Monday, December 21, 2015

From the Pacific to Europe: The Story of a Unique QSL Card

USS Avocet (wikipedia)
Quite recently, we obtained a very special QSL card via Ebay.  The QSL text was duplicated onto a 1 cent postal card and it was issued by the Audience Mail Department of NBC in Rockefeller Plaza in New York City.  This very special QSL card verified the reception of a shortwave transmitter WMEF aboard a US navy vessel, USS Avocet, and it was dated for reception on June 14, 1937.
            This is what happened.  A new RCA 1 kW shortwave transmitter weighing 5 tons was installed into a special enclosure on the main deck of the “Avocet” in preparation for a voyage into the central Pacific.  It was intended that listeners in the United States could hear a series of special broadcasts from isolated Enderbury and Canton Islands during a spectacular total eclipse. 
            At 4 pm on Thursday May 6, 1937, just before the “Avocet” left Honolulu, a special half hour farewell program was broadcast over this specially made shortwave transmitter WMEF.  This program was relayed to the RCA station at Point Reyes/Bolinas in California for nationwide coverage on mediumwave across the United States.  The “Avocet” was then bound for the two small islands in the exotic central Pacific to study the eclipse of the sun during its unusually long duration.
            The “Avocet” arrived off shore at the small Enderbury Island one week later, at 8:30 am local time on May 13.  There was no satisfactory anchorage location at Enderbury, so she moved on to Canton Island arriving there later in the same day.
            After unloading men and supplies on Canton Island, the “Avocet” returned to Enderbury and off loaded men and supplies there also, in preparation for the coming eclipse.  A small 20 watt Apex high frequency relay transmitter, also manufactured by RCA and licensed with the American callsign W10XEP, was installed in a tent. 
            Soon after the ship arrived back at Enderbury, a radio documentary under the title “A Desert Island” was broadcast over station WMEF.  All of these program broadcasts were intended for pickup in the United States and England for nationwide distribution over local mediumwave networks.
             Interestingly, the advance schedules for mediumwave WEAF in New York City show the insertion into their programming of eclipse broadcasts from the central Pacific.  In addition several of these special programs from Enderbury and Canton were heard direct from WMEF aboard the “Avocet” by international radio monitors in the United States. 
            On one occasion station WMEF was heard calling station W2XAF in Schenectady, New York for a program transfer; and on another occasion they called station W3XZ which was operated by the Jenkins Laboratories in Washington DC.  On another occasion again, WMEF was heard passing a program broadcast to the BBC in London.
            On Eclipse Day, Tuesday June 8, 1937, three live broadcasts were made; one early in the morning, another during the eclipse which began around 8:30 am local time, and another in the evening as a summary of the day’s events.  Each of these broadcasts contained eye witness accounts from both Canton Island as well as from the fifty mile distant Enderbury Island. 
            The atmospheric conditions at both Enderbury and Canton on Eclipse Day were described as almost perfect and the photographs taken that day are still studied three quarters of a century later.  The insert broadcasts from Enderbury were transmitted by the low power Apex transmitter W10XEP and spliced live into the main on-air programming from WMEF on board the “Avocet” which was off shore near Canton. 
            With the eclipse events over, equipment and personnel on Canton were loaded onto the “Avocet” next day, she voyaged over to Enderbury and picked up the men and equipment there, and then sailed for Honolulu later that same day.
            The unique NBC QSL card verifies the reception of WMEF during the transfer of a radio broadcast while the ship was en route on the return journey two days before arrival in Honolulu.  The fortunate listener was Mr. L. D. Brewer of Phoenix in Arizona.
            So that is the interesting story of an important QSL card, verifying a broadcast from a heavy transmitter on board a ship in the central Pacific.  The 20 watt high frequency shortwave transmitter W10XEP carried radio programming from lonely and uninhabited Enderbury Island.  This programming was picked up on the “Avocet”, and broadcast on shortwave to the RCA stations in Hawaii and California for onward relay on mediumwave throughout the United States.  But that is not the end of the story.      
            The five ton shortwave transmitter WMEF was placed in storage in the United States for a period of five years.  Then, in 1942, this equipment was renovated and taken to North Africa, and in August of the following year it was set up and placed on the air at Syracuse on the island of Sicily. 
            A month or two later, the transmitter was shipped to Bari in Italy and then taken by road to Naples, where again it was placed on the air.  Shortly afterwards this same unit was then transported to Rome where again it became airborne.    

            This historic one kilowatt RCA shortwave transmitter that initially saw service in the Pacific on board a ship for the broadcast of a significant eclipse of the sun in the year 1937, finished up in Rome as a temporary relay station for the Voice of America.  The engineers who manned this station nicknamed it “Relic”, due to its size and age.  When its usefulness in Rome was over in 1944 or 1945, we can only assume that this transmitter was subsequently abandoned at its most recent location.
(AWR Wavescan/NWS 355)