|me, at an Atlanta science museum|
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.
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.
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.