, (the old distress signal), then “SOS” in the final minutes before sinking. “XXX” (Urgent Signal) was the designation for imminent, less threatening circumstances. “TTT” (Safety Signal) was used to warn of a hazard to navigation. At NNWS2, SSS signals were received many times on 500 kcs, often followed by SOS after the ship was shelled or torpedoed by the U-boat and was sinking.

In the radio room, we discussed our views that the U.S. was poised on the slippery slope of war. The sensation of danger increased when we intercepted a message in September, reporting the sinking of the USS Rueben James by a U-boat. In November, we received and relayed to Washington an “O” message reporting in plain language the U-boat attack and torpedoing of the destroyer USS Greer.

During Armistice Day week, when the HAMILTON was again on weather station, an “OP” message was received from Washington, ordering blackout and dark painting of the ship. In keeping with the sense of urgency, Herrin and I took the daylight duty in the radio room and the junior Radiomen went over the sides on Bosun’s chairs and helped the deck hands paint the beautiful white ship a dull charcoal black.

The commissary officer, Mr. Jim Welch, got credit for the excellent food served when the HAMILTON was at sea. Festive food on the two days required to paint the ship and traditional turkey and pies were served on Armistice Day—three great feasts in one week, but the black ship showed no lights at night. The next week, a message was received from Coast Guard Headquarters, directing that all enlisted personnel below Chief be given written tests and authorizing the advancement to all who passed. ENS Ray Shield told me that my paper scored 98, the highest he saw. I was promoted to Radioman First Class.

The HAMILTON went into Portsmouth Navy Yard for a wartime camouflage paint job. That’s where the ship was on December 7, 1941. I was alone in the radio room with all equipment secured and reading a biography on ALEXANDER HAMILTON (the first U.S. Treasurer and the man who started the Revenue Cutter Service, which eventually became the Coast Guard), when a shipyard workman opened the door.

“Is it true that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor?” he asked.

“Of course not! Why would they commit suicide?” I answered.

A few minutes later, I went ashore to the canteen. The radio was on, blaring news about the Japanese attack. After the shock, I began thinking about Mr. Manning’s stress on the importance of knowing people.

Note: The Greer did not sink; she was towed to Hvalfordjur, Iceland. According to first-hand reports told to me, London and Washington sent several Admirals to assess the damage and declared the Greer to be a total loss. The engineering officer on the repair ship, USS Vulcan, pumped out the sludge, cannibalized one turbine to repair the other two, replaced damaged structure and siding, and sent the Greer back to the U.S. at a speed of 30 knots. For the feat, every man on the Vulcan was advanced one grade in rank or rating.

[1] Senior Officer Present Afloat.

 

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