Wednesday, December 09, 2015

* Focus on the South Pacific: Australian Shortwave Callsign: VLE

In this continuing series of topics on shortwave callsigns in Australia, we come to the story of the fifth callsign in this sequence, VLE.  The earliest origins for the usage of this callsign go back nearly 100 years, not in Australia but rather for New Zealand.
            The luxury liner S. S. “Maheno”, which means “Island” in the Maori language, was built in Scotland for the Union Company of New Zealand, and it was launched on June 19, 1905.  This 400 foot long ship could carry 420 passengers and crew, and its cargo hold contained refrigeration for the carriage of frozen meats and other consumable products.           
            The “Maheno” regularly plied across the Tasman Sea between New Zealand and Australia, and also occasionally right across the Pacific to Vancouver in British Columbia, Canada.  The allotted callsign back in its early years was VLE, indicating a vessel in service under the flag of New Zealand, showing the British Union Jack and the four stars in the Southern Cross.
            During World War 1, the “Moheno” saw service in the international waters of continental Europe as a hospital ship, and after the war it was returned to commercial service in the South Pacific.
            However in 1935, at the end of 30 years of ocean going service, the ship was no longer viable for its original purpose, and it was sold to a Japanese shipwrecking company.  Another ship, the nearly 50 year old  “Oonah”, which had served as a passenger and cargo ship across Bass Strait between Tasmania and the Australian mainland, was also sold to the same Japanese company.
            On July 1, 1935, the “Oonah” towed the “Maheno” (minus its propellers) out of Sydney Harbour at the beginning of what was intended to be its last long voyage way up north to Japan.  However, six days after leaving port, these two ships encountered a massive cyclone, and the 900 ft long steel tow rope, 6½ inches thick, snapped, leaving the “Moheno” powerless in the stormy waters off the east coast of Australia.
             Attempts to re-attach the two ships proved fruitless.  The “Oonah” radioed for help and an airplane flew out to find the “Moheno”, drifting and helpless.
            Three days later again, the “Moheno” was found by the search plane and by this time it was now beached on the eastern shore of Fraser Island, and the temporary Japanese crew were camped on the beach, in fear of retaliation from the  Aborigines on the island.  Attempts were made to refloat the “Moheno”, but this was unsuccessful; the stranded ship had broken its back.
            The “Moheno” was offered for sale but no buyers came forth, so it was stripped and abandoned.  These days the rusting hulk still lies sulking about midway down the island on the eastern shore.  During World War 2, it was used as a practice bombing target for the Royal Australian Air Force, and nowadays it is a major public attraction for half a million tourists who flock to the island each year.
            Fraser Island lies close off the coast of Queensland, nearby to the regional coastal cities, Maryborough and Bundaberg.  It is 75 miles long and 15 miles wide, and it is the world’s largest sand island.  It has an abundance of plant life which includes the world’s largest Frond Fern.  It contains more than 100 fresh water lakes, including one that is 330 feet above the nearby sea level. 
            The 75 mile long and very wide sandy beach along the eastern seashore is used as an island highway, and also as a landing airstrip for small planes.  A nearby notice requires motor vehicles to give priority to the movement of airplanes.  
            In ancient times, Fraser Island was home to the Butchulla tribe of Australian Aborigines who sometimes numbered as many as 3,000.  They called the island K’gari, which is pronounced as Gurri.  The name means “Paradise”.
            Back in 1836, the small ship “Stirling Castle” was shipwrecked on the island.  While sailing across the Great Barrier Reef, the underwater coral had ripped a hole in its hull.  The elderly and ailing Captain, James Fraser, and his pregnant wife Eliza both abandoned the ship in a life boat, and before they struck land, she gave birth to the baby in the lifeboat, though it died soon afterwards.
            The captain also died on the island, though his wife Eliza survived.  She was rescued six weeks later through the efforts of an escaped convict, John Graham, who lived in the bush areas and had learned the local Aboriginal language.  Originally the island was known as Great Sandy Island, but it was renamed Fraser Island in honor of Eliza Fraser.   
            Tree logging was introduced to the island in 1863 by an experienced American logger, Jack Piggott; and in 1932, two very high trees rendered two tall masts to support the aerial system at the new mediumwave station 4MB in neighboring Maryborough.  These masts were 127 and 132 feet tall.
            Then just five years ago, ACMA the Australian Communications and Media Authority issued two FM licences for Eulong, the small tourist town on the east coast of Fraser Island.  It was planned that these two FM stations would relay programing from the network headquarters stations in the Gold Coast, South of Brisbane.  The two new FM stations for Fraser Island were 4RBL on 97.3 and 4BRZ on 94.9 MHz.
            Going back to 1927, we find that new international radio regulations re-allocated the initial callsign letter V to Australia and other countries in the British Empire, though no longer to New Zealand.  So, at this stage, the call VLE could no longer identify the New Zealand luxury passenger/cargo liner “Maheno”, and it appears that the call was held in limbo for the next thirty or more years.
            Eventually, technical developments at the main Radio Australia shortwave station at Shepparton in Victoria introduced the need for some additional callsigns.  The original 100 kW STC-AWA transmitter VLB was bifurcated and with the insertion of additional electronic equipment another 100 kW transmitter was born in early 1961.  This new unit acquired the callsign VLE.
            However, the callsign VLE as an individual specific transmitter was in use for only a very short period of time; in fact for no more than a few months at the very most.  At the end of October of the same year (1961), Radio Australia dropped the usage of transmitter callsigns, and instead used the calls to identify program feed lines from the Melbourne studios to the various transmitter bases.  Thus from that time onwards, callsign VLE, or just E, indicated a feed line to a 50 kW transmitter at Shepparton.
            Due to the fact that the callsign VLE identified specifically the new 100 kW transmitter at Shepparton for no more than a few months, QSL cards showing that callsign are very rare.  The Indianapolis Heritage Collection holds just one such card dated March 8, 1961, verifying the frequency 15180 kHz as VLE15.  However, the Indianapolis collection does hold another four QSLs in the style of Form Letters verifying a 50 kW transmitter at Shepparton under the line feed call VLE.
            And that’s our story for this occasion; the story of callsign VLE, first on the New Zealand liner “Maheno”; then as a new 100 kW transmitter at Shepparton in Victoria; and finally as a line feed to a 50 kW transmitter at the same country location in the center of the state of Victoria.

 (AWR WAvescan/NWS 353)