An Ol' Story
Are There Any Real Radiomen in the House?

by Paul H. Bock, Jr. - K4MSG ETCM, USNR-RET, January 19, 2009

        Around 1967, the U.S. Navy announced that it would no longer require candidates seeking promotion to Radioman (RM) 2nd Class (E-5) to pass a code test. Not surprisingly the response was mixed, with older Radiomen decrying this "dumbing down" of the promotion requirements - the same argument that thousands of older amateur radio operators would use after the turn of the new millennium when the FCC dropped all Morse code requirements for a ham license - while younger RMs were jubilant, seeing the code requirement as archaic amid the growing use of narrow-band, multitone radioteletype and the just-emerging technology of shipboard satellite communications. (NOTE: I never quite understood the "dumbing down" argument. While I have used code since the late 1950s and highly recommend it, I know that intellectual prowess has nothing whatsoever to do with learning it; code-copying ability is just an acquired skill, like typing. In fact, if you think too much it will impede your speed development progress.)

        There were also those pessimists who expressed the usual gloom-and-doom scenarios about the time when code might be needed and no one would know how to use it. Thankfully I know of no disasters caused by the demise of the code as an operational tool, but I did have one personal experience that is interesting enough to share.


        In 1969 I was assigned to the U.S. Naval Communications Station (NAVCOMMSTA), located at Sidi Yahia, Morocco. I had recently been promoted from Chief Electronics Technician (E-7) to a temporary appointment as Warrant Officer (W-1) and was assigned as the officer-in-charge of the Receiver Site located about a mile from the main communications complex Terminal Building. Our job was to keep radio receivers tuned to high-frequency (HF) communications channels as directed by Facilities Control (or FACON, in the aforesaid Terminal Building) so as to maintain encrypted radioteletype (RATT) communications with the U.S., other NAVCOMMSTAs, and the ships of the U.S. 6th Fleet. In addition to banks of receivers and acres of rhombic antennas we also maintained several Local Operator Positions (LOPs) for "emergency at sea" communications on the International Distress Frequency of 500 kHz, each position being equipped with a medium-frequency (MF) receiver and a telegraph key. The key could be connected by remote wire to the transmitter site located at the Naval Radio Station (T) at Bouknadel, Morocco, some 20 miles away.

        My staff consisted of a Chief Electronics Technician (E-7) and a maintenance crew of younger ETs, and a Chief Radioman (E-7) with a rotating watch staff of younger radiomen. The Chief Radioman, RMC Decker, had been in the Navy for around 15 years so he had "grown up" in the Morse Code era as a Navy Radioman.

        One morning about 0900 I received a telephone call from my LCDR boss at the Terminal Building who informed me that there was a commercial freighter believed to be located off the coast of Morocco that might have a bomb hidden on board. The ship's owners had been unable to contact the vessel by radio and NAVCOMMSTA Morocco was being asked to use the 500 kHz International Distress Frequency to send an International Morse Code message prefaced by the Urgency Signal, XXX, "in the blind" (i.e., without knowing if it was being received) during the 3-minute "quiet times" at 15 minutes before and 15 minutes past each hour.

"Paul, get something set up on your operator positions," my boss instructed. "Bouk (Bouknadel) will put a transmitter on 500 kHz."

"Aye, aye, sir, " I replied, hung up the telephone and hurried off to find Chief Decker. I explained the situation and he set about the task at hand. I returned to my office and after about 10 minutes Chief Decker came in and said, "Mr. Bock, we have a problem. None of the RMs in the watch section know Morse Code. They've all been trained as facilities operators and most of them weren't even taught code in A school."

"OK," I replied, "check with the off-watch sections and I'll call FACON." It wasn't long before we discovered that none of our RMs, on watch or off, had any competence in Morse Code nor did anyone in FACON; to a man they were all specialized and most had never been taught code at all.

"Well, I know the code," said Chief Decker.

"So do I," I replied. "Let's set up the LOP and do it ourselves."

        Chief Decker grinned broadly and we went out gleefully to begin our new assignment. With the LOP receiver set to 500 kHz and the telegraph key connected to a high-power (probably 3 kw) transmitter at Bouknadel, the Chief and I took turns sending the following repeated message (with 10-second pauses to listen for a reply) for a three-minute interval twice every hour. I don't recall the merchant ship's call sign so I have substituted KXYZ; CNL was the NAVCOMMSTA call sign.


        We sent the message at about 15 words per minute while the RMs on watch observed us with a mixture of curiosity and perhaps a little envy; it was a history lesson in how Naval communications "used to be." We continued throughout the morning and into the afternoon, taking turns going for lunch or coffee, with one of us monitoring the 500 kHz distress frequency continually between transmissions although we never received a response from the ship. By early afternoon we began discussing setting up a two-man watch schedule to continue our vigil into the evening, but a call came from FACON notifying us that we could stop the transmissions because the problem "had been resolved."

        We never knew whether or not the ship had ever heard us calling.

POSTSCRIPT: About a year later the operating spaces at the Receiver Site were reconfigured to incorporate additional cryptologic RATT circuits of high interest. The CW LOPs were removed and never replaced.

Best Regards, Paul Bock - K4MSG de Hamilton, Virginia