In the Field with IPH
December 1931 QST Article
It is hard to imagine a time when there
wasn't a vast network of highways connecting not just the interior of the continental U.S., but also
interconnecting all of the countries in North America. Just as pioneers in covered wagons and on horseback forged
the routes that became the Oregon Trail in the early 19th century, so did teams of explorers, cartographers and
engineers do the heavy lifting in the early 20th century in establishing the first defined roads for expediting
the transportation of goods and persons all up and down the continent's west coast. Radio operators were among the
crews of the International Pacific Highway (IPH) project. Heavy, bulky, and fragile tube-based radio equipment was
transported in vehicles equally bereft of adequate facilities in the form of power and shock absorbing
suspensions. This story from a 1931 edition of the ARRL's QST magazine tells of harrowing experiences in the
jungles and mountains of South America, including very aggressive natives and even bands of roving banditos.
Reading the story conjures up thoughts of The
Treasure of the Sierra Madre and famous "I don't have to show you any stinking badges" line.
Zepp antennas were
the order of the day for successful QSOs in just about any environment.
These articles are scanned and OCRed from old editions of the
ARRL's QST magazine. Here is a list of the
QST articles I have already posted. As time permits, I will
be glad to scan articles for you. All copyrights (if any) are hereby acknowledged.
See all available
vintage QST articles.
In the Field with IPH
By Bertram Sandham, W6VO
What a vicious look we gave those rugged and forbidding mountains that lay to the leeward of the French liner as its
bow tossed the miles aside between Los Angeles harbor and EI Salvador. Beautiful indeed with its cities buried in
the mists of antiquity, but what an obstacle it all offered to the progress of our expedition I I chose to have my
cabin on the weather side of the vessel.
The author (extreme left) keeping the radio car from starting back down the mountain as a bunch of Indians turn
Photo by C. W. Martin, Los Angeles Times
Like shelling peas: Working a W9 with woolen gloves in extreme cold
at an elevation of 10,000 feet.
Weeks were spent cutting tracks for the expedition in jungles such as this.
The first expedition which set out last year to explore the tentative
route for the International Pacific Highway, which will ultimately reach from Alaska to Buenos Aires in Argentine,
had sufficient troubles making progress over the ox-cart trails and boulder strewn terrain, but it now seems a pleasant
vacation trip when paralleled with the vicissitudes that the party encountered on the second expedition which began
its trek from Mexico City January 25th and ended at La Libertad, EI Salvador, May 1st.
The radio layout on
this second trip was a vast improvement over that of the first - at least in the physical make-up and added convenience.
As was the case with the first expedition, little advance notice was given for preparation for the journey. The equipment
was finished and installed only a few hours before the expedition departed, and IPH was not on the air until we were
in the field. On the extreme right in the photograph is the transmitter, a 50-watt tube in a t.p.t.g. circuit. The
power supply rests in its bin in the upper left hand corner and is one of the new products of Ralph Heintz' genius.
This engine generator unit furnishes 52 volts at 350 cycles as well as 10 volts for the filament. This 400 watt machine
is driven by a two cycle single cylinder engine and runs as high as 4000 r.p.m. The unit weighs but 31 pounds complete.
Below the engine compartment is the frequency meter, and to the right of this the receiver using three N tubes. The
other compartments carry coils, vibroplex and other parts. Forty and twenty meter Zepps were carried on a reel and
hung to anything that offered a support. Sometimes a tall building in a city offered an almost vertical antenna while
at other QRA's it was impossible to suspend it higher than ten feet above ground; but it seemed to get out just as
well even so.
The infernal inquisitiveness of the natives is the biggest bugaboo for the operator on such
a trip as this. The radio car must be near a street or road in the city and its array of instruments quickly gathers
the dark-skinned lads and men who are nearby, while the racket made by the engine thoroughly advertises the QRA to
those not nearby and they come running like magic. At Tehuantepec, in southern Mexico, some ambitious fellow started
the game of "tapping." This consisted of tapping someone else in the crowd and quickly withdrawing the hand while
the victim looked around in amazement to learn who had struck him. The progress of this game grew like a sunflower
with everyone tapping someone else harder as time progressed. In a few moments they were falling all over the radio
car bumping against me as I was QSO a W9. A member of the party happened by and came to my assistance by rushing to
the mayor's office and returning with soldiers. The excitement even brought the Mexican federal inspector to the scene
who asked to see my permit for using a radio transmitter in Mexico. Following the QSO I had to conduct him to our
hotel where among a ream of permits for motion pictures, firearms and what not, I showed him the paper permitting
the radio work. He read this and left in great disappointment thinking that he was indeed about to make a big haul.
While camped for the night in a dense jungle we had no other choice than to camp with a forest single fire
as our next door neighbor. This burned slowly however, consuming dried leaves and dead trees. A dead tree nearby was
silently burning inside (unknown to us) and suddenly, as I was QSO W9EUU, the tree toppled over missing the radio
car by several yards and filling the air with ashes and smoke that made the completion of the QSO a very difficult
After departing from the city of Juchitan, we were proceeding slowly over a narrow sunken ox-cart trail
that was grinding the rubber off the tires like an emery wheel. A guide whom we had employed in this city rode in
the first car with the engineer. The cars were running about 300 feet apart due to the dense dust when suddenly the
guide appeared through a dust cloud holding his revolver in his hand and running back toward the city as fast as "his
feet would carry him. He shouted "Hold-up" in Spanish as he passed our car. I stopped instantly and started to open
a compartment for my pistol when my riding companion shouted to leave it there as we were covered. The brush along
the road was filled with rebel bandits with rifles and bandoliers of ammunition. We were ordered to drive up to the
other cars where the leader was ordering them looted. Our interpreter however, talked with the leader at length, and
we were fortunate to lose only a few articles which the bandits were in immediate need of. These consisted of a case
of sardines, flashlights, ammunition, cigarettes, matches, etc. I was thankful no part of the radio equipment was
taken for the reason that I might have to remain behind to teach "his nibs" the code. Some of the members of the expedition
were hazarding the thought that the bandits might follow us and attack again while we were in camp. I added that they
surely would if they ate any of the sardines in the meantime. These we had purchased in Tehuantepec and they were
terrible. Our camp that night was made with a minimum of equipment and we slept with our clothes on.
not on the air daily as on the first expedition. QSO's were had from the principal cities and camps, but more amateurs
were contacted than on the previous trip. Very favorable signal reports were usually given, IPH being rarely less
than R6, several adding that the sigs compared favorably with those of XDA. All districts except sixth and seventh
were heard each time on the air. The hours available for radio work seemed to be those when west coast signal were
not coming through.
Operating a radio transmitter on this type of an expedition, where there is a different
QRA nearly every day, is not what it is cracked up to be. In the jungle it is no easy task to keep the car near camp
and also have the Zepp hanging in a reasonably clear space. The best tree was usually on the other side of the river,
necessitating the use of hip boots. In the small villages there were but one story buildings. In the deep canyons,
heavy mineralized cliffs reduced signals to a whisper. The exhaust of the engine usually prohibited copying signals
that were less than R5 although the engine was placed on the opposite side of the car at the end of a 25 foot cable.
Added to this, the operator drove the radio car - I mean tried to drive it. Boulders half the size of the car covered
the path, while the sides of mountains had to be scaled with 40 Indians pulling on a tow rope. Then we had to wash
our own clothes, put up and dismantle camp, work on the cars, etc. A mosquito head net was necessary while QSO on
the transmitter as well as oil being rubbed on the back of the hands and neck. A small fire was also kept running
to keep the mosquitos, gnats and a thousand other varieties of bugs at bay.
Skip and fading were continuously
bad. Daily business was left hanging on the hook many times due to this annoyance. One member of the expedition interested
himself with this phenomena and concluded that if the flat top of the Zepp had an acute bend in it, the signals would
be sent out in such a ghastly form that Mr. Skip would hide when he saw them coming. To keep peace in camp the Zepp
was hung the following day with an acute hump in it, and lo! sigs were R8 and no skip. This was no break for me. I
had to tell him that it was worse than ever.
About 15 miles were driven along the railroad right of
way over mahogany ties that were anything but straight. More than a dozen railroad bridges were utilized to cross
rivers too deep for fording. The brakes on one of the cars locked as it endeavored to climb up over the rails onto
the bed with a train due in 15 minutes. The mechanic hurriedly disconnected all of the brake rods but not before the
train came hustling down the line. It stopped within a few feet of the car while the engineer shook his fist from
the cab window.
The passage of the cars from the city of Oaxaca to Tehuantepec, a distance of seventy miles,
consumed fifty days, the party working every day including Sunday to move the cars over the 40 percent grades in the
mountains. The Tehuantepec River was crossed 88 times in 17 miles, about every third crossing requiring block and
Rain governs the length of time that the expedition can remain in the field. Rains began falling when
we entered the republic of El Salvador so we headed for the nearest port (La Libertad) and the cars were lightered
out to the vessel and we headed for home. A torrential downpour caught us high in the mountains among the coffee plantations
and, even though we used chains, the day will remain indelible in my memory. Using low gear as a brake down a steep
grade the front wheels refused to respond to the steering wheel as I came to a curve. The front wheels went over the
cliff while the right rear fender struck a coffee tree tearing the fender away from the running board but holding
the car back from a 1500 foot dive down to the river.
The political situations in Honduras and Nicaragua will
strongly govern the plans of the expedition for the third trip, which normally would depart again next January to
pick up the thread of the trail at El Salvador and proceed to Panama if possible. Several hundred miles of jungle
in Costa Rica must be progressed through which there is not a vestige of a trail today.
Radio conditions for
short wave transmission and reception between southern Mexico or Central America and the Sixth U. S. District during
our spring months is atrocious. It proved so on this trip. An occasional QSO of the usual variety was sandwiched in
several times, but to get several hundred words of press for newspapers and other messages off the hook daily is out
of the question. Several operators in the sixth district have related to me since my return to civilization that they
had heard operators in the ninth district give IPH R7 and R8 copying me single, but the sixes in question were unable
to hear my signals at all, hunt and twist the dial as they might even though they knew I was on the air at the moment.
However, there was not a single exception encountered when an amateur was contacted that he did not stand ready to
take press and other messages and forward them. Many, no doubt, did not handle traffic as a general rule but all were
ready to help IPH. One cannot realize what this means until buried in the jungles or high in the barren mountains
in terrific heat and has the amateurs to depend upon to move the business. I want to offer my sincere thanks to all
of them. Here are the stations with which successful contacts were made: W9BPL W6EW W6DK W4AEV W8BOJ W9UM W8BJX W9CES
W5BOL W2AHZ W1KM W8BUM W1ZZ OA4V W4AEM W4AJD W4LM W8DNO W7AAT W5AB W6CYR W8ANO YN2XUF W5YW W6EPH W5AGG W4AEL W4ABS
W4BC W2BO NJ2PA W4SR TI3XA W9YL W5CE W6BKL W6DZD W6AHP W5HA W5VQ CM1BY W9ID W4AKH W8BF W3JM W5QL W8BF W5LB W2BAK W2AHZ
W9ETA W9EUU W4ALD W2DB W9DFT CM1EM.