DX the Hard Way
March 18, 1945. We could tell the war was going in our favor, but we were still in some danger in the Pacific. My best pal, Franz Butler, and I were stationed aboard a DE, destroyer escort, as radiomen. I was first class. Franz was second class. One night it happened. It’s always in the back of your mind, but when it happens, it takes you by surprise — and then some.
We took two torpedoes — one forward and one aft. The ship heeled over and went down. I don’t know how many guys got off, but it couldn’t have been many. Franz and I had been up on the boat deck checking out a blinker light that wasn’t working. We just got tossed into the sea. We could see two life rafts, but it was dark so nothing else was visible. We climbed aboard. We could hear nobody else around us. We guessed the whole crew went down. The sea was fairly calm but we had little idea where we were and didn’t know anything at all about navigation. There was a stash of provisions aboard. A tank of water was gratefully received. It looked like enough to keep us alive for a while.
Fate Lends a Hand
By morning we were not much better off. No land in sight. Hot sun. No shade. Franz had been a church-going guy, so he prayed a lot. I just listened and hoped. Nothing happened that day or the next or the next. We had to ration our rations. Then the totally unexpected happened. Off to starboard we saw a small boat with some native guys paddling our way. We hailed them and they came toward us. They explained in pidgin English they were never in this area as a rule. Something spoke to them about trying their luck with fishing in this direction. They said an island was not far away and they would guide us there. What extreme good luck. Franz figured it another way.
The island was Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas. What a welcome sight. We pulled our raft up onto the beach, secured it and got out to explore the place. Our native friends told us there was a small settlement on the north end of the island and numerous other islands were not far to the north.
We found another bit of good luck. Franz was praying again and didn’t call it luck. A US bomber had been abandoned on the island and was in reasonably good shape. We climbed in for a look around. A few things had been removed by the locals but the radio was still there. We looked it over carefully and decided it could be made to work if we had a voltage source. Hmmm.
We hiked up to the village and asked about batteries. None was to be had but they thought there might be some on Nuku Hiva to the north. They all spoke French and good old Franz had high school French, so we got by fairly well.
Our canoe trip north was actually fun. They told us the Japanese had left the islands 2 months ago. That was good news.
Nuka Hiva did, indeed, have batteries. There was a trading post on the island. We traded K rations for batteries — enough to supply 24 V. That was their total supply.
Our return canoe trip provided time for plans. We would hook up all our batteries in series and try to tune the transmitter to 20 meter CW. We found enough wire in the plane to build a dipole. The receiver worked and, by golly, we could hear signals on 20. Now to try to load the rig into our wire. It looked as if we’d be running about 10 W. We had cut enough wire for a half wave on 20, so it loaded fairly well.
20 Meter Mayday
There was a key built into the rig so Franz did his prayer thing again and I called an SOS on 14.025 MHz. American hams were off the air, so that was another problem, but we knew there were ham monitors listening. Bingo! A W6 came back to us. We told him who we were and where we were. He said he would notify the Navy, then went off the air. We shut down, too, so we wouldn’t drain our homebrew power supply.
Nothing happened for a few days. In fact, I urged Franz to get busy with the praying. Well, he had been at it pretty steady. By the next day, though, a PBY type plane flew into our harbor and taxied up to a small wood dock. Three sailors got out. One introduced himself as a W7 from Washington state. Man, what a relief. Franz just kept smiling.
They told us they couldn’t take us that day because they had another urgent assignment, but they told us the Japanese were on their last legs and somebody would be arriving soon to take us off.
We decided to make our camp inside the bomber. The top was secure against the heavy tropical rain. The natives had removed all the seats and some hardware, but we borrowed a couple of mats and it wasn’t too bad.
Some Unwelcome Guests
A few days later one of the natives rapped on the plane door and told us a motor boat had pulled in at the small dock. We figured that must be our rescue, so we ran down to the dock. Something smelled fishy. Several armed Japanese soldiers got out and came up to us. Get busy, Franz, I said. One of their company had been a JA1 and heard our message to California, thus the soldiers. We told them a rescue party from the USA was on its way and should be arriving at any minute. They conferred and decided they might be better off to leave without us while they could get away safely. I guess they believed us.
In fact, another PBY type plane did arrive and was ready for us. We flew to Pago Pago, Samoa, then to Honolulu and back home. We served stateside with the First Fleet for the rest of our hitch, then got out and went home.
When the war ended, we were civilians again, back at work and back to regular life. Both of us built ham stations. I went in for DXing and one day got the surprise of my life. I worked an FO in the Marquesas. He spoke pretty fair English, so I told him my story. He told me he was there at the time. He had not been one of those who had spoken with me but had seen me and my partner. We promised to exchange QSL cards, then letters and photos.
I phoned Franz. He wasn’t at all surprised. He figured we would all be in touch again some time. The prayer thing again, I guess.
John Munroe, W7KCN, an ARRL member, was first licensed in 1942. He started out homebrewing his own rigs and got interested in DXing. John loves to operate CW and is only missing Yemen and a few others. He is a veteran who served in both WWII and Korea. After leaving the service he was involved in commercial broadcasting for a while before spending 10 years as a school principal and another 10 as a university professor. After leaving academia John started the Munroe Wool Company and ran it for the next 17 years. John doesn’t believe in retirement and at 82 he is shooting for 100. He figures he will have Yemen by then. John can be contacted at 1450 Island View Dr, Bellingham, WA 98225.
John Munroe, W7KCN