Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Veteran Heroes Get it Done

Thought for the day:  As you get older it is harder to have heroes, but it is sort of necessary. Ernest Hemingway

me, at an Atlanta science museum
When you spoke to him on the air, he was JY1, and he had as much fun on amateur radio as anyone else you contacted. Off the air, the friendly Hussein was King Hussein of Jordan. (For a while, he and I even ran the same radio, a Drake TR-7. Pretty cool, huh?)

One of the fascinating aspects of amateur radio is you never know who may come back to you when you put out a call. Could be a king, sheik, politician, entertainer, singer, astronaut, or just a friendly "1938 model with a shiny top," which is how one contact described himself to me when I was operating W4WOW, the station at (now-closed) SciTrek Museum in Atlanta. Not to be a name-dropper, but ... okay, so I AM being a name-dropper ... but some names you may recognize from the amateur radio fraternity are Barry Goldwater, Walter Cronkite, Priscilla Presley, Joe Walsh, (of the Eagles), Ronnie Milsap, Chet Atkins, and Arthur Godfrey. Lots of royalty from all over the world. Lots of politicians, and lots of famous people. Since there's amateur radio gear on the International Space Station, as well as on other space crafts, most astronauts are hams, too. And they seem to get as much of a kick out of talking to us earth-bound operators as we get out of talking to them.

So, I've had the privilege of speaking to and meeting some really neat people, of hearing my echoing voice bouncing back at me from a satellite, and even shaking the president's hand. All because of amateur radio.

With Veteran's Day coming up in a couple days, I wanted to tell you about one of my favorite amateur radio experiences, the contacts I will never forget. This is the saga of a group of honest-to-goodness American heroes, who captured both my imagination and my heart. A bunch of geezers who knew how to get 'er done.

In 1943, General Dwight Eisenhower said, No amphibious attack in history had approached this one in size. Along miles of coastline there were hundreds of vessels and small boats afloat and ant-like files of advancing troops ashore. 

Ike was specifically referring to a landing at Sicily, but he could just as easily have said the same about multiple other WWII amphibious landings. And in every one of those landings, the LST was a major player. An indispensable star. LST stands for Landing Ship, Tank, and those vessels were specifically designed to carry tanks, troops, and supplies directly onto enemy shores, a vital job no other vessel was capable of performing.

Fast forward to the late '90s. The non-profit organization USS LST Memorial, Inc., a 10,000-member strong group of LST veterans, wanted to acquire and restore a WWII LST as a museum for the American people. One major problem from the get-go? The United States didn't have any. The government  had already either given away, scrapped, or sold all of them to other countries. At that time, Taiwan had 23, Brazil had a couple, and some were in Mexico and the Philippines.

And as it turned out, some had also been transferred to Greece in 1964 under a Military Assistance Program. After serving as part of the Greek Navy for more than thirty years, the country had mothballed them in Crete several years earlier. Talk about serendipity. Greece was done with them. Ready to scrap 'em. So some of our heroes headed to Greece, negotiated, and picked out the LST with the strongest-looking hull. That proud old vessel, the former LST 325, laid down at the Philadelphia Navy yard and launched in 1942, commissioned in 1943, veteran of multiple campaigns in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, decommissioned in '46, and transferred to Greece in '64, was once again in American hands.

But that was just the beginning.

In July of 2000, a group of mostly WWII veterans, average age 74, went to Crete to undertake the herculean task of getting that old craft seaworthy again. In blistering heat, in the face of countless obstacles, back-breaking work, and frequent stonewalling by the Justice Department, those guys surmounted the insurmountable, and accomplished what some said was impossible.

The Crew

From the time the crew arrived in Crete, an online log chronicled the hurdles they faced, and the mostly good humor with which they faced them. That log is still available, but if you want to read it in chronological order, start at the bottom of the page and work your way up. One entry says, This ain't no job for sissies. And it truly wasn't.

The 8th of August entry reads If you want to know what it is like to be a member of the crew here in Crete, it's very easy to describe, it's hot as Hell and work all the time. (No exaggeration. Temperatures were well over one hundred on deck. Below deck, it was even hotter.)

On the 10th of August- Many needed items missing or damaged beyond use. Since there's another inactive LST tied up alongside us, the usual solution is based on the idea God helps those who help themselves. 

In spite of all the obstacles, in spite of the age and serious illnesses of some of the crew members, LST 325, refurbished and retrofitted with $25,000 worth of satellite navigational equipment, modern communications, computer gear, and life rafts, embarked on a 6500-mile voyage back to the United States on the 14th of November. Private donations of $70,000, plus a 50,000-gallon donation of diesel fuel from BP Oil Company, made the rebuild, repair, and voyage home possible, but it was the hard work and perseverance of those veterans, that crew of senior citizen sailors, that got the job done. 

In case you hadn't already guessed it, amateur radio was part of  the communications aboard that LST, and  WW2LST operated almost every day during the nearly two-month trip across the ocean. The ham originally slated to operate was unable to sail due to illness, so another amateur radio operator among the crew was drafted to pull the duty. You could almost see the twinkle in his eye when Jack Carter apologized on the air to all the hams who were so eager to talk to him, when he said he wasn't used to working pile-ups. (That's when someone puts out a call, and it sounds like half the world's population responds at the same time.) But you know what? He did a terrific job. I had the honor of listening to his conversations many times, and of speaking to him several, and he was always a delight. 

LST 325 arrived in Mobile, Alabama, on January 10, 2001, and our heroes were greeted by cheering crowds. Many newspaper articles were written about them, and the History channel even produced a program about the escapades of this never-give-up group of stubborn, wonderful veterans.

Today, the vessel is moored at its permanent berth in Evansville, Indiana. True to the aspirations of those veterans, it is a museum ship now, available for all of us to see and honor. But most of all, I honor that dauntless group of veterans who made it happen. 

Amateur radio operators exchange what we call QSL cards to confirm various specifics of our contacts, like date, time, radio frequency, power used, mode, rig, antenna, signal report, and often a personal note, as well. Here is the QSL card confirming my contacts with LST 325. (The MM stands for maritime mobile.)

On the back of the card, in addition to the confirmation specifics, it reads, We are sad to report that Jack Carter became a Silent Key on February 20, 2001 shortly after returning on this voyage of a lifetime.

                                  Until next time, take care of yourselves. And each other.


  1. Wow, Susan. I had no idea that amateur radio was such a popular hobby among the royalty and celebs of the world -- although I'm not surprised about the astronauts. And what an amazing group of veterans to dedicate such time and Herculean effort to bring one of those LST's home. Thanks for sharing the story!

  2. What a great story. Talk about a labor of love! And yes, I know about hams- my Uncle Bert was a ham radio guy. He and Barry Goldwater chatted every Sunday. It's a marvelous medium. Great story, Susan, thanks!

  3. What an amazing story about an amazing group of men. I so like the way they refer to their comrade as a "silent key".

  4. Wow, Susan, I am in awe. Anyone who reads this will tell that this is a great story. What I felt also was your heart as you spoke of these brave, can-do, men. It truly touched me.

    Job, well done.

  5. Hi, Dianne. You'd be surprised at some of the world's VIPs who are/were hams. Glad you enjoyed the story about the vets and their LST. Remarkable men.

    Austan- You're right. It truly was a labor of love. Very cool on your uncle being a ham. Barry Goldwater was very active on the air, and had an impressive antenna farm.

    Delores- Yes, they really were amazing. Silent Key (or SK) is the common term in amateur radio lingo to describe another ham who's passed away.

    Arleen- I'm glad their story touched you. Glad you like the new pic, too. (I had a regular "yam session" yesterday, dressing a sweet potato and then taking pictures of it. A little weird, maybe, but it was fun!)

  6. Ditto, ditto, ditto. Great story. Hamming is something I've never done. Sounds like fun. Everyone I have ever met that was a ham was addicted to it. Usually a whole wall of radio stuff in some corner of the house.

  7. Arleen- Me, too. Why be "normal" when weird is so much more fun?

    Mr. C- Never too late to give hamming a try, ya know. We once gave an entry level test to a fella in his late eighties. Addiction? Maybe. More like a disease. (Contagious, too!)

  8. Chet Atkins; my goodness. I do hope he played a few songs for you... one of the all-time greats!!

  9. good tale
    and I love the pic of the crew......including that hard ass with the bare chest!

  10. Well I have learned something new. (I was wondering about the hard ass... )

    Quite the yam that, Susan!

  11. Wow Susan! Every time I stop by I learn something new. I have to share this with Terry, I think he would love amateur radio. Isn't it amazing where life takes us and the people that touch our lives. What a beautiful story and you were part of it.

  12. Cro- Indeed he was, and the suffix of his callsign was CGP ... "Crazy Guitar Picker."

    John- Glad you liked it. And the pic of the hard ass ...

    Carrie- If I remember right, there used to be a picture on their site showing the whole crew on deck in little more than their skivvies. Guess they decided that pic was too undignified, but at those high temperatures, our "hard ass" was probably more concerned about being comfortable than he was worried about his dignity. (Yeah? Like that yam? The feather boa is my favorite part.)

    Tracy- Great. I hope your Terry gets interested in the hobby. Any questions, let me know.

  13. What an amazing story! You were in great company for such a worthwhile cause. These men depended on you and your amateur radio friends, for communication as well as a means of escape. You should be proud that you helped so many veterans including the senior sailors in their heroic efforts. Julie