Friday, November 25, 2011

Voice of America: Shipboard Radio Stations

Ship No. 1: The Story of the USS Texas

It is quite well known in the radio world that the Voice of America was on the air from the radio ship Courier while it was anchored in the harbor at the island of Rhodes in the eastern Mediterranean. However, it is not quite so well known that VOA was on the air in earlier times from many other radio ships; in fact over the years VOA has been involved with a dozen or more different radio ships all told.
On this occasion, we trace the story of the very first involvement on the part of the Voice of America in radio broadcasting from a ship, the navy vessel Texas 2. In this new mini-series, we will investigate the story of each VOA radio ship in chronological order, and we plan to present the information approximately every second week here in Wavescan. Today, this is the story about VOA ship No. 1, the USS Texas.
The massive warship, the USS Texas, was launched at Newport News in Virginia way back in the year 1912. It was close to 600 feet long, and more than 100 feet wide. The total weight of this ship was 34,000 tons. The USS Texas achieved two moments of fame in its illustrious career spanning 36 years. In the year 1919, it was the first American battleship to launch experimental aircraft at sea; and in 1942, it acted as the first seaborne radio station associated with the Voice of America. This ship was decommissioned just six years later, in 1948. These days, the Texas lies at anchor in the Jacinto State Park, near Houston in the state of Texas, where it is now a historic museum piece and a popular tourist attraction. Many postcards from the days of its former glory are still available from postcard dealers nationwide.
On October 1, 1942, a detachment of 20 signal corps personnel was formed at Camp Pickett in Virginia as the 1st Broadcast Station Operating Detachment. Their assigned purpose was to procure equipment, and train and prepare for the operation of a radio broadcasting station on board a United States navy vessel.
Loading days for the Texas, and all of the flotilla of ships associated with Operation Torch, the American invasion of North Africa, began in earnest at several major ports on the eastern seaboard of the United States on October 22, 1942. Among the multitudinous items of cargo loaded onto the Texas was a 5 kW mediumwave transmitter that had been secured from Jersey City, and a power generator that was previously in use at a cotton mill in South Carolina. For the purpose of broadcasting to the people in coastal areas of Morocco in North Africa, the 5 kW mediumwave transmitter was tuned to the frequency 601 kHz, the same channel that was in use on shore at Radio Maroc Rabat. It is presumed that some form of test broadcasts were radiated in advance to ensure that the transmitter would function correctly at the time of the coming invasion. Historic documents tell us that the first broadcast from the “Voice of Freedom” on board the Texas was made around 4:30 am local time on November 8, 1942. At the time, the Texas was stationed in the Mediterranean off the coast of Rabat in Morocco, and the first channel for this epic broadcast was the 601 kHz, the same as the mediumwave station ashore in Rabat. On board the Texas were additional radio personnel from the Voice of America and the American OWI department. Programming for this first broadcast was in French and English, and it consisted of recorded messages, off-air relays from shortwave stations located in the United States and England, and local announcements. The recorded speeches were broadcast in the French language by President Roosevelt and General Eisenhower. This first message was presented in French by an American diplomat, Col. Julius Holmes, pretending to be General Eisenhower, though the president's message was delivered in almost perfect French by President Roosevelt himself. The programming on the air from the Texas, in both French and English under the title the "Voice of Freedom", was compiled from three main sources; pre-recorded speeches, local announcements and information presented live on board ship, and shortwave relays from VOA in the United States & England, and also the BBC London. Due to attempts at jamming by Radio Maroc, the “Voice of Freedom” changed channel a couple of times.
Supportive additional broadcasts in French & English were beamed into this area of North Africa on shortwave from the United States & England. VOA programming was broadcast direct from shortwave transmitters in Atlantic coastal areas of the United States, and also on relay via BBC transmitters in England. Additional BBC programming was also beamed into the area from their own homeland transmitter sites. In the early afternoon, the battleship Texas was ordered to approach the shore and to fire at targets on the land. The first big gun salvo from the Texas damaged its intended targets on the land, and it also instantly damaged the mediumwave transmitter, due to the heavy noise from the massive explosions, and the jarring and shuddering caused by the recoil from the huge guns.
During the early part of the following year, 1943, the damaged 5 kW mediumwave transmitter aboard the Texas was removed, rebuilt, and installed at Constantine in Algeria where it was in use with AFRS programming on 650 kHz. During the following year, this historic radio transmitter was again moved, though still in Algeria. The new location was at Oran, and programming was still with AFRS, the American Armed Forces Radio Service. Thus, the first seaborne relay station, which was operated by Signals Corps personnel as well as by VOA & OWI personnel, was on the air for somewhere around ten hours. It would seem that no QSLs were ever issued for these broadcasts, and the only people who heard this station were those who were in the area at the time.
Now, that’s the story of VOA Ship No.1, the USS Texas. In two week’s time, we plan to present the first part in the story of VOA Ship No. 2; quite a surprising story.
(NWS 129 via Adrian Peteson)