World War II radio operators find camaraderie over airwaves

November 29, 1993|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

One by one the voices from Edward L. Hayden's past fill the room. They cut through hiss and crackle and rise from a speaker box on his home ham radio console in Annapolis, keeping alive a connection made 50 years ago.

In nine states along the East Coast, the World War II veteran radio operators of the U.S. Merchant Marine sit at their radio sets and chat. Once more for the memory.

The men of the Gallups Island Radio School Morning Net have gathered by ham radio every day of the week but Sunday for 14 years. They talk about war, politics, home repairs, anything that comes up.

Men in their 70s and 80s who have lived disparate lives, they are linked by virtue of having spent a few months of their youth on a little island in Boston Harbor where the U.S. Maritime Service ran a radio operator school.

Fifty years later, the school long since closed, the men cleave to a shared past through the medium they learned there. They find that small talk suffices to maintain the bond.

"It's the camaraderie," says Mr. Hayden, 70, whose efforts to find his wartime comrades helped establish not only the morning radio circle, but also the Gallups Island Association, a nationwide alumni organization with about 1,200 members.

"We all shared the experience of the same school," he said.

Any given morning, between 12 and 18 men may be heard on the net.

In the years since it started, two of their number have died. Their fellow radio operators refer to them as "silent keys."

One recent morning Mr. Hayden could be found stationed in the usual spot: at the radio console he set up next to his bed.

With the Kenwood tuned to 3919 kilohertz and the digital clock at 6:51, voices breathe life into a 1950s-vintage speaker box about the size of a Walkman and the color of a battleship.

The radio men check in from New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Maine, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, New Jersey, New York and Virginia.

"Good morning to all hands," says Walter Campbell of North Kingstown, R.I.

"I wanted to go into the Navy," says Les Rauber, of Long Island, N.Y., who entered the Gallups Island school in 1943. "They didn't like my eyes. So I found the Merchant Marine."

Mr. Hayden, a retired defense industry manufacturer's representative, tells a similar story.

At 19, he graduated from high school in Rehoboth, Del., on June 4, 1942, the day the Battle of Midway began. He was anxious to join the war, but the Navy rejected him for less than perfect vision.

His second choice was the Merchant Marine, and he arrived for radio training on Gallups Island in July 1942.

Shaped like a teardrop, 16-acre Gallups is one of several islands in Boston Harbor now part of a Massachusetts state park.

Now given over to shrubs, picnic grounds and meadow, the island during World War II was home to barracks, school buildings, offices and laboratories where more than 1,000 men at a time trained as radio operators. The school operated from 1940 1946.

Mr. Hayden graduated from the school in April 1943. He went to war in the North Atlantic, shipping out on the Herman Melville, chartered by the British to carry ammunition.

Later he served on the Oakley Wood in the Pacific, again hauling ammunition.

Both were Liberty ships, the 441-foot vessel that became a mainstay of the Merchant Marine fleet during World War II, when about 2,700 were in service on the high seas.

Now only two are even close to seaworthy; one of them, the John W. Brown, makes its home port in Baltimore.

"I sailed the entire war on ammo ships, not by choice," said Mr. Hayden. "If you're torpedoed, that's it, you have no chance. It's like a huge atomic bomb type thing. There's nothing left."

It never happened.

The closest call was a German bomb that buzzed over the ship and slammed into the coast of France as Mr. Hayden and his comrades supported the British beachhead during the invasion of Europe in the summer of 1944.

Not all the men in the morning circle were so lucky.

Pete Mallett Jr., who checks in from Hummelstown, Pa., survived German submarine torpedo attacks on three Merchant Marine ships, the first two attacks coming within weeks of each other in the North Atlantic.

Mr. Mallett, 73, says he chats with the morning crew once in a while, but does not feel much nostalgia for his days in the Merchant Marine.

"I never made a trip across that North Atlantic that wasn't miserable, cold, rough," says Mr. Mallett in a telephone interview later. "I wouldn't walk across the street to see a Liberty ship."

Two of the men in the morning talk group would not only cross the street to see a Liberty ship, they hope to cross the ocean in one.

If Project Liberty Ship manages to raise about $700,000 to repair the John W. Brown, Thomas Gibson of Joppa and Ralph Albers of Falls Church, Va., plan to sail to Normandy next June to join ceremonies commemorating the 50th anniversary of D-Day.

In the meantime, they'll continue to keep in touch every morning.

"Something we shared that makes these fellows unique to me," says Mr. Rauber, speaking over the ham radio. "I respect them, they respect me. And that's what it all boils down to."

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