October 1932 Radio News
Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early
electronics. See articles from
Radio & Television News, published 1919-1959. All copyrights hereby
In case such things interest you, this first-person story of a ship's
wireless operator, or "op," - the guy who manned the radio room
- provides a little entertainment and insight into transoceanic
travel in the 1930s. The author's trip was made less than two decades
after the demise of the 'unsinkable' RMS Titanic, where surviving
passengers and crewmen were saved partially due to the heroics of
the telegraph operators. Having never traveled on the water beyond
the Chesapeake Bay, I wouldn't know how to compare today's voyage
with those of yesteryear. Do passenger ships nowadays sometimes
idle for three weeks in Central American waters while waiting for
passage through the Panama Canal? Can anyone identify the story's
ship shown in the photo? Evidently Griffin was not permitted to
name it because of the less than totally complimentary remarks made
about the crew.
From 'Frisco to Paree': A Wireless Op's Adventure
By Fred V. Griffin
a page out of the experiences of an old-time radio operator on a,
to him, memorable trip during the last year of the war. It is packed
full of adventure and romance of an operator's life and should be
both an encouragement and an inspiration to those who intend to
get into the radio game as commercial operators
I knew those sloping shoulders, that cocky set of the head, that
rolling gait -"Hey, Bill, what in Sam Hill are you doing here?"
I was on the Trans-Pacific wharf along that avenue of telegraph
poles known as the Embarcadero in San Francisco.
It was Bill. He turned around at the hail and recognized me with,
"Just came in from Hong Kong on the Persia. Beating it up to the
office to get these reports made out. You coming along?"
"All right," says I, falling in line with him and starting officewards.
We had only taken a few steps when our attention was arrested
by a bunch of workmen on the side of another large trans-Pacific
liner. Said Bill, "What's going on here with the old Yokohama? Ain't
she on the trans-Pacific run any more?" In reply to which I informed
Bill that the vessel in question was being prepared for transfer
to the Atlantic and was going to London for war duties.
On The Bridge
The author and Shorty on the trip through the Straits.
"Let 'er goldarned well go. Let 'em all get blown ter Davy Jones'
Locker, but me for the peaceful Pacific. Look at all the 'colors'
on deck. Surely that ain't the crew, is it? What a bunch! What a
mixture - Japs, Swedes, Chinks, Mexicans, Lime-juicers, and all
the bums for fair. It's sure a human rainbow for 'colors,' anyhow."
With a grunt and a "Gaw blimey" from Bill, for he was 100% Australian,
we started off again. Entering the sanctum of our "Mal," the name
of our chief of the wireless tribe at GHQ, we noticed a cloud of
trouble settle over his face. But "Mal" recovered the shock of our
arrival, breathed heavily and blurted out, "For the love of Pete,
I guess the only way to keep you fellows apart (we were known as
the "Heavenly Twins") is to shoot one of you. Here is Bill, been
to the Orient and you to Mexico, and you turn up here together again.
You are the queerest couple of radio 'ops' going. Give me your reports
and let's get you out of here."
Both of our business reports having been completed, conversation
then turned to he S.S. Yokohama. "Mal" said, "I want one of you
chaps to take it out on that trip to England. Maybe you can get
acres the Channel and see something of Paris." We both laughed.
but Bill said to me, "Come on. Buddy; let's get out of here before
he gets us into trouble," and with this remark the conversation
turned to me.
After talking the matter over for a while, it was finally decided
that I was to take out the Yokohama as chief operator, with an "op,"
whom we shall call Shorty, as my assistant. Once again the "Heavenly
Twins," a name we had gained for our various escapades together
around 'Frisco, were parted, much to the relief of dear old "Mal."
I hooked up with Shorty and we took a room in a palatial "Pay
when you can" suite in which to wait for the eventful sailing date.
We were awakened one morning by a regular cannonade on the door
of our room. On opening the door, after much grunting and getting
out of bed, we admitted a distinctly overexcited company official,
and his first words were: "Ship's sailing at noon and it is
11 o'clock now. Move your lazy stumps and pack for your lives. There
is hell to pay at the office and the skipper is raising a regular
fog down at the wharf."
With the assistance of the hotel clerk and a few interested visitors,
we were packed off in great shape in the panting Ford the official
had brought to rush us down to the good ship Yokohama.
Later we remembered the old saying, "Too many cooks spoil the
broth," but in this case it was "too many packers spoil the wardrobe."
We found a hotel mat, a soap dish, several empty bottles and many
other lines of rubbish our jocular friends had wished upon us.
The whistle heaved a sigh of relief, I nearly heaved a fit, Shorty
heaved a suitcase at my head and we were off, bound for London,
Gay Paree or Davy Jones' Locker, according to whether we met Kaiser
Bill's undergraduates on the way or not.
The H.M.S. "Success," oldest sailing vessel, was the
first sailing ship to install radio. It is said Marconi
installed the set with his own hands.
"Full astern" went the ship's telegraph repeatedly. Well, we
went astern, with a big query on the "full," and with the tide running
as it does in San Francisco Bay, we scarcely cleared the wharf,
but managed to make it with no more damage than a few piles snapped
off. Small and unimportant as this little incident appeared at the
time, it showed its greatest meaning when we started full ahead
up the bay, for our "crew of many colors" were apparently used to
anything but coal heaving and work in general, with the result that
for the greater part of the whole trip "full ahead" varied from
four to ten knots on engines which had been regularly doing eighteen
knots on the China run. Our Chink fireman had quit with the parting
words, "Me likee plenty Hong Kong - Atlantic no ploper placee. Cathem
tin fishee. Bang! Bang!"
We were now heading the tide through the Golden Gate, and being
somewhat late on account of our low speed, it was almost at turning
point, and we cleared the channel with considerable difficulty after
many a deep breath by those on the bridge, at the proximity of seal
rocks, around which the tide swirls with terrific force. We were
clear, and once again all faces looked pleasant on the bridge and
the course was set for Point Arguello on our way to Panama, which
was to be our first stop, as we were to go via the Canal.
Our speed was terrible. We were scarcely making five knots but
we kept plugging along until we got off San Diego, when we stopped
for lack of steam. And it was about eight or ten hours before we
got started again, for our firemen were not firemen at all and had
practically laid down on the job. There had been several free fights
in the engine room a mixing of colors which didn't blend, and the
poor old chief engineer was half frantic after a night of putting
men in irons and sorting out the useful and the useless. With a
little gentle persuasion of a "bunch of fives" and a spare Colt
work was resumed and again we sailed peacefully towards Panama.
Another couple of days brought us off Magdalena Bay on the coast
of Lower California, where two of the Japanese dreadnaughts had
apparently tried to take the overland route and rested peacefully
on the sandy shores away from the German Pacific Fleet which they
were scouting, but which afterwards came to grief in their contact
with a few little old dreadnaughts under the British flag.
Fortunately, the weather favored us and we were able to do very
well - almost eight knots - until we got to Panama and the capt'n
had handed me his arrival report, which had already been transmitted,
leaving me quietly seated on watch peacefully smoking a fat cigar.
I was startled from my day dreams by the purring of Balboa station
rotary spark. He desired my presence on the key, so after placing
aside the remainder of the cigar which had not been swallowed in
the excitement of my rude awakening, I gave a G.A. (go ahead) and
hoped for the best. The message buzzed through: "Balboa Port authorities
to Captain S.S. Yokohama - Landslide in Culebra. Canal closed for
three days." "Our luck's sure in," I thought as I handed the message
to the skipper. He looked with eyes like saucers, said nothing,
but from his expression, thought a whole book full.
With a colt and a "bunch of fives" the chief officer
soon has the crew where he wanted them and had weeded out
the good from the bad.
We dropped the hook off Balboa and waited calmly for three days.
The boys were getting thirsty and uncomfortable. Once again I got
on the key and was informed that it would be another week at least
before ships could pass through the Canal. Similar cheering news
emanated on several occasions from the wireless cabin until there
was much murmuring amongst our "zoological" pets in the "black gang"
regarding the slight matter of "murdering dem vireless oberaters,"
which naturally had no cheering effect on either Shorty or myself,
who also looked with longing eyes on the shore, "so near yet so
far." We had spent our time playing poker, finishing off the remainder
of the bar's contents, lazing around deck, being a nuisance everywhere,
and were now reduced to lying in hammocks watching the lights of
Toboga, that glorious little island resort of all Balboa, and heaving
the fury of our wearied souls in a tremendous upheaval of cuss words
at one another, the like of which could almost do credit to a "square-rigged
But our day was to come; the skipper had been ashore, and as
he approached in the launch, all necks were stretching and ears
flapping in the breeze for words of hope, and shortly after he set
foot aboard the flapping ears were rewarded with gentle music of
the turning windlass, for we were heaving anchor, ready to dock
for coal and supplies, for the canal slide was worse than at first
figured and the delay was indefinite, with the result that our owners
had cabled for us to proceed via Magellan Straits.
We docked, no steam aboard but sufficient in the towboats alongside.
The black gang had ceased to work at the shovel, the little word
"ashore" had vibrated throughout the eardrums and had turned its
usefulness to clothes, for the heaving line had scarcely gone over
before there was a mad rush for shore. I thought for the moment
a new free lunch counter had been opened, but it was merely that
the "black gang" could not wait any longer and had dressed ready
for shore whilst the towboats had done the work of the now extinct
ship's fires. Next day the coaling and matter of supplies was attended
to by a gang of "British subjects" from Jamaica, as they termed
themselves, who were the first pests to be imported into the Canal
Zone after the mosquitoes had had their day.
Our period of watchful waiting at anchor had been just three
weeks, so now that the boys had got loose there was plenty of trouble.
The skipper had not been made any allowance for giving the crew
an advance of pay, so they quit the ship "cold" in a bunch and went
about tapping people for cash for a glorious drunk. Our agents finally
decided to get on the right side of the crew by giving them a small
advance and allowing them official leave in order. to give them
a chance to relax after their strenuous efforts at steam manufacturing.
But the desired effect was not brought about, and once again the
boys got playful and resorted to their former tactics, with the
result that when the ship was ready for sailing the crew were all
Street in Las Palmas
The last land before starting for the submarine zone
was the Canary Islands. We visited Las Palmas.
Shorty, Yapski (the Russian-American second mate with the countenance
of a Siberian wolfhound, who had earned his nickname through yapping
at everything and everyone) and myself were seated peacefully in
comfortable cane chairs outside the corner cafe of one of Panama
City's pleasing little plazas, sipping the cooling elixir of life
and resting our eyes on the soulful sights of Spanish maidens driving
past, well guarded by their austere parents.
"Come on, you fellers; snap out of your dreams." We turned as
would the recipients of the order "Eyes right," to behold the mate.
"We've got to get out of this hole. The old man's gone after a bunch
of Marines, and we've all got to get the crew separated from the
local jails, and we can't afford no more time, so better get busy."
Half an hour later I was pushing and cursing my way through Panama's
lowest quarters, where the worlds dullest characters and brightest
colors held their debaches. It is peculiar that the City Hospital
is right in the center of this district. I suppose it must be for
The Equator - and Overcoats
A huddled heap lay in the gutter, muttering guttural oaths. It
was Heinie, the Dutch fireman. I found a wagon, gathered him up
and proceeded on my scouting trip, and later found Tony the Dago
rolling along with Sam Yoo, the only Chink aboard, and enticed them
along with another drink. Next stop, the jail, where I was greeted
by two mosquito-like Panamanian guards who stepped nobly forward
with fixed bayonets. I hesitated, wondering whether or not to rub
them out, but the hesitation was short, I kicked the shins of the
nearest one, who lost his balance and fell off his perch, and whilst
the other was getting over the surprise I entered the guard house,
where, after presenting my papers to the Chief, one further member
of our dilapidated crew was recovered and I passed out once again,
receiving, on the way, many strange remarks from the guards, who
had by this time recovered their dignity and who had also apparently
decided that my reception by their Chief was sufficient warning
for them to refrain from further interference. I know very little
Spanish, but if looks are anything to go by, their words were far
Things, generally, went very smoothly, The first place of importance
sighted was Callao, Peru's seaport, and we were soon across the
Equator, the passing of which, strangely enough, was accompanied
by wearing of overcoats, for a stiff breeze was blowing. Ere long
we sauntered up the narrow channel to Coronel, and precautions having
been taken against the crew getting ashore again on another bust,
our next coaling was accomplished with distinctly more satisfaction
and less delay than the last. We were hooked up to buoys fore and
aft, but still three members of the crew got away and were left
in Coronel, being replaced by Chilanos. There is very little to
be said about this town, for there is little of it and is of no
particular interest, excepting as a replenishing point for the German
fleet and later for their bombardment practice. The foothills of
the great Andes range are here, but mountain climbing held no charms
We pulled out calmly and peacefully, and a day or so after leaving
here we passed the island of San Juan Fernandez, not far off the
Chilean coast, where the much-talked-of "Robinson Crusoe" was supposed
to have originated. It is said that he was the sole surviving member
of a "square rigger" crew which was wrecked here on her way for
We next reached the entrance to Magellan Straits, and a more
weird, rugged and stormy sight I have never seen; towering mountains
on each side and to the south, a long trail of jagged rocks, lashed
by the fury of the gale which was then raging, darkened by heavy
storm clouds and torrential rains. My impression can only be summed
up as "the entrance to the gates of hell," but perhaps I struck
a bad time, for I guess it is much more interesting in fine weather.
We passed along the Straits toward Punta Arenas, the most southerly
point of the American Continent, passing on the way, in the distance,
several canoes of the man-eating tribes of southern Chile, who are
housed in the hills there. The anchor again took hold in the Bay
of Punta Arenas, whilst we awaited the turning of the tide, but
we were soon away again at the greatest speed of the whole trip,
for there is a twenty-knot tide from Punta Arenas to the Atlantic.
We speeded along at twenty-four knots, by adding our own four knots
to that of the tide. Our course then took us up the sailing-ship
route, through the center of the Atlantic, and we communicated with
the Falkland Islands and passed on our way. This is the course on
which the phantom ship Flying Dutchman is supposed to have been
seen, but I'm afraid old sailors saw many queer things. However,
there is no doubt about the peculiarity of the atmosphere and its
possibilities of reflection and refraction of light which has resulted
many times in showing a ship far away from its actual position and
course. Also along this line of sailing ships there have been many
islands spring up or disappear overnight on account of volcanic
action taking place under the sea.
Finally our work was done, the crew was once again mustered,
and we proceeded to sea, bound for Coronel, Chile, for our
A Beautiful View
This is one of the many scenes greeting the eye when
we pulled into Rio de Janeiro.
Later we arrived in the magnificent natural harbor of Rio de
Janeiro, and, on passing through the very narrow entrance through
the mountainous coastline, a wonderful sight was revealed to us,
with the glorious sunset playing on the brightly bedecked minarets
and domes of Brazil's capital and showing up to advantage the Naval
Academy on its small peninsular, surrounded by the fleet with its
numerous bright green national flags floating in the breeze. Much
pomp and show was going on here at the time, for two Argentine battleships
were visiting, and there were continued gun salutes most of the
time we were in Rio.
We spent about three days in Rio de Janeiro, and, having put
the worst members 'of our crew in irons, we spent quite a peaceful
sojourn. Shorty and I spent most our time ashore, around the stores
of the Avenida, Rio's main thoroughfare, and it goes almost without
saying that we also found a couple of convenient cafes under the
palms from whence we could view the passersby and make a study of
them. I was somewhat disappointed in Rio when I got ashore, for
the city looks such a beautiful place from the harbor, whilst two
blocks or less from the main street were filthy side lanes full
of disease. This city is a much uniformed one, and numerous swaggering
officers are continually parading the streets.
Also queer little fellows in nice wedgewood-blue uniforms, supporting
rifles and bayonets much larger than themselves, pose in front of
many of the main buildings. But I am inclined to doubt the amount
of protection afforded by them.
Our next jump on the journey was to Las Palmas in the Canary
Islands, off the northwest coast of Africa. We dropped anchor in
the harbor of Santa Cruz one glorious morning, and the hills presented
a beautiful sight. Las Palmas is the winter resort for many wealthy
Europeans. We were soon ashore to take in the sights and grabbed
off a carriage and drove into the city itself. Santa Cruz is just
a port and full of the squalid type of old Spanish settlements.
So we passed on, and soon the road opened out into the city's first
plaza. The city is a fair size and of the usual Spanish type. Once
you've seen one Spanish town, you've seen them all, whatever part
of the world they happen to be in. We stayed here but three days,
during which time I visited many of the tourist hotels up in the
hills, and they surely made me feel that the sea was no place for
a respectable human being. There are many places of historical interest
in and around Las Palmas, but space will not permit of detail.
Sailing day arrived once again, but not without the usual little
troubles, for no money had been handed out to the crew, with the
result that they had signed many fictitious names to chits for various
articles purchased from bumboats, the purchases including monkeys,
dogs, parrots, firewater and an ample supply of cigars. The chits
had been signed against the purser, so you can imagine the rumpus
when they were presented for payment.
"Our Voyage Ship"
This is the steamer that took us on this trip from one
side of the world to the other and which, for a number of
reasons, must remain nameless in this article.
The crew had to be kept in their quarters and the bum boatmen
were promised payment when the propeller turned over, which they
seemed, with their scant knowledge of English, to think was O.K.
They returned to their boats and waited. The propeller turned all
right, the anchor came up with a jerk and they were paid, but satisfaction
did not seem to appear, according to their shouts and gestures as
the ship slid out of port.
Then came a sad day. The skipper made general inspection, for
the authorities figure it unhealthy for England to receive pets
from the Canary Islands. and before entering the port of London
all parrots, dogs, canaries, monkeys and other germ-breeding nuisances
had to be given the "deep six" - in other words, were confined to
"Davy Jones' Locker" - to the tune of much wailing and gnashing
We were now in the zone of submarine activities and our wireless
cabin was the source of much interesting news; our noble crew of
tough-muscled and soft-hearted humanity took sudden interest in
their lifebelts and could not be parted from them day or night with
a team of sixteen horses.
We were inspected in the Downs, a bay on the southeastern English
Coast, the anchorage for picking up pilots during the war, where
we had another mishap in the shape of smashing into another vessel
which had to be beached to save her from sinking. Later the pilot
tied us up safely alongside Tilbury dock, part of the Port of London.
The first night here started the usual shindy again and several
heads were smashed, so that a special police force was stationed
aboard during the time of our sojourn there.
I had not been in London for seven years, so I hiked towards
that town and was soon receiving a welcome from the old "places."
I had promised Shorty that I would show him around London, so
I met him in Picadilly and soon noticed disappointment written on
his face, for it was November and a real London fog was enveloping
We adjourned to the Regent Palace and cheered our foggy souls,
and I was soon kidding Shorty about the two-guinea "coat" which
he had bought for eight guineas, (a guinea is about five dollars).
Also about a haircut which cost him another guinea in a society
We spent much time looking around all the sights of London and
with the improvement of the weather Shorty found it very interesting
after all, and especially after I had looked up many of my old friends
and spent several pleasant evenings at parties in some old English
country homes and managed to "ring in" on an admiralty dinner a
the Savoy Hotel. By pulling wires I managed to get over the Channel
with Shorty and on to Paris for two hilarious days, but no more
Back in London. Our orders later came from our Leadenhall Street
office saying that we were to run trans-Atlantic and later we left
for New York, which trip was accomplished after encountering three
days' terrific storm off the southwest of Ireland, during which
time were merely kept "head on" to the mountainous seas but did
not move. But we finally pulled through, with the loss of our hospital
(which was swept clean off the deck), all our lifeboats and most
of the deckwork.
It was sure one of the liveliest trips I have ever known in all
my long travel experiences as a wireless "op," and when we arrived
in New York harbor I was all packed and ready for shore and, offering
up a prayer of thanks that I was back, put on a merry and bright
smile once again, wondering what was next in line for me.
Posted August 5, 2014