Friday, November 14, 2014

100th Anniversary Panama Canal: The Radio Story-Part 2

NBA-Panama Canal (US Navy/
Two weeks back we presented part 1 in this two part series of topics on the story of radio broadcasting in the Panama Canal Zone in honor of the 100th.anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal in Central America.  Today, we complete the Panama Canal Zone story and we pick up the historic radio information regarding radio program broadcasting from this narrow slice of tropical territory.  But first we present the outline story of one of America’s well known early wireless stations.
Back in August 1918, the American navy inaugurated their first high powered wireless station in the Panama Canal Zone.  This station, rated at 200 kW, was launched under an American navy callsign, NPJ, though this was soon afterwards regularized to the better known NBA.  
The station location for NBA was always given as Balboa, though originally it was located in the Darien district about half way along the canal.  When electronic valve equipment was installed at a new location in 1929, a new callsign was allotted, NDG.  The transmitter was at the Summit, and the receiver station was located across the canal at Farfan.
However, a do-it-yourself typed QSL card verifies the usage of the callsign NBA in 1972.  Reception of NBA as heard in the United States was on July 27, and the frequency was 17697.5 kHz with a power of 5 kW.
Around the same time, the American army established a communication station at Quarry Heights under the callsign WVL and the purpose for this facility was intercommunication with other army stations in the area.  However, in 1940, a small low powered broadcasting transmitter was co-installed with station WVL in the basement of the army barracks for the purpose of disseminating army information to army outposts.  
In January of the following year (1941), army personnel began broadcasting music over this small transmitter for the entertainment of army personnel.  The unofficial callsign was PCAC, standing for Panama Canal Artillery Command.  Daily broadcasts of news were taken from the Panama Star & Herald, and on Sundays news was read from the latest available issue of Time magazine.
This small, unofficial, irregular and unlicensed radio broadcasting station is considered to be the first American army entertainment station, a forerunner to AFRS, the Armed Forces Radio Service.  Regular programming began in April, and it was carried on two channels in parallel, WVL shortwave and WVUB mediumwave.
In an attempt to obtain additional suitable programming, the staff wrote to the NBC network in the United States, requesting recordings, and soon afterwards almost one ton of pre-recorded program discs arrived at the station in Quarry Heights.  However, a few months later, on Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, 1941, the Panama station was closed so that it could not be used as a homing beacon for incoming enemy bombers.
The radio broadcasting station was re-opened with new imported equipment as a regular unit of the AFRS network a little over a year later at the same location in Fort Clayton.  That was in March 1943, and four broadcast transmitters were now available:-
WVL   5 kW     790 kHz Regular programming
WVUB   ¼   1420 Parallel relay
WVUC    ¼   1480 Occasional special programming
WVL   .4         2380 Subsequently modified to 2390 kHz

At the same time as the new station was installed at Fort Clayton, a relay station was installed at Fort Gulick on the Atlantic coast of the Canal Zone.  This station radiated with 1 kW on 1420 kHz.
Then in 1948, the entire facility at Fort Clayton was transferred to a permanent home, into Building 209 at this same army barracks.
According to entries in the World Radio TV Handbook, the twin AFRS mediumwave stations located at Fort Clayton and Fort Gulick (or Fort Davis under its newer name) were closed some time around the year 1971.  We would suggest that the programming was still on the air for the next many years, though now only in the standard FM Band 2.
During the short era of military confrontation between the United States and president Manuel Noriega of Panama in December 1989, the United States implemented its psychological warfare procedures under the project title “Operation Just Cause”.  The active FM station(s?) at the American base(s?) carried programming of special music and information for this purpose, beginning on December 20.
In addition, the Americans activated a mediumwave station (the previous 5 kW AFRS unit?) and it was on the air under the identification slogan, “Radio Liberacion".  There was also a mobile radio transmitter on the air under the identification slogan, “Voice of Liberty”.  These temporary stations ended their service under Operation Just Cause when hostilities culminated a little over a week later, on December 29.
  Just a very few QSLs from the AFRS stations in the Panama Canal Zone are known, and these were letters from WVL Quarry Heights on shortwave in the immediate postwar era.
(AWR/Wavescan/NWS 298 via Adrian Peterson)