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Personal Recollections of Harold B. Phelps

Radio Station Operations on Yerba Buena Island 1916=1919

Personal Recollections of Harold B. Phelps, LT USN

Your list of DCO’s at NPG starting in 1916 was when they built the main Pacific Coast Station on top of Goat Hill and formed the Pacific Coast Communication Division with Capt. E H. Dodd as Pacific Coast Communication Officer. Maddox was DCO when I went there December 23, 1916.

Prior to 1916, the main Pacific Coast Station was NPH on top of the hill in back of the Navy Yard at Mare Island, with a 30 KW arc a 5 KW Spark. NPG at Goat Island had a 2 KW spark on top of Yerba Buena Island for nonmedication with ships and NYMI.

Yerba Buena Island radio station
Yerba Buena Island short wave operating booth, 1919

When the big NPG was built in 1916 on YBI we had no landline from YBI to Western Union or Postal in the city. When we got a message for them we would phone than and ask for an operator. They each had one telephone set with a pair of fones attached. We would back up a sounder to the fone and send our traffic. They would do the same when they had traffic for NPG. Life was simple then!

An incident that happened at the time of the USS MILWAUKEE grounding on Samoa Beach in Humboldt Bay near Eureka, California, January 13, 1917, while she was trying to rescue the U. S. submarine H-3:

I was stationed at NPG on Goat Island in January 1917 as an Electrician (Radio) Second Class. We had a three man watch: chief of the watch, spark man and arc man. An E(R)2c on the spark had a habit of taking a little snooze when there were no signals, which was most of the time on the mid watch: chief of the watch. We had a permanent schedule at 4am for weather reports from Fara11on Island NPI and Eureka NPW, which we phoned to the Marine Exchange. This morning the chief was also doping off. All of a sudden he realized that it was past weather time. He woke the spark operator and told him to get going. The spark man called Eureka but got no response. Finally NPI came on and said NPW was working an SOS. NPI gave NPG all of his log from the time the SOS began. The chief called Capt. Dodd and others who were required to be informed. Our log was complete, courtesy of NPI, and nothing came of it. I was thankful I was on the arc at the time!

After going to sea for a while, I was transferred back to NPG on YBI January 8, 1919, and relieved "Boob" Fanning who had talked Capt. Dodd into letting him go out to KFS, the Federal station on the beach somewhere, to study sun spots. He was a character and a great politician. They even mailed his check to him so he never showed up at YBI. They had moved the NPM and the commercial ship-shore circuits to the Postal Building on Battery Street. The shipshore was the old Marconi circuit and at that Time every Jap passenger ship left Japan with 400 or 500 Jap "picture brides" on board enroute to San Francisco. As you probably know, the gals would marry a picture of a guy in the States or he would marry a picture of his bride to be. Every bride was allowed one message. KPH would start working those ships almost the minute they left Japan as soon as their signals were readable after dark and until the signals faded out around daylight. If conditions weren't too good it would take KPH maybe a week to clear those 400 to 500 messages. All messages were the same: origin, address of the bridegroom, the text was only “arrive Thursday" and the signature of the bride. I have often wondered how many pictures brides came in to the States on deal?

NPG might have been on one of the piers after it moved from YBI. I do not know, as I was at for over three years at that time. Then NPG went to Appraisers Building on Sansome Street and then to 100 Harrison Street in the Marine Corps Building and then to the new Federal Building either the last of ‘35 or the first of ‘36 as I went to NPG on July 1, 1936, as a civil service wireman.

At NPG on YBl we handled Navy traffic to NPM and the overflow of the cable, if any, and press releases to Honolulu and Japan. The only transmitters we had for this job was the 12 KW arc out at South San Francisco a 12 KW arc at KFS out on the beach which was mainly for ships at sea with an arc transmitter. I don't know when this deal busted up as I went out to NPM in August 1919.

The cable went out once and we hid about 20 days delay on transpacific cable traffic. We were trying to get rid of them as fast as we could to NHI, which was rather slow. It was a happy day when Postal called and said the cable was back in. "Send down a thousand to start off. We will take the rest as soon as we can!" After I was out at NHI, one time we had a 23 day delay on cable traffic. All we could do was keep plugging away to NPG with that stack, until the cable was repaired. Some fun! Mostly hand sending, some static at times and fading periods every so often. We had a 500 KW arc but it was generally busy going to westward.

One day we really had static from NPG. We were completely out and the Honolulu Star Bulletin and Advertiser were scrambling their heads off for their press stuff. Scott, the radioman in charge, knew I had considerable experience with static so told me to see what I could do with NPG. No traffic just get the press. I started NPG sending double, then triple and was getting no where fast so I told NPG to send each word until I made a dot on my key. Well, finally, after four hours of hard work I got about 600 words of press, all they had, so that kept the papers busy. I stood off NPG and I couldn't even walk straight when I came out of booth, with a splitting headache. What a difference it made when the high frequency tubes came along. Good old days? To heck with them I say!