A Ham Without a Country
In the fall of 1973 I received a telegram from a ship owner in Miami that he had a ship stranded in Singapore because they had lost the radio operator and he wondered if I could help them out. He asked me to call him, which I did. “How do you know I’m the person you want? You don’t know me.” I said. “I heard that you have a First Class Commercial license and also an Extra class ham license. That’s good enough for me. You’re the man we want. How soon can you report to Miami? It will be a 6 month trip.”
“I don’t have a passport.” I told him.
“In an emergency you don’t need a passport to join your ship. Your seaman papers will do. When you come to Miami we’ll fix you up with your Panamanian seaman papers and that won’t be a problem.”
I got my things together and flew to Miami where I met the ship owner. He agreed to pay me $300 a month with the first month’s wages to be paid then and the balance at the end of the trip. I was taken to the Panamanian consulate where I was interviewed by the consul, examined, granted a photo ID and licensed as radio officer and mate. I was booked to leave for Singapore that evening.
They packed a cardboard box of engine parts for the ship (hard to get fuel filter bowls) plus a large envelope packet for me to give to the captain. I was also given a letter to carry with me from the ship owner stating that I was in emergency transit without a passport to join the ship. When I asked about my $300 he told me he had already put it in the sealed packet that I was taking with me and the captain would give it to me when I got to Singapore. I was told the packet contained checks worth several hundred thousand dollars for the ship’s payroll plus other documents and instructions for the captain.
A Bad Start
My plane was over 2 hours late leaving Miami, so in Los Angeles I missed the connecting flight to Taipei. I was rebooked on a later flight through Tokyo and Hong Kong. At Hong Kong I unexpectedly had to go through immigration although I was in transit. There they made a fuss because I didn’t have a passport. I was grilled by some big shots in uniform, then held as a suspected spy awaiting further action.
Two days later I managed to get to a telephone and called the US consulate to tell them my situation. They said to sit tight and they would get back to me. Eventually I was picked up and taken to the consulate where I got a temporary passport that would expire when I boarded the ship in Singapore. Because of the circumstances I was told it was very exceptional to get it. They commented that my USAF MARS ID card clinched their verification of my identity as it was a federal document. I had also produced my driver’s license, WA3EFH ham license and my Panamanian seaman’s papers and photo ID.
At the airport I was held in a barred cell under armed guard, then escorted onto the plane leaving for Singapore. The Hong Kong police told me I was to be the last one to board and they would stand by until they saw it take off with me on it.
At Singapore I took a taxi to the pier and then a bumboat (water taxi) to the ship. It was almost midnight. Even then the stillness of the equatorial heat was very oppressive. I reached the ship and climbed up the side on the rope ladder while my flight bag, attaché case and box of engine parts were winched up by some of the crew. The packet of stuff for the captain was in my attaché case. I met the captain and after our initial chat I handed him his packet. I mentioned that I was to get $300.
“I’ll look through this in the morning. It’s late now.” A crewmember took me to my quarters and I was glad I finally made it after all my problems to get there.
The captain had been instructed to set sail upon my arrival so the next morning was full of activity. The ship was 179 feet in length, powered by two diesel-electric engines. Its cargo was some wealthy passengers on a world expedition.
We left Singapore headed for Trincomalee, Sri Lanka. As we cleared the Strait of Malacca we changed course for Port Victoria in the Seychelles due to concerns about the political turmoil in Sri Lanka. I frequently asked the captain about my $300 but he didn’t seem to ever have time to talk about it. I soon suspected something wasn’t right. At Miami I was told I wouldn’t need any spending money as I would get $300 when I boarded the ship. So far that wasn’t panning out.
The ship’s ham station was an SBE-33 transceiver with an SB-1LA amplifier 1200 W PEP to a Hy-Gain 14AVQ vertical antenna. I kept schedules with my brother Lyle, WA3EFI, back home on 20 meters USB. His 6 element quad at 80 feet with maximum power could get us through interference and static. I started contacting hams in the Seychelles. The captain wanted information on docking procedures and weather conditions there and I wanted to know more about the place. In my free time I worked the band, all DX. It was convenient that Lyle could get on the phone every day with Miami and relay information for us, if necessary.
After a month of engine trouble we arrived at Port Victoria. Some of the hams there were American civilians working at the US Air Force satellite tracking station on the main island of Mahe. Dick, VQ9D, was a single navy veteran from Newport News, Virginia. Carl, VQ9R, also a navy veteran, had worked at the tracking station but married a local woman and now had a business. Luckily, he was from Pittsburgh and very familiar with my home town.
Earlier the captain had said he would call Miami when we got to Port Victoria and ask about my $300. Upon our arrival there he went to the Cable and Wireless office to call the ship owner and to have money wired to cover expenses. I asked him about my pay.
The captain quipped, “Since you don’t have a passport, you’re stuck on this ship until we get back to Miami, whether you like it or not, and we’re not paying you anything. In fact you owe us for your passage.” I had my suspicions before, but now I knew the real situation.
The rest of the crew got their pay and were boozing in the bars and clubs. I was told by some that back in Australia the ship had been raided and impounded for having drugs aboard. It didn’t take long before I noticed some scary looking people hanging out in town with our crew and driving them around in big fancy cars. I had an uneasy feeling about my situation and my safety.
Getting the Word Out
I told VQ9D and VQ9R about my predicament. I also met Eric, VQ9EP, a retired RAF group captain who was manager of the Radio Seychelles broadcast station. At that time the Seychelles was under British rule. Sometimes I filled in for him at the station when he had to be away. He and his wife entertained me at their country beachfront estate. It was nice to meet such fine decent religious folks for a change.
Our next port of call was supposed to be Cape Town, a long haul away. I was told that the South African immigration authorities were very strict and there I would not be allowed to leave the ship without a passport.
I went to the Seychelles immigration office for advice. I told them my situation. First of all, they said the nearest US embassy was in Nairobi, Kenya and I would have to go there to get my passport. To do so, I needed my birth certificate, but I would also need some money for airfare to Nairobi.
They told me they would honor my temporary passport to get me out of the Seychelles and suggested that I have the money and birth certificate sent from home as soon as possible to their office. I would be allowed to remain in the Seychelles for awhile if I had funds for a ticket out of there. (VQ9EP tried to get me a job at FEBA, Far Eastern Broadcasting shortwave station where he knew the manager, but they had no opening.) This seemed to be the only sensible solution. I decided then that I would not go to Cape Town as that would seal my fate. One American advised me to jump ship and stay at his place but I wasn’t ready for that, yet.
By coincidence the ship then needed fuel, which they couldn’t get in the Seychelles, so the captain and first mate flew to Mombasa to find a supply. In their absence, as the senior officer on board I assumed the captain’s duties signing ship documents with the Seychelles port officials and other matters.
A Bit of Luck
When the captain returned he announced that we would be sailing directly to Mombasa to take on fuel as he had made a deal there. That wouldn’t be too far from Nairobi so it looked like a lucky break for my plans to get to the embassy.
That night I kept my schedule with Lyle from VQ9D’s shack at the tracking station. It was also a USAF MARS station running full power to a log periodic beam. If I had used the ship’s ham station the captain would likely be eavesdropping. I told Lyle we were leaving for Mombasa the next day, where I planned to leave the ship and go to the American embassy in Nairobi to get a passport and plane ticket home. I asked him to send my birth certificate and $1100 for airfare and expenses to the US Embassy, Nairobi, Kenya on my behalf and mark the envelope “urgent.” I told him to do it right away and the letter should reach Nairobi in time. I also told him about the letter I was sending to the embassy. At Mombasa I would get in contact with Nairobi.
On the day of departure Carl, VQ9R, and Eric, VQ9EP, came to see me on the ship. I gave Carl a box of my belongings to send to me after I got back to the States. Earlier that morning I walked to the post office and mailed a letter, addressed to the US Embassy at Nairobi, marked “urgent.” In it I told them the name of our ship, estimated time of arrival and the circumstances. I asked them to remove me from the ship as I was tricked into getting on the ship in Singapore by a false promise of wages, but now I feared for my safety, was under duress and suffered physical abuse. I told them I didn’t have a passport and wanted them to issue me one, that my family was sending them my birth certificate and funds for my airfare home and expenses.
Now everything was out of my hands and I would just pray that our letters would get there in time and be taken seriously.
We got underway for Mombasa that afternoon. I estimated it would be a 7 day voyage. The captain was surly and hardly talking. I reluctantly did my chores checking batteries, navigation aids, weather bulletins and calibrating the ship’s chronometer. Back in port the captain had ordered me to shut down the ham station, but in the middle of the night I thought I would try to keep a final schedule with Lyle. In case I didn’t get through Carl, VQ9R, knew my plans and would be on frequency.
I used the headphones and talked low but the captain rushed out from his adjacent cabin in a fit of rage. He said he warned me not to use the ham radio anymore and he ripped out the wires and smashed my headphones. He acted like he could hear behind a closed door what I could barely hear in my headphones. Anyway, I had been able to tell Lyle we were on our way to Mombasa and from then on VQ9R would keep our schedule and update him when possible.
On the way to Mombasa the captain was acting cocky. “When we get to Mombasa I’m putting you down in the engine room to do some dirty work. We don’t need a radio operator, anyway. What are you going to do about it?” Unknown to him I planned to do a lot about it.
After a week’s sailing we got to Mombasa, just as I predicted, and anchored in Kalindini Harbor. A day passed and I wondered if any authorities would show up. The ship’s launch had been making trips to shore with crew but I preferred to remain on the ship awaiting a response from my letter to Nairobi, especially since I had no passport.
The next day I was reading a book in the lounge (Rabbit Redux) when shortly after noon I saw a fast speed boat, a white cabin cruiser, in the distance on our starboard side. It made a wide circle, counterclockwise, and then came closer and circled us again. It pulled up on our port side. I went to the rail on the deck above them for a closer look. “Take us to your captain,” a black officer shouted on a bull horn. The boat tied alongside and then six black men in uniform came aboard, all carrying revolvers, escorted by two of our crew to the wheel house. Four wore military green and two were in white uniforms, one of whom had a lot of gold braid, scrambled eggs on his cap and a baton under his arm.
Moments later the captain came down to the lounge, looking pale and nervous. “Did you call the police? They want to see you in the wheel house.”
I followed him along the starboard side and up to the wheel house. There the senior officer with the baton spoke, “Are you Thayer Keith Miller?”
“Yes, sir,” I replied.
“We are the Kenya National Police. Do you want off this ship?”
“Yes, sir,” I replied.
“Then get your things together and come back here. We’ll wait for you here. Don’t rush.”
Jubilantly I hurried down to my starboard quarters on the bottom deck. I had been packed ever since we left Port Victoria, except for my toothbrush, and was soon back at the wheel house. I was escorted off the ship by the police. They lowered my bags down the side to their partners and then followed me down the rope ladder and into the waiting police boat. After we pulled away and headed for shore I thumbed my nose at the ship now well in the distance. The police, looking on, laughed and clapped. We were in a relaxed mood.
The Embassy Comes Through
I was then taken below deck where a well dressed white man was waiting out of sight. “Mister Miller, I’m Howard from the United States embassy in Nairobi. We got your letter from Port Victoria and also the letter from your brother with the money and your birth certificate. I’m taking you now to a secret location out of town and then tonight we are putting you on a priority flight to Nairobi. Tomorrow we’ll get everything straightened out for you at the embassy.”
We docked at the police boat dock. I shook hands with the officers and thanked them. The top man, a huge friendly fellow, said, “That was a good show! I’m glad we got you off that ship alive. Everything went like clockwork. We’re not always that lucky. We really feared the worst. If you weren’t on board we were ready to impound the ship and everybody on it until we found you, dead or alive. I hope you have a safe trip home, Mister Miller.” Later I learned that he was the Commissioner of the Kenya National Police.
I got into a white Ford subcompact car with Howard and he drove me to an isolated luxury beach house where I stayed until dusk with a chance to get some snacks and rest a few hours. On the poolside patio he briefed me for a half hour until darkness fell. Then he rolled out a black Mercedes with diplomatic plates and drove me to the airport.
“This operation took a lot of planning. We were afraid of some complications as we had tips that your ship was involved in smuggling operations and drugs. We made a hotel reservation for you in Nairobi at Hotel Ambassadeur, which is near the embassy and at nine o’clock tomorrow morning you are to report to the embassy. Here is an advance loan to cover your expenses. When you get to Nairobi, take a taxi to the hotel.” He handed me a paper with the hotel name, address and telephone number of the embassy, and the name of the person I was to report to. He double parked, escorted me inside to the airline counter, showed his credentials to the girl there, said “Diplomatic priority!” and checked me in. They bumped another passenger to get me a seat.
“Good luck, Mr Miller. I’ll probably see you at the embassy later tomorrow.”
Safe at Last
I took a taxi to the hotel and checked in. I enjoyed looking out my window at the busy street below in the heart of Nairobi. I missed the movement of the ship under me. Now I was reflecting on the events of the busy day, which seemed like a dream. While Mombasa is a tropical hot spot at sea level, Nairobi has a mile high elevation with crisp air, reminding me of my boyhood in Colorado. It was invigorating to be away from the tropical heat I had endured.
Next morning I walked to the embassy and spent part of the day getting passport photos and doing paper work. I returned the next morning to get my passport and money from home, saw Howard and repaid the embassy loan. I met the embassy staff and thanked them.
They told me that the official in charge, Gwen, wanted to see me before I left. I was ushered into her office and had a nice chat. “I’ve heard so much about you, Thayer. I wanted to meet you. We’ve never had a case like yours. This was a top secret operation with the Kenya government. Because you were on a Panamanian ship we were afraid of causing an international incident and had to keep a low profile. We reinstated your citizenship. Until today you were a man without a country. The President was briefed on your situation and gives you his regards. We needed his authorization to pull this off. Good luck. Have a safe trip home.”
I spent a few days in Nairobi relaxing and visiting local hams I had worked from the ship. Bob, 5Z4LW, a navigator for East African Airways on the Copenhagen and London runs invited me to his home where we kept a schedule with Lyle and informed him of my whereabouts. Carl, VQ9R, was on frequency and joined in. After I got home I kept in touch with my ham friends for several years. Amateur Radio was my salvation, the common bond that came through for me when I needed it. I realized that behind every call sign there is a real person, like a precious gem waiting to be found. Amateur Radio has no boundaries. It truly is a wonderful worldwide fraternity, which can be of help in an unexpected emergency, as I found out.
Thayer K. Miller, N3TM, an ARRL Life Member, was first licensed in 1965 as WN3EFH along with his brother, Lyle, who received the call WN3EFI. They started out using a 75 W Eico 750 transmitter and a Harmmarlund HQ-180AC receiver. Thayer and his brother operated 80 meter CW until they upgraded to General in 1966. They upgraded their station adding a Hammarlund HX-50 transmitter and HXL-1 amplifier and a Hy-Gain 18AVQ vertical. Their enthusiasm increased along with their DX total and they both passed their Advanced license test in February of 1968 and then their Extra class test in December. They switched to their current vanity calls, N3TM and N3LM, in 1977. Thayer later spent time in the Philippines with the shipping industry, married a Philippine movie actress and operated as N3TM/DU5. Currently their station consists of Yaesu FT-107M and FT-840 transceivers. Thayer can be reached at 131 Old Little Creek Rd, Harmony, PA 16037-7840.
Note: The above account is a condensed excerpt from the book by the author, Clouds Over Paradise available on CD from Thor Press, Box 48, Harmony, PA 16037 for $19 US including handling and worldwide shipping. With nearly a half million words, it has the story in detail.
All photos by Thayer K. Miller, N3TM
Thayer K. Miller, N3TM (ex WA3EFH)