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Vietnam Era Radioman


I've seen a few articles about the WWII era radiomen, and I agree that in some way we should keep recording their history. I find these articles quite interesting for both personal and military history. I was a Vietnam era radioman in the Navy, and radiomen of this era are now either in or getting into our 60s. So I'd like to add to the recorded history.

All the recent changes in the requirements for Amateur Radio brought a few memory cells back to life of a time when I went through Navy radio school back in 1966.

I enlisted in the Navy in August of 1965. At that time the "conflict" in Vietnam was starting to "crank" up. I was 17 and just graduated from high school; college wasn't really in my plans but looking for a job was. I lived in Delaware, Ohio at the time and even though it was the county seat it was still a fairly small town, not like the big cities where jobs were plentiful. I would apply for a job and one of the first questions they would ask me was "how old are you?" and "are you still in high school?" It became rather obvious that they didn't want to hire me and then, 6 months later when I got drafted, hire someone else, so I decided that rather than wait for my "Greetings" letter I would talk with the Navy recruiter.

I have heard many stories of armed forces recruiters who would promise you anything just as long as you signed on the dotted line. I have to say that the recruiter I spoke with, Chief Teeple, was an honest man. He told me I should sign up for the "High School Seaman Recruit" program, which basically guaranteed me any class "A" school that I qualified for. I enlisted on August 24, 1965 and left for boot camp at the Naval Training Command (NTC) in Great Lakes, Illinois. Among the many tests the first week was the code test. They sent the letters "I, N, T" at different speeds and, since I had already learned the code in the Boy Scouts, I did quite well. The second week of boot camp we filled out our "dream sheets" as to what we wanted to do for our time in the Navy. My first choice was radioman and that's what I got.

Back to School

Radioman "A" school was at US Naval Training Command (USNTC), Bainbridge Maryland, the base had been built during the 40s, the usual stories of how it was only supposed to be a "temp" base but here it was, still going in the mid 60s, the buildings were hot in the summer and cold in the winter, a building inspector's nightmare and cockroach city.

Radioman "A" school was 24 weeks long; classes consisted of code practice and electronic theory. First we had to learn how to type. The first day of class I sat down at the typewriter and noticed the telegraph key was on the right side. I mentioned to the Chief, who was our instructor, that I was left handed and he said "you will never find a setup in the military with the key on the left side; learn to use your right hand!" To this day I use my right hand for sending and using the mouse on my computer.

We were taught to type on the "mill," a typewriter with all upper case letters (as we know, there is no shift in CW). After the first week of learning to type we started learning to type the Morse code that we heard. We were required to copy and send 18 wpm in order to graduate from the school. It was a real struggle for some; they hated code!

For me the electronics theory was new. The first course was DC Theory followed by AC Theory. I admit that I wasn't the most "motivated" student. My study and learning habits up to this time were not that great. After failing two finals in a row my section Chief called me into his office. I received a very motivational talking to. He pointed out that I was doing very well in code but if I failed one more test I would flunk out. He went on to say that anyone failing school was sent out to become an "artist." The Navy was taking ships out of mothballs and needed people to paint them. He "suggested" that he hold on to my liberty card for a while and that I should "consider" going to the Saturday extra help classes. It's simply amazing what a few well spoken words can do for someone. I passed every test after that and discovered I had an interest in radio and electronics.

Quick Fix

One interesting experience that I had was when learning about transmitters and troubleshooting. They had these huge, WWII era transmitters to train on. You had to use a frequency meter to set the transmit frequency and tune them up. These transmitters and the URC-32s transmitter-receivers gave us a quick few minutes of exercise in that we had to squat down and start at the bottom and work our way up. Depending on your troubleshooting ability, you usually ended up doing at least three or four deep knee bends!

For the troubleshooting portion the instructor had removed the lead from the plate of one of the final tubes. He told me to analyze the trouble, show him how to fix it and then tune-up the transmitter on a certain frequency. I was able to tune-up the transmitter with no problems and after I was done the instructor opened the transmitter and found that the stranded wire had been in position for so long it simply sprang back and was touching the top of the tube!

As I mentioned, the school was 24 weeks long. Twenty-two out of the 24 weeks were devoted to code, sending and receiving. The last 2 weeks covered teletype (TTY) procedures. In looking back I wonder why it wasn't the other way around. When we graduated and went out to the fleet radioteletype (RTTY) was the most often used form of communications!

In talking with other radiomen it seems that on large ships and shore installations all they did was RTTY. Code was rarely used and, if it was needed, it was usually the more senior radiomen that operated those radio frequencies (circuits). The only time you had to demonstrate proficiency with code was the sending and receiving test for Radioman Third Class and above. If I remember correctly, Radioman Third was 20 wpm; the rest of the test was electronic theory and procedures.

Assignment -- Azores

My orders came through and I was assigned to NAF (Naval Air Facility) Lajes Field, Azores. "Naval Air"! I thought I would never use CW again -- yeah, right.

Take a look on the map. The Azores are right in the middle of nowhere in the Atlantic and, this was still in the '60s so there were quite a number of ships still at sea. Our typical 8 hour watch consisted of sending and receiving the normal, everyday, messages for the facility, on teletype, typing them up for distribution to the proper departments and monitoring different circuits, both CW and voice. The voice circuits were used for communicating with the Antisubmarine Warfare (ASW) patrol planes (P2s and P3s and Canadians) and the Hurricane Hunters (C121s). I have to say it took some doing to copy the messages from the Hurricane Hunters during the summer with all the lightning static crashes on SSB. The band we used was between the 40 and 30 meter amateur bands. I will admit that when things got really bad the aircraft radio operators would switch over to CW but this, from what I heard, was done rather reluctantly.

The other thing we did was to maintain "guard" on 500 kHz relaying "OBS" (weather) and "AMVER" (Automated Merchant Vessel Reporting System) messages; the latter going to the Coast Guard in NYC. AMVER was a Coast Guard system that plotted the location of ships at sea; if there was an emergency they could get a list of ships in the area including those who had a doctor onboard, if needed.

Most of the ships only had one radio operator. They stood one watch a day and at the end of their watch they would send the Coast Guard their last position report. Every evening at about 1800 local time it got really busy on 500 kHz. One ship would call and we would move off 500 kHz to pass traffic; that's when the pileup began. We would write down the call signs and tell them QRY (Your turn is:) 2, 3 and so on down the list. There were times when I would get done, an hour later, and my QRY list would look like the roll call for the United Nations! American, British, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Panamanian, Israeli, Liberian and whoever else was out there. We did this all with a straight key; the Chief Radioman wouldn't let us use the bug (semiautomatic key) unless we were qualified to use it.

I spent 18 months in the Azores. When I left in November 1967 I was a Radioman Third Class and was qualified in all aspects of the Radioman rating: watch supervisor, crypto, code and a lot more. The only thing I hadn't done was set up transmitters.

Back in the Navy

My next assignment was quite a culture shock -- USS Norris (DD-859), I went from an Air Force base with two guys in a room, closets and dressers, house boys to clean up, to a WWII era, Gearing class destroyer that was older than I was! Welcome back to the real Navy, kid!

There were probably 12 of us in Radio (radio room) but that soon changed. I went onboard the ship when it was still in the Boston Navy yard. The ship had been there for 6 months or so, undergoing Fleet Rehabilitation and Modernization (FRAM) II modifications. It was just my luck that the ship was coming out of the yard, which meant the ship had to go to "Gitmo" Cuba; they called it "boot camp" for the ship. The leading radioman (RM1) reviewed my qualifications and since I had 18 months of experience, he put me in Emergency Radio as my general quarters assignment. Guantanamo Bay was chaos, constant drills to get the ship ready for combat. To sum it up, the last day they called away general quarters. I had to monitor a CW frequency as did Radio Central. In the space of a few minutes we lost lights and had the word passed, via sound powered phones, that Radio Central had been knocked out and NAVCOMSTA GITMO comes up on frequency with a "flash" priority message for us. I'm sitting at a small desk, no lights, copying a five letter code group message. The other radioman is standing behind me holding a battle lantern so I could see the keyboard and he could read the code book to decode the message. The Messenger of the Watch is relaying the message over the sound powered phones to the Operations Officer on the bridge. We did get an "outstanding" mark for Emergency Radio.

We went back to Newport, Rhode Island and prepared for a "Med" (Mediterranean) cruise in the spring of 1968. We only used was RTTY and voice so, just to keep my speed up, I would copy fleet and press broadcasts. I was probably the only one who did; the only time everyone else would do it was when it was time for the next promotion exam.


We lost a few radiomen before we deployed on the 7 month "Med" cruise. They had reached the end of their enlistment and none of them had "shipped" over. It took us almost 2 weeks to cross the Atlantic. We were operating with an aircraft carrier and those things never sail in a straight line. The carrier was always turning into the wind to launch and recover aircraft, and wherever they went we had to follow. I do remember I was on the 4 to midnight watch when we went through the Straits of Gibraltar, we were having serious problems transmitting anything on RTTY; a piece of critical equipment had gone bad. I had gotten off watch at midnight but I was awakened at about 2:00 in the morning by one of the guys on watch. "The radio officer wants you up in Radio now. We tried sending traffic on CW but none of us have done CW for quite a while and AOK (NAVCOMSTA Rota, Spain) just sent 'ZES-2'."

I don't care what publication you read, the ZES-2 signal means "put a qualified CW operator on the circuit." In other words, the operator at AOK had just told our operator, and everyone else that was listening on frequency, that it sounded like he was using his left foot to send (QSLF) and, unless we put someone on that seemed to know what they were doing, the operators at AOK were not going to accept any traffic from us!

For a Navy ship, especially a combatant, to be unable to send or receive messages is not a good thing. It makes a lot of people look bad, starting with the captain and, when the captain looks bad he tends to seek out what made him look bad and you would be surprised just how creative most ship captains can be when it comes to fixing things that make them look bad.

I would say I spent several hours sending and receiving traffic. Again I couldn't use a bug, just a straight key. Those reading this that have served on destroyers know just how they tend to "move" around, to say the least, those handles on the front of the R390 receiver were not there just for the techs to be able to lift them out of the rack!

Things got worse about a month after we arrived in the "Med." We lost almost half of the radio gang. Again nobody "shipped over." we were down to seven guys and the leading radioman had to split us into two watch sections, "Port and Starboard" 8 hours on, 8 hours off and on a "Tin Can" 8 off did not mean you slept! I was in one watch section and the leading radioman was in the other because we were doing NATO operations with ships from other countries, the only thing we had in common for communications was, you guessed it, CW. Someone always had to be monitoring that circuit and the two of us were the only ones who could do it. Yes, the others could sit in and relieve us for a few minutes but for the actual sending and receiving we were it.

Black Sea Operations

Another adventure we had was when we went alongside the USS Everglades (AD-24) for a few days. We would be leaving after that for a week's operation in the Black Sea; the communication officer wanted all the teletype printers checked out because we had lost our only TTY repairman. I can still hear the Chief in the TTY repair shop on the Everglades: "Don't worry; we'll take good care of you!"

It was interesting going into the Black Sea, through the Dardanelles and then going through the Bosporus at sunrise. You are looking at the Asian continent on the starboard side and the European on the port side. Everything was going fine until the next day when all the teletypes started failing.

We were operating with the USS Charles P. Cecil (DD-835) and in the middle of the Black Sea we had to "high line" over their TTY repairman. He took a quick look around and found out that the TTY guy had taken all the tools and spare parts when he left!

He stayed with us for a week rebuilding the printers, all the while cursing out the TTY repair people on the Everglades; he later told me that when he got back to the Cecil he told the Captain "next time you want to punish someone at Captains Mast, send them to the Norris for a week without cigarettes and clean clothes!"

In the meantime, you guessed it, we had to send and receive on CW until we got at least one of the printers back up!

We returned from the "Med" in October of '68 and I decided that a Navy career was not for me so, the day before Thanksgiving I left the Navy and started out on a 38+ year career with the telephone company. I started working for Western Electric, then New York Telephone, NYNEX, Bell Atlantic and now VERIZON. In between Western Electric and New York Telephone I went to school and passed the test for the First Class FCC Radiotelephone license. The First Class license got me into a department where there were a lot of amateur operators; when they found out that I already knew the code they encouraged me to go for my amateur license.

What I'm getting at is that I taught myself the code. I wanted to learn it for an event the Boy Scouts were having. I was fortunate to have K2LUG (SK) in my neighborhood who had taught the Radio Merit Badge for our troop. This interest helped me achieve my rank in the Navy and, even though I was required to learn code I had a head start on it. I took it upon myself to keep in practice after I left the Azores. The Navy still had code circuits and the requirement of code proficiency for promotion but they relied more on other forms of communications. It was only when the other forms failed, or we operated with NATO ships, that they had to drop back and rely on code. The FCC and other governing bodies have dropped the requirements for code; I don't believe it signals the end of Amateur Radio but rather the start of a new chapter for our hobby. People can now get their licenses and, if they find code interesting, they can learn at their own pace.

John Smale, K2IZ, was first licensed as WB2CHY in 1971 and upgraded to Extra class and K2IZ in 1977. He graduated from Rutherford B. Hayes High School in Delaware, Ohio and enlisted in the Navy in August 1965. John left the Navy in 1968 and started working at Western Electric Company. He later moved to New York Telephone Company in 1970 where he continues to work as a field technician doing installation and repair of computers and networks. John married in 1970 and has two boys, two girls and five grandchildren. To his dismay none have gotten involved in ham radio -- yet! He spent 10 years as Section Communications Manager/Section Manager for the New York City-Long Island section. John lives in Copiague, New York.


John Smale, K2IZ



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