In the Field with IPH
1931 QST Article
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.
December 1931 QST
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. 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 it around.
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
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.
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.
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 task.
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.
IPH was 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.
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 tackle.
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.
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.