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. Per this 1932 Radio News magazine article, 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
Presenting 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
"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,'
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.
Convict Ship - 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!
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.
Mutiny! - 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 mate."
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 in jail.
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 convenience.
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 from complimentary.
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 for me.
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.
Finally our work was done, the crew was once again mustered,
and we proceeded to sea, bound for Coronel, Chile, for our next coaling.
A Beautiful View - This is one of the many scenes greeting the
eye when we pulled into Rio de Janeiro.
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.
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
"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.
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.
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 of teeth.
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
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 the city.
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 barber's shop.
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 about that.
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
Posted November 23, 2021
(updated from original post on 8/5/2014)