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Phelps Family History in America

Radio Station Operations in Kodiak, Alaska in 1924-1925

Personal Recollections of Harold B. Phelps, Lt. USN

USN Radioman "Skinny" Phelps in 1926
USN Lt. Harold B. "Bart" Phelps (Ret.) in 1973

My grandfather Harold Bartle Phelps served in both World Wars as a telegrapher and radioman. He spent WWI in Honolulu and WWII at various posts across the Pacific, including Hawaii, Alaska, San Francisco, the Phillipines, and Bremerton, Washington.

Lt. Bart Phelps and his wife Betty were first sent to Ketchikan, Alaska, but the Army took over that radio station. He was then transferred to Woody Island in Chiniak Bay near Kodiak, where they arrived in Oct 17, 1924.

The U.S. Navy built a wireless station on Woody Island in 1911. When my grandparents arrived in 1924, the population of Woody Island was 104.

Bart spent a year as a Radioman on the station. Their son, my father Harold B. Phelps, Jr., was born there just before they left. On February 28, 1931, the wireless station was decommissioned. Here is Bart's story about his year on Woody Island.

THE URGE to see something of Alaska came over me at an early age after reading dozen of stories by Jack London, Rex Beach, Robert W. Service and many others. I wasn't quite dry behind the ears so I put that idea in the "Awaiting Action" file for a few years.

In 1910 [at age 17] I learned to telegraph and in 1913 I was telegraphing for the Santa Fe R.R. in Winslow, Arizona. After spending the summer of '14 working nights and trying to sleep days I wasn't about to try another summer in Arizona. I took leave of absence and beat to Los Angeles and inquired around about telegraph jobs in Alaska, It didn't take me long to find that the Army and Navy had such business almost sewed up.

That left me right in the middle of a quandary. What to do? Would it be the Army at $21.00 and a horse blanket or the Navy at $17.60 and a hammock? I was making $90 a month [$2,312 in 2020] with the Santa Fe and that was good money. I sure felt foolish taking that much of a cut in pay. I said to myself: "Now or never." I scouted around for more information on Alaska telegraph jobs and finally found an old signal corps man who had spent some time up there and he gave me a good line-up on the whole deal, same good jobs, some not so good and many of the jobs way out in the boondocks where the man were responsible for maintaining the line on either side of their station half the distance to the next station. Also that in the summer when making repairs they had to wade through swamps and hordes of mosquitos and in winter they waded through snow hip high on a tall Indian and he said Alaskan winters could be real rugged at times.

I could feel my Pioneering blood begin to curdle and that Navy hassock looked better all the time. He also told me that even if I could talk the [Army] signal corps into sending me to Alaska I would still be a big recruit and would certainly end up out in the boondocks at first. That decided me and I went to the the Navy recruiting station to see if I could pass the physical before resigning from the Santa Fe. I passed and found out later that if a fellow could walk into an Army or Navy recruiting station and possessed the necessary appurtenances such as one head with built-in ears, two arms and legs and was slightly warm, he was in the service right now, any name and any age the kid gave was taken as gospel just walk in and be breathing.

Ketchikan, Alaska in 1915.
Radio equipment from the 1920s.

On November 4, 1914, I signed on the dotted line as a "Landsman for Electrician (Radio)" which meant that I would go right to a radio school and didn't have to go through boot camp. All boot camps were quite rugged up until WWI. It took me almost ten years to get anywhere near Alaska. Almost made it to Seward in 1919 but ended up in Honolulu instead. My girl friend came out from San Francisco and we were married April 6, 1920.

Another five years went by quickly and I managed to wrangle a job at Ketchikan where we arrived on June 30, 1924 on the Alaska Steamship Co. SS Yukon. When we steamed in sight of Ketchikan that beautiful morning, I said to Betty: "Eureka. This is the place I have been looking for these many years." It looked like a good sized town and the houses peeping out from the trees on the hill back of town made it a beautiful sight. I could see the radio towers not too far north of town, an old Marconi station taken over by the Navy in WWI and just a nice walk to town. This would be all mine for the next two years and we decided it would be an ideal place to start our family. My crystal ball must have been a trifle murky as I couldn't foresee how soon my bubble would burst.


Bart Phelps also wrote about his adventures and misadventures as a radioman on Wailupe, Hawaii. For a detailed history of Navy Communications in the Pacific, see Nick England's excellent site, Navy Radio.