RADIO ROOM RECOLLECTIONS
AMERICA's World-Class 'Radio Station' WEDI
was WEST POINT's 'Call Sign' NWGB during World War II
When the SS AMERICA was completed in 1940, she also boasted - amidst all of her luxury - some very essential elements vital to her safety at sea. In addition to state-of-the-art fire and flooding protection features, and multiple sources of emergency power; America's newest queen of the seas was appropriately provided with what her designers called the finest and most comprehensive radio equipment ever installed aboard ship.
The engineers of the Radiomarine Corporation of America, under the direct supervision of that firm's president, created a communication complex so extensive that it was designated as Radio Station WEDI. Several spaces dedicated to this purpose were located on the port side of the ship's Sports Deck, within close proximity to the ship's bridge and associated navigational spaces to this purpose.
In addition to an unusually large and redundant suite of equipment for normal and emergency operational purposes, provisions were also included for transmitting and receiving radiograms and even to provide individual radiotelephone service for pampered passengers. Both of these services were rare in those relatively primitive days of mid-20th century telecommunications.
Immediately above the radio room complex, out of sight in the base of the ship's forward, dummy smoke stack, a huge bank of storage batteries and an emergency diesel generator were installed; minimizing the distance between these back-up power sources and the ship's multiple communication systems so vital in time of emergency.
Five radio officers were quartered just forward of the radio rooms. A nearby office, adjacent to both an elevator and a stairwell, allowed passengers to conduct any business there without venturing out onto the weather decks. Telegraphic services were provided on a twenty-four hour a day basis, and personal radiotelephone messages could be sent or received between 9AM and midnight.
Equally impressive was the list of major equipment installed in Radio Station WEDI: five radio transmitters, five receivers, an automatic alarm bell (for SOS messages that might come in, plus a 'repeater' bell in the wheelhouse), numerous control panels and associated gear. The AMERICA also had a state-of-the-art scrambler that made voice signals unintelligible to unauthorized listeners. Finally, there was a switch that could be utilized to instantaneously, automatically and repeatedly send out a distress signal, should that ever be required. All of this communication equipment allowed AMERICA's radio operators to send and receive messages over a distance of three thousand miles or more.
Nothing was left to chance, when it came to AMERICA's capability to communicate with the outside world. The ship's wheelhouse and chart room also had additional radio equipment installed; primarily for use in navigation (i.e. a radio compass and direction finder) and a short wave radio for instant communication with tugs when assisting in docking the huge liner. Even that was not enough. Two of the ship's lifeboats, located to either side of her forward smoke stack, were fitted with radios and storage batteries. Servicing all of this equipment, a total of thirteen antennas were initially installed.
Collectively, the AMERICA's radio equipment weighed more than ten tons. About 45% of that total weight being made up of high voltage cable. Its value, in 1940 dollars, was $50,000. One of the very first radiograms sent to the AMERICA was transmitted during her sea trials in June of 1940. Birthday wishes were sent to Guy Via, a young Newport News Shipbuilding employee, from his Mom and Dad at a time when the ship was in the midst of her standardization trials that included running at high speed over the US Navy's measured mile course off Rockland, Maine. In 1940, G. Guy Via, Senior was the shipyard's Director of Education & Training, and head of the Apprentice Program at NNS, a post that he held for over thirty years; beginning at the very inception of the program in 1919.
Undoubtedly, part of young Guy Via's at-sea birthday observances included celebration with those onboard of the AMERICA's highest-ever recorded speed - 25.3 knots - well in excess of her shipyard-guaranteed speed of 22 knots.
The AMERICA was placed in service in late July 1940 as her namesake nation's largest and finest passenger liner. But less than a year later she was 'drafted' as the United States prepared for the possibility of becoming involved in World War II.
She returned to her birthplace and was hastily converted into a troop transport. When she next sailed from Newport News on June 15, 1941, it was under the name and number USS WEST POINT (AP-23)... and a coat of drab grey.
When commissioned, the Navy also gave her a new 'call sign' - NWGB - which replaced, for the duration, her Radio Station identification call letters. When entering or leaving port, it was normal practice for the WEST POINT to display signal flags denoting her call sign on a halyard attached to her foremast's port yardarm. In the parlance of the phonetic alphabet then in use, these flags were known, respectively, as Nan, William, George and Baker.
Over the next 56 months, her unusually well-equipped radio apparatus was put to good use by the Communications Division of AP-23. Their assignments included the operation and repair of the ship's extensive radio equipment, plus numerous other tasks. Shortly after the ship was placed in naval service, she was secretly outfitted with radar. One of the enlisted men in C Div, Pete Robb, recalls the following details about his sea station:
The radar room was located in a space just to port of the Chart Room. It contained the surface radar receiver/indicator, IFF equipment, the LORAN receiver and a fathometer. The radar transmitter was in another nearby space, and there was a remote radar indicator on the bridge. The radar antenna was on the foremast, about 40 feet above the top of the wheelhouse.
Pete adds this amusing observation: The base of the forward stack contained the emergency generator, many batteries, and a box marked searchlight spares. But it only contained the makings for coffee. I never saw the spares.
In addition to responsibility for the ship's radio and radar equipment, C Division also handled visual signal apparatus (a fancy name for, amongst other devices, hand-held semaphore flags). All correspondence to and from the ship was their responsibility, including censorship of private correspondence, classification of official paperwork, and coding and decoding of messages.
The ship's print shop and post office also were in this division's domain. To handle all this activity, which far exceeded the needs of the ship in peacetime; this naval organizational unit consisted of approximately 50 officers and enlisted personnel.
During the war, the peacetime dog kennel attendant's cabin, located on the port side of Sports Deck, located at the base of the aft funnel, became an emergency radio room. It was outfitted with a radio transmitter and a receiver, spare parts, and a hot plate. Manned twenty-four hours a day while at sea during the war, this space is often referred to by some (and denied, to this day, by others) as a great place to play poker late at night.
Pete Robb's buddy on the WEST POINT was Willie Moore, another radar technician. The following picture was taken by Joe Chartrand (C Division, now deceased), the ship's official photographer at the time. Using his ever-present camera, he captured most of the C Division's enlisted personnel sometime in 1944 atop the wheelhouse, facing forward; probably after one of group's frequent calisthenics sessions there. Pete Robb is identified as #13 in this image; and Willie Moore is #14.
The sailor identified as #24 is Eldon Klewin. He and Pete were Liberty buddies, and when Eldon was married, Pete served as Best Man. They were reunited in 2006 via telephone, after years of no contact, thanks to Claude Williams (a C DIV shipmate - #32 in the picture) who currently serves as the President of the USS WEST POINT Reunion Association. Pete lives in Arizona, Eldon in Massachusetts and Claude in New Mexico.
Claude, a Kansas farm boy, has captured his memories of service onboard AP-23 (plus the rest of his thirty years of navy service) in a wonderful memoir entitled The Wake of a Hay Baler. It was this author's pleasure to assist him in its creation a few years ago.
Another member of that communicative group, #34 in the picture, Winton 'Mac' McLain, is still performing yeoman (pun intended) duty for his shipmates. He currently is editor of the reunion association's quarterly newsletter - The Pointer's Pup. Mac also participated in the gathering of news for a newsletter by the same name produced onboard the WEST POINT over 60 years ago. The ship's newspaper, during the war, was called The Pointer. It came out of the print shop about once a week.
But the crew and the troops the WEST POINT transported to and from battlefields all over the world, wanted to know what was going on every day. Hence, a hand-typed, then mimeographed newsletter was put out almost daily.
In this apparently intentionally posed picture, Fosh Ferrell, another of the C Division sailors (#38 in the group picture on the previous page) is pretending to be running what was dubbed The Mimeograph Monster. Anyone who has ever struggled with mimeograph stencils, the balky machinery and forever-staining ink used by these primitive printers will appreciate that moniker. The marine in the background, reading an issue of The Pointer's Pup (and holding an ever-present cigarette) is John Freeman, a member of the ship's Marine Detachment.
With all they had to do, Mac and his C Division shipmates had 'day jobs' in the XO's office, which was located on the starboard side, Sun Deck, on what originally was one of two mezzanines overlooking the First Class Lounge.
One deck below, the lounge itself, albeit partly partitioned off, served as a movie theatre during the war. The peacetime murals on the forward bulkhead of this space were protected by plywood.
As Mac recently recalled: I spent a lot of time in the 'radio shack' while at sea, helping Yeoman 2/c Francis (Fosh) Farrell update code books. I was a Yeoman 3/c at the time. My primary job was in the executive office, but I remember well the layout of the radio shack, the super strong coffee always brewing there and Chief Radioman Parker copying items for the Pup. He and I went on Liberty together a few times, and he sure could drink his share of Old-Fashions.
Chief Parker could copy news better than anyone. He would light up a cigarette, lean back in his chair and listen (with earphones) for a while, and then type like hell to catch up, and repeat this plan until he was finished. Parker had been a radioman on a cruise ship before joining the navy, and they made him a chief immediately.
The radio messages Parker copied were without articles, conjunctions and prepositions and I had to fill them in while cutting a stencil. The Pups were run off on a mimeograph machine. As I remember, we ran off about 1,000 at a time. A lot of them went to the troop sergeants down below who read the news from the Pup to those in the berthing compartments.
One story I'll always remember: Dave Tindall, Radioman 1/c (deceased) usually answered the phone in the radio shack with the line - 'Maggie's house of ill repute, Maggie speaking'. He did that once and it was the communications officer on the other end, a Lieutenant Commander who replied: 'Maggie, come to my office immediately. I'd like to have a chat with you.' But all the commander did was give Dave a lecture on telephone etiquette.
Another WEST POINT radioman, Paul Snead, remembers We had to have news broadcasts for the old man at 0800, 1200 and 1800 hours, every day. On one particular day, I was waiting for the news for the skipper, and at 1730 I could hear it, but by 1800 I could not. The old man had a radio receiver in his cabin, which he often listened to. That day, when I could not get the news for him, he called the communications officer, the chief radioman and me to his quarters. He wanted to know why no 1800 news. They explained that we all tried, but could not get it. The captain wanted to reduce my rank as punishment, but the communications officer came to my defense and changed the old man's mind.
During the war, the WEST POINT's radar equipment was improved. By late 1945, more powerful units had been installed and, at the very top of her foremast, some sixty feet above the wheelhouse, AP-23 sported a large 'bedspring' radar antenna.
In early 1946, all such military gear was removed before the ship returned to Newport News for a multi-million dollar conversion that took months, but allowed AMERICA to completely emerge from her war paint.
Of course, the many advantages of radar were not lost on the nation's peacetime merchant marine, and two smaller radar sets were installed for navigational use.
Whatever upgrades or changes were made to the original radio equipment is not recorded. However, we do know that on November 9, 1946, when she sailed from Newport News to resume a long and useful peacetime career, her ship-to-shore communications were reactivated as Radio Station WEDI.
Radio AMERICA was back in business!
~ POSTSCRIPT ~
Communications was vital to the safety and success of the AMERICA in peacetime - and significantly more so when she served her country as the WEST POINT during World War II. It has been my honor and pleasure, from time to time, to capture and record some of the memories of her war time crew.
Appropriately enough, significant assistance is always provided to me by numerous crew members, but especially two members of AP-23's Communication's Division; Claude Williams and Mac McLain. Their untiring efforts and leadership have also been instrumental in the continuation of their reunion association's annual events, and the frequent publication of The Pointer's Pup in the 21st century.
But then, who else would you logically expect to do that sort of thing - in what is often called the Century of Communication - than such 'youthful' experts from The Greatest Generation? I'm proud to be able to assist Claude (left) and Mac in keeping the memory of their ship alive.