Friday, July 31, 2015

Atomic Radio

Over a lengthy period of time, the United States has conducted several hundred nuclear tests; high level and low level nuclear tests in the atmosphere and also at ground level, as well as underground and underwater tests.  It was back in the month of July 1946, 69 years ago, that the United States conducted a series of atomic tests over the islands of Bikini in the Marshall Islands, halfway between Hawaii and the Philippine Islands.  
            Bikini Atoll is made up of a score of small islets and this area was chosen due to its isolated location, as well as several other factors including very low human habitation.  The July 1946 tests were conducted under the code name Operation Crossroads which involved hundreds of ships and planes and thousands of personnel.  In fact, in preparation for the Bikini tests,  42,000 Americans swarmed around Bikini and nearby locations to make ready all of the circumstances associated with the experimental atomic explosions.
            In order to provide international news coverage for newspapers, TV and radio, a total of five American navy vessels were equipped with all sorts of electronic equipment that would enable live and recorded news to be forwarded across the Pacific to all parts of the world.
            The first of these five communication ships was the USS Appalachian which was launched at Kearny New Jersey on January 29, 1943.  This United States navy vessel saw service in the Pacific, and in 1946 it was appointed in charge of media coverage for the twin atomic explosions at Bikini Atoll.
            At the time of the Able Test, the first atomic detonation 520 feet above Bikini Atoll on July 1, the Appalachian was stationed in the open sea at a safe distance from the blast area.  At this stage, the Appalachian was using five different shortwave channels, though each was on the air with a quite low power output.  The callsign for this ship was NCLG.
            Because of the difficult shortwave coverage from NCLG at the time of the first test explosion, the Able Test on July 1, this ship was sent back to Honolulu where new higher powered transmitters were installed.  Thus, when the second detonation, Baker B Test, took place three weeks later on July 25, the USS Appalachian was now on the air with two transmitters at 600 watts and one at 350 watts, though this would still be considered to be inadequate for reliable relay coverage.  To compensate for this problem, the Spindle Eye NIGF was stationed at Honolulu on the day of the second detonation as a relay point between NCLG Appalachian at Bikini and the United States mainland.
            Just one year after these atomic tests, the Appalachian was decommissioned, and twelve years later again, it was sold for scrap.
            The second ship in todays program is the USS Mount McKinley, a navy vessel that was launched from Wilmington North Carolina on September 27, 1943.  Originally named the Cyclone, it was renamed Mount McKinley exactly three months later.
            This navy transport ship also saw service in the Pacific, and in 1946 she operated as a flagship in the Marshall Islands for Operation Crossroads.  A 350 watt transmitter with the callsign NICO was on the air with live voice broadcasts giving the progressive information about the atomic explosions at Bikini Atoll; in the air on July 1 and under water on July 25.  In addition, NICO was heard on another occasion with the broadcast of a live church service.
            At the end of an illustrious career spanning 34 years, during which she saw service in several different world areas, the Mount McKinley was sold for scrap in 1976.
            The third ship in our story today is the USS Panamint, which was also launched at Wilmington North Carolina on November 9, 1943, as the Northern Light.  Early in the New Year 1944, the Northern Light was acquired by the navy, it was converted at the Hoboken yards in New Jersey for use as a general communications vessel, and it was renamed the USS Panamint.  This ship also saw active service in the Pacific.
            In 1946, the Panamint was ordered to the Marshall Islands where she served as the floating headquarters for congressional, scientific and United Nations observers, several of whom made radio broadcasts from the ship as part of the media coverage for the atomic events.  This ship was on the air under the callsign NXHC.
            On the day of the second atomic test, the underwater Baker test on July 25, the details of the actual explosion were broadcast live by Clete Roberts over transmitter NXHC aboard the USS Panamint.   This live description was listed as part of the pool broadcast that was carried by all of the involved media, including the Voice of America.
            During the next year 1947, the Panamint was decommissioned from navy usage, and she was sold for scrap fourteen years later.
            The fourth radio ship that participated in the Crossroads atomic tests was the USS Blue Ridge which had been launched from the  shipyards at Kearny in New Jersey on March 7, 1943.  Later that same year, she left for a cruise in the South Pacific and she saw action during the American landings on the island of Leyte in the Philippines in October 1944. 
            The Blue Ridge, with the American navy callsign NTAE, also participated in radio communications at Bikini in July 1946.  Fourteen years later, she was struck from the naval records and sold for scrap.
            In our topic today, we now come to ship number 5, the USS Spindle Eye.  Plans for this new radio ship were developed during the year 1944, and it was originally intended for use during the projected invasion of Japan. 
            This new radio ship was laid down in the Kaiser shipyards at Richmond, near San Francisco in California, and it was launched with the unassuming name Spindle Eye on May 25, 1945.  The ship was nearly 340 feet long and 50 feet wide, with a total unladen weight of four thousand tons.
            Originally, the Spindle Eye was designed for use as an army cargo ship, but it was repurposed quite quickly and fitted out at the Todd shipyards in Seattle Washington with a bevy of electronic equipment.  Aboard this ship were two radio studios, six shortwave transmitters, eight antennas, and 112 typewriters.  Four of the shortwave transmitters were 3 kW units made by Wilcox, and the broadcast quality transmitter at 7½ kW was made by RCA at their Camden Factory in New Jersey. 
            The first series of test broadcasts from the Spindle Eye were made at the dockside shipyards in Seattle from the 7½ kW RCA transmitter during the first half of the month of September 1945.  Then, on September 19, after just 64 days of fitting out, the ship moved out across the Pacific, bound for Japan.
            The Spindle Eye arrived in Tokyo Harbor on October 15, and it took over the radio services previously carried by WVLC aboard the Apache which was still in the Philippines at the time.  The Spindle Eye was inspected by General Douglas MacArthur, after which it made a test tour in the waters of China and Korea.  It was reported that the electronics aboard the Spindle Eye were working well.
            On return to Japan just before Christmas, the Spindle Eye under the transferred callsign WVLC, began a series of broadcasts on behalf of the Voice of America and the American Armed Forces Radio Service.  In addition, news dispatches from the 1946 war crimes trials in Tokyo were relayed from the Spindle Eye to the United States for nationwide rebroadcast.
            Extensive plans were made for live radio coverage of the first detonation at Bikini which took place on July 1, 1946.  Ships, airplanes and land vehicles were staged at strategic locations on the Marshall Islands and in nearby waters.  A total of 150 radio transmitters and 300 receivers were in use for the co-ordination of the atomic detonation and for the broadcast of live news reports.  One of the major news reporters for the occasion was Oliver Read who was, at that time, editor of the American radio journal, Radio News, and he published three large articles in his magazine.
            The quite new Spindle Eye was given the task of co-ordinating all of the news transmissions from Operation Crossroads, including voice broadcasts, press dispatches and radio photos.  For this purpose, the Spindle Eye was located off the coast of Kwajalein Island and the callsign WVLC was replaced by the navy callsign NIGF.  The broadcasts from NIGF were beamed to RCA Bolinas in California and to Press Wireless Los Angeles, also in California, for onward relay.
            On Able-Day July 1, program broadcasts from NIGF Spindle Eye began at 3:30 am local time with live news reports to NBC and CBS in the United States.  At 9:00 am, the first atom bomb was dropped over Bikini Atoll from the air force B29 plane identified with the large tail marker B.  At this stage, two voice transmitters on the Spindle Eye were on the air in parallel with all of the live news reports, the 7½ kW RCA and a 2½ kW Wilcox.  Subsequently the Wilcox was diverted for the transmission of news photos which were received at the army station WTJ in Honolulu Hawaii and relayed onward to the army station in San Francisco WVY.
            However, in spite of the elaborate plans for extensive live news coverage from the atomic test areas, there were times when the voice relays were inferior and difficult to understand.  This was due to the fact that the shortwave transmitters aboard the several ships in the area were quite low in output power.
            Thus, when the underwater test, Baker, was conducted 3½ weeks later, the radio ship Spindle Eye was located at Honolulu, as a relay point between the atomic test sites in the Marshall Islands and the American mainland.   On July 25 for the underwater explosion, Spindle Eye NIGF received the shortwave reports from Bikini and relayed this programing on to RCA Bolinas and to Press Wireless Los Angeles for further distribution.
            After the twin atomic tests, the Spindle Eye returned to the Pacific coast of the United States and the usage of the transmitter as WVLC-NIGF came to an end at the end of the year 1946.  One year later, the Spindle Eye was renamed the Sgt Curtis F. Shoup" and it was in use in the Pacific and then later again in the Mediterranean.  The ship known as Spindle Eye and Sgt Curtis F. Shoup" was finally sold for scrap on May 9, 1973.
            During the two atomic test detonations at Bikini Atoll, July 1 and 25, 1946, many ships were involved in the broadcast arrangements for radio coverage and relay.  However, these five ships as noted in our program today were specifically designated as radio communication ships specifically for the events of Operation Crossroads :-
                        USS Spindle Eye                    NIGF               4 @ 3 kW & 1 @ 7½ kW
                        USS Appalachian                   NCLG              1 @ 350 watts & 2 @ 600 watts
                        USS Mount McKinley             NICO               1 @ 350 watts
                        USS Panamint                        NXHC             Low power
                        USS Blue Ridge                      NTAE              Low power
            It is known that a few QSL letters were issued for the WVLC-NIGF broadcasts, and the Voice of America also issued their regular QSLs confirming the relay of the atomic tests at Bikini Atoll.  In addition, special QSL cards were printed to honor these atomic tests and these showed an artistic version of the sinking of a ship.
            A few listeners in the United States, New Zealand and Australia, received QSL letters in acknowledgement of their reception reports, though many listeners received the regular QSL card showing an artistic rendition of islands in the Pacific and a ship sinking nearby.