The events in this article appear to have taken place around 1913.
There is a link at the bottom of this page, detailing a similar tragedy, which was played out about 65 years later.
Radio Broadcast, June, 1924, pages 147-151:
Adventures of a Wireless Free-Lance
A Thrill that Came Thrice in a Night-time
By GEORGE F. WORTS
WHAT tales they could tell--if wireless operators only dared! No wide-awake lad can hammer brass on the high seas for very long without collecting a fund of delicate information which he will refrain from putting into his memoirs. The oath of secrecy to which he solemnly swore when he obtained his license placed a seal upon his lips and an emergency brake upon his pen. If he confided his secrets to the public, his license might be revoked; he might be summoned to answer embarrassing questions in court; he might even spend some time manufacturing brooms or automobile license plates. He might, in any event, cause some one a great deal of trouble.
The traveling public has always looked upon the wireless man as a mystery man; and that attitude is the correct one for the traveling public to take. A wireless operator is, in a sense, a walking Pandora's box! I know one operator, now on a Transpacific run, who dares not tell what he knows concerning a certain shipwreck in which several lives were lost because of another operator's negligence. The negligent operator went to a salty death proclaimed a hero. Further details in that case I cannot safely divulge.
The war came after my time at sea, but I am sure that a great many of the wireless men who served during that adventurous period must fairly be bursting with secrets.
What goes on inside an operator's head phones is sacred. Wild horses could not drag from me some of the things I have plucked out of the air; but I do not believe I will be violating the spirit of my old oath in relating the story of the three distress signals that came my way in a single night. It happened a good many years ago; the actors in that far-flung drama are scattered now to the four quarters of the globe; no one, so far as I am aware, made any mistakes; and, just to be on the safe side, I will refrain from mentioning the names of the ships which took part. Some facts I will disguise, but the conditions and sensations of that night I will reproduce as faithfully as I know how.
I was at that time the second operator on a large fast ship which we will call the Saurian, although any Pacific coast operator who chances to read this article will penetrate my secret in a jiffy.
The Saurian had the honorary title, in wireless circles, of "supervisor ship." She ran on a regular, close schedule between San Francisco and Honolulu. Her wireless house was a square bump on the boat deck just abaft the funnel and it boasted a wireless installation probably very similar to the one with which Noah equipped the Ark. Judged by present standards it was, at all events, antique and quaint. The transmitting set comprised a two-kilowatt open core transformer of the United Wireless type, a battery of Leyden jars mounted in a handsome imitation mahogany cabinet for a condenser, a helix of silver-plated copper tubing, and a rotary spark gap driven at about three thousand r. p. m. and producing, when received, a mellow melancholy note. It was the sweetest spark I ever heard. Our wavelength was somewhere in the neighborhood of 600 meters, although nobody knew and nobody cared. The set was a freak. It had a tremendous range. That antique transformer consumed, I am sure, more than forty amperes; and we had amazing radiation. Because of our phenomenal sending range and the express train regularity of our schedule, the Saurian had become the Pacific supervisor ship. That is to say, we had the authority of a land station over other ships within range. We relayed an immense amount of traffic and were supposed to supervise the radio manners of our brethren. It goes without saying that the operators on the Saurian were keenly aware of their importance, and heartily disliked by all.
On the run with which this chronicle is concerned, we pulled out of San Francisco on a nasty gray day in the teeth of a stiff head wind. Wind pressure ran up to fifty miles an hour before we were abreast of the Farallones; and two days later, as we plunged and wallowed westward, we ran head-first into a howling eighty-mile gale. All afternoon we plunged and pitched and corkscrewed. The first operator came off watch at midnight, limp and greenish of complexion, and I went on the job in a state of mind and stomach even more pronounced.
Everything that could come loose in the wireless cabin had already come loose. Spume was flying the length of the ship with the stinging force of hail. The full-gale howled in the funnel guys and aerial wires. The wireless cabin rose and fell with that swooping sensation peculiar to express elevators in forty-story buildings. We were five decks above the water line.
It was a bad night on the air as well. When I put on the phones and adjusted our carborundum detector, static came sputtering in. It was faint and distant but persistent enough to interfere with long distance work. KPH and KPJ, the San Francisco and San Pedro shore stations, were droning out storm warnings for the entire Pacific coast; but business proceeded as usual. I relayed a string from an incoming Jap boat to KPH and another batch from KPH to the Sonoma, a Union Liner in the Australian service, a day out of Honolulu, eastbound.
Then quiet, save for the static, descended for almost an hour. A copy of my log for that night, which I preserved for years, was destroyed recently in a fire, and I must rely upon a somewhat unreliable memory. Shortly before two o'clock everybody seemed to get busy at once. The Jap had another string for me to shoot along to KPH. KHK (Honolulu Marconi) wanted me to relay a batch to KPH--he couldn't work him direct because of the static--and ships all over the Pacific were buzzing away. As I recall it, from two to three o'clock in the morning was always the busiest hour of the night on the Pacific.
And through that busy buzzing I suddenly heard a far-away, whispery SOS--or believed I did. I immediately called Frisco and asked him if he had heard an SOS. He replied that he had not, and told me to send a "CQ" which meant, in those days, "All stations stand by!" The list of international "Q abbreviations" had not then been adopted. But a CQ was not needed. Following my brief query to KPH and his answer, the air cleared magically.
THE NIGHT: THREE S O S CALLS
I STOOD by for orders from Frisco, and after a moment he told me that he still heard nothing. I knew he had not heard, for, long before he started to send, the faint, far-away, whispery spark was calling again. It was so faint that the shuddering of our ship obliterated it; so faint that it hardly reached me through the scratching of the static. Somehow I had always pictured a ship in distress as being conveniently near, and the faintness of this spark made me believe that the whole Pacific Ocean lay between us. For all practical purposes, it did.
While I was straining my ears to catch his call letters, a vigorous, clear, crisp buzz filled my 'phones.
A second ship calling for help before I could even identify the first one! The next half hour was destined to be the busiest I had ever lived. Within that half-hour, there were three of them. The gale must have dropped down from the sky and struck the entire Pacific at a single blow.
If you will glance at a map of the Pacific Ocean and make a mark one third of the way from San Francisco to Honolulu on the course which ships on that route follow, you will know the approximate position of the Saurian on that terrible night.
"Can you hear either of them?" I snapped at Frisco.
"Don't hear anything but static!" Frisco snapped back.
In an interlude between splashes of static I caught the call letter that the far-away whispery spark was sending, and a glance at my list of calls identified it as a fishing boat. The second distress call had been dispatched by a tramp freighter.
For a moment I didn't know what to do. Then I sent a general CQ; told the tramp to stand by and the fishing boat to report his position; and I will never forget the agonizing faintness of that distant, husky, faltering spark.
It was necessary for him to repeat each word three times, and even this laborious procedure left blanks that I filled by guesswork. Repetition in transmission when you are in a hurry is always irritating, always nerve-wracking; and on that occasion, as I tried to read that whisper of a sound and to shelter it with cupped hands from the rumbling of the Saurian, the squeaking of the wireless room woodwork and the shouting of the wind, it was maddening.
"Have not seen the sun in days," he painfully pounded out, "and have been blown so far off our course we can only guess where we are. Captain says we are about Lat.---; Long.---" The exact position figures I do not recall. It does not matter, for no one ever verified them. At all events, the distressed fishing boat was about seven hundred miles north of us. I asked him about his condition.
"We are in very bad shape," the faint whisper answered. "Forward cabin smashed in. All boats gone and only one raft left. Pumps can't keep up with water. Fireroom is flooding. We are lying to, with engine turning only enough to head us into it. Old man wants to know how soon you can get help to us. We won't hold together many hours."
TRAGEDY--700 MILES AWAY
IMAGINE having that responsibility placed personally on your shoulders by a man seven hundred miles away! I sent out a query asking for a report from any ship within running distance of the distressed fishing boat--and no one answered. For ten minutes I pounded away, trying to raise some one; and that was the beginning of the most real tragedy I have ever experienced. Perhaps my imagination cut the thing out of whole cloth, but, as I saw it, there was I, carrying on conversation with a man who might, in the next breath, be strangling to death in icy salt water; and the Saurian, apparently the nearest source of help, was two days at full sea speed away from him!
In answer to my further calls, presently a shrill whine was heard. It was a Nippon Yusan Kaisha boat, a Jap, on the Seattle-Yokohama-Hong Kong run.
"Four hundred miles due south of him. Advise," said the Jap.
"Keep in touch with him and try to raise some ship nearer to him," I answered.
And it was then that the third SOS of that packed half-hour came droning in--this time an oil tanker. The operator gave me his position without having to be asked for it.
"Away off our course, but estimate Lat.---; Long.---"
I reached up and made another mark on our chart of the Pacific. The oil tanker was approximately five hundred miles away, in a southeast by south direction.
"KPH," I called, "can you hear W---?"
"Can't hear anything but static," Frisco replied. "Handle them all."
I called for a condition report from the tanker.
"Rudder is jammed," was the answer. "On our beam ends in the trough. Danger acute. SOS--SOS! Must have help at once!"
Then: "SOS!--SOS!--SOS!" buzzed the tramp, "Sinking! Send help!"
The shrill whine of the Jap stopped and I could hear the fishing boat's despairing whisper:
It was dreadful! I desperately told the fishing boat to continue calling; the oil tankers to shut up and stand by; the tramp to give me position and condition.
He gave his position, and I made another mark on our chart of the Pacific. He was approximately twelve hundred miles northwest by west of Cape San Lucas, which is the lowermost extremity of the peninsula of Lower California, or about six hundred miles southwest of the Saurian.
"Wave stove in hatch-cover in forward deck well hour ago. Hold flooding. Bow almost submerged. Waves breaking all over us. All boats smashed or lost. Must have help quick."
I asked if any ship was near him. There was a prompt answer from a Pacific Mail passenger boat in the San Francisco-Panama express service.
"Am about forty miles southeast of him. Any one any nearer?"
It appeared that no one was nearer. I instructed the Mail boat to deal with him; then went to work on the oil tanker. I sent out the usual query, asking any ship near him to answer. There were three replies. The nearest ship was a Blue Funnel, a British freighter, between fifty and sixty miles northwest of him. I told the Blue Funnel and the oil tanker to work it out between them.
You may be wondering why the Saurian acted in a supervisory capacity in the handling of those three distress calls; and the reason is interesting. I do not believe that three distress calls received simultaneously under exactly those conditions would be handled in that fashion to-day. They would be handled individually and simultaneously by the ships nearest the distressed vessels. In those days, tuning-out interference was much more difficult than it is to-day, for three reasons. To-day, the transmitting sets of all ships are much more sharply tuned; a variety of transmitting wavelengths is available; and receiving apparatus is much more selective. If I had not supervised all transmission very rigidly that night, no one could have worked through the jam. We were all working on six hundred meters, and our waves were very broad.
Now, all of this may sound cool and orderly, but permit me to state that there was nothing cool or orderly about the state that my mind was in. The crisis had turned me into an automatic nervous machine. I was so panicky that I had to grip the key firmly with the fingers of my right hand and hold my right elbow steady with my left hand. Nor was the state of my nerves eased by the plunging, the pitching and the corkscrewing of the Saurian, the squeaking of the woodwork, or the howl of wind and hiss of spray. My chair was lugged down to the floor, and my legs were wrapped tightly about the chair-legs or I would have been catapulted out of it.
HOW THEORY DIFFERS FROM COLD FACT
AFTER the arrangements had been made for the relief of the oil tanker and the tramp I must have sat for fifteen minutes with both hands clamped over the phones, forcing them down on my ears, trying to collect my wits. I have often imagined other operators I have known--men who are calm and cool and resourceful--going through that ordeal with a steady hand and a steady eye, logging it all up as they went along, crisply reporting each event as it occurred to the officer on watch, as a well-trained operator should do. It would be pleasant to paint a picture of myself as that sort of hero. But I wasn't a hero in any respect; I was a quaking, terrified, blundering kid, forced by circumstance into a position of tremendous responsibility that I would have eagerly shirked. Later on, in my capacity of nine-day wonder, I assumed a lofty, nonchalant pose in static rooms; looked down upon ordinary operators with a great deal of disdain, and admitted under their bombardment of questions that the emergency had found me brave and composed; but the twenty or thirty operators who were listening in within range of the Saurian that night knew me for the monumental young liar that I was! I make my confession now without the slightest embarrassment. But let us get on with the story.
The Blue Funnel reported that the captain had changed her course and was going to the rescue of the oil tanker. The Pacific Mail boat reported that she was steaming full speed to the aid of the crippled tramp. And the Nippon Yusan Kaisha reported that the fishing boat no longer responded to his calls.
The rest of the night the Jap and I devoted to trying to raise the fishing boat or any ship within short running distance. The operator of the fishing boat did not reply again. In those days some ships carried only one operator, whose duties were divided between working the radio and some other kind of ship's business. I had hoped that the operator of such a ship might listen in sometime during the night; but no one answered. We were probably still appealing for help long after the fishing boat broke into pieces.
The night was practically gone when my nerves really gave way. KPH called me and I tried to answer, but my hand would not work the key.
DID THE NIGHT SWALLOW GROPING MESSAGES?
EVERY nerve in it seemed dead--or disconnected. The thought of the fishing boat going down--that operator, with whom I had been talking, trying vainly to be of some help, probably a dead man by this time--made me limp and dizzy. I hated the sea as I have never hated it before or since. I made up my mind never to go to sea again. But I did, of course. You always do. And I hated static that night, too, more than I have ever hated it before or since. I have always thought that that man was trying to tell me something that the static would not let me hear. He kept on sending. The Jap, with his poor understanding of English, must have missed the sense of it. Did he send some message that no one received--just before his ship went to pieces? That I might have missed such a message is one reason why I have told this story to very few people. . . .
Day was breaking when I went out on deck for a breath of fresh air. The force of the gale was broken, but mountainous waves were rolling down upon us from out of the misty grayness. Spray stung my face and spattered hissing on the hot funnel. It did not seem possible that a ship as large as the Saurian could roll and plunge so and not rip apart. Every moment she staggered and thundered as waves piled completely over the peak.
The second mate came aft, lurching from one permanent object to another. He gave me a glare as he approached. He was a grizzled old timer, a relic of sailing ship days--the kind of ship's officer who thinks that wireless operators are insulting reminders of a mechanical age that is taking more and more of the kingly authority out of the hands of the men who navigate ships. He stopped near me and bawled above the wind:
"Say! What in hell are you doing away from your post? Don't you know you belong in there with those things on your head? How do you know but what ships are in trouble all over the Pacific in weather like this?"
Well, that's the life of a wireless operator. Anyhow, it was in those days. Maybe times have changed.
The fishing boat was the only complete disaster of the night. Parts of her were found floating about the sea, but none of the crew was saved. The Blue Funnel towed the tanker back into Honolulu for repairs; and the Mail boat took the crew off the freighter. She was still floating when they got away, but went down before night.
My First SOS at NMO, by Jeffrey Herman, reviews a similar crisis, about 65 years later. Herman was a Coast Guard operator at station NMO in Honolulu, Hawaii. Much is different, but much is the same--in both cases the emergency starts at 2:00 in the morning, the location is the Pacific Ocean, and communication is by Morse code on a wavelength of 600 meters (frequency of 500 kilocycles). KPH in San Francisco also makes an appearance in both accounts.