K5LAD - 50+ Years of Ham Radio Memories

Volume XXXVII

 

Early Day Ham-handled messages (pre-Internet)

By Jim Pickett – K5LAD

Search keywords:  MARS messages, Naval Training Base, net, phonetic

Hams have always been involved in handling messages for others. Perhaps there's much less need for them now with the popularity of the Internet and with everyone owning a cell phone but there was a time when this was an important, even critical, service provided by hams. Even now, in both domestic and foreign disasters, when the communications between those involved in the disaster and their families, ham radio and its message service have provided a vital link with the sudden disappearance of telephone lines, cell phone towers, and the loss of electrical power. Even the Homeland Security Department has recognized the need to have ham radio operators always at standby when other services have failed. It is the ability we hams have to provide a valuable backup communications service that we have been able to retain the numerous bands and frequencies that we have. This is at a time when several valuable pieces of the radio spectrum are being sold off by our government to commercial interests for multi-millions of dollars.

The need for quick and accurate transfer and delivery of these messages often required those hams who were involved to have periodic training sessions and to practice, practice, practice for the time they hoped will not actually come. During the years and decades following World War II, a casual listener on the amateur bands could seldom spend a hour or so tuning around and not run across a "traffic net" passing messages. When I was first licensed in the late 50s, a popular daily net for Oklahomans was the Sooner Traffic Net on 3850 kc. It met, as I recall, at 6:00 PM and had many check-ins from around over the state and several from out of the state who also checked in to bring in and take out messages being passed. There was also the Sooner Nooner Net held at noon on 40 meters. I had to look back in my log to find the frequency for that one but my log shows it was on 7235 kc.

There were also a couple of CW traffic nets where quite a few messages were handled and one was advertised as a "slow-speed CW traffic net." Since I was not doing a lot of CW activity then, I don't recall the actual frequencies but they were both on 80 meters, I believe.

Since, thankfully, there were not constant disasters to require the services of these nets, they often practiced with made-up messages. Some of the message could even be considered to be a bit 'goofy' and were embarrassing to deliver but they served the purpose of training for handling messages. When the US military got more involved in the war in Vietnam, the number of messages pickup up and some became more serious. Delivering message from soldiers to their families at home made the hams feel like they were providing a much more vital service. Remember, this was before the days of cell phone and the Internet and the primary means of communication was via the US Postal Service and an occasional phone patch through the MARS (Military Affiliate Radio Service) program.

It was important to get information, particularly heading information, correctly so the message could be delivered when it arrived at the final destination. If an address, a phone number, or a recipient name was incorrect the message that had traveled over thousands of miles could not be delivered since the recipient could not be found. Standard military type phonetics were used to assure the correct transfer of names. Since many names could have multiple spellings, the name was generally always phonetically spelled out. The exception to that was when a name was being handled on a message and there was little doubt as to the spelling. Examples might be "Smith" or "Jones" and the person on the sending side of the message might just say, "standard spelling for Smith," etc.

There was an example of one message that was often seen. When a young man (since most going to the military were males) had joined the Navy, he was sent to San Diego, Calif. to the Naval Training Base there. Evidently, one of the first things he had to do, perhaps as he stepped off the bus, was to send a message to his folks back home to let them know he had made it, at least, that far. I'm just guessing that for his next several weeks, perhaps even longer, he was not allowed to contact his family.

The message was always the same (although I'm pulling this from memory so I might get a few words out of order):

ARRIVED SAFELY NAVAL TRAINING BASE SAN DIEGO CALIFORNIA xray WILL WRITE LATER xray BILLY BOB YASTRIMSKI

Obviously the "xray" denoted a period in the message. As I was fairly active on these traffic nets for several years in my early ham days, it would be interesting to know how many of those same messages I heard pass through the system.

One of the funniest things I remember from those early message-handling days was the ham (and there were several) who tried to be good message handlers and use some of the tricks and techniques they'd heard the old-timers used but they got some of the instructions mixed around. The last sentence of the Naval Training message above might sound like this:

"Will -- I spell whiskey, india, lima, lima, will.......Write, I spell whiskey, romeo, india, tango, echo, write.............. Later, I spell lima, alpha, tango, echo, romeo, later........xray........... and it's signed, Billy Bob Yastrimski, I spell bravo, india, lima, lima, yankee, I spell bravo, oscar, bravo........... Yastrimski, standard spelling for Yastrimski."

I don't think I ever committed that particular offense but I don't think there was a time, in all those years, when I heard that happen that I didn't laugh out loud. There are still traffic nets being held on the ham bands and they still perform an important function, particularly during emergencies but I hear fewer and fewer of these nets these many years later.

 

 Written November, 2011 - published TARC Newsletter November, 2011

 

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