Radio Officers

The Radio Officer, once known as a "wireless operator",
puts down his headphones and prepares to go ashore.  
The only indispensable crew member on a ship of the 1960's merchant marine was the radio officer. Michelson, despite being owned by the US government, was a merchant ship. It could not sail without its one and only radio officer to send and receive messages.

Using the original WW II vintage radio equipment, the radio officer conducted all of the ship's written communications using radiotelegraphy, a/k/a morse code, over HF (short wave) radio. Messages were send using a telegraph key and copied on a manual typewriter. Voice communications were by low/medium frequency radio from the bridge. Today's VHF marine radio was not yet common in those years.

On an MSTS ship the radio message traffic was with navy radio stations ashore rather than with commercial stations. Encrypted traffic went to one of the navy detachment officers or designee to be decoded off line. There was no radioteletype messaging or on line cryptography. Every message was sent and received by hand. The way this worked in the early 1960s is hard to believe in today's world where everything is wired.

On duty 24x7, the radio officer was in practice usually just needed to maintain a routine schedule with the navy radio stations. His cabin was adjacent to the radio room on the port side of the 02 deck where the captain, first mate and other officers lived.

In charge of radio operations, "sparks" (or "sparkie") was supposed to maintain the equipment including the radar and the ancient Mk. XIV gyrocompass. In practice routine maintenance was deferred and any emergency repairs were made in port. A storeroom across the passageway contained a huge supply of dusty spare parts for the obsolescent equipment. It was also home for the aging gyro.

In the spring of 1963 Michelson was to leave Belfast to begin surveys in the Mediterranean. The ship was ready to cast off, two tugboats had arrived and the harbor pilot was aboard. Not aboard, however, were the radio officer and the captain. We waited. Somebody grabbed a taxi and went into town, then returned, hauling the inebriated twosome aboard. A ship can sail without the captain, but not without a radio operator.

That was radio officer #1 during my two years aboard Michelson. He left the ship when it reached Barcelona. His replacement, RO #2, arrived. Once underway this one was soon found to be overwhelmed by his duties. RO #2 had no, or very limited, experience working in the navy radio communications scheme. He just didn't know what to do. Our ET chief petty officer jumped in and took over his duties. A ham radio operator and an old timer in radio communications, our CPO was a hero! A few weeks later we returned to Barcelona, where the chief moved into a hotel to decompress.

Operator in an Unnamed Victory Ship Radio Room

The inept RO #2 left and RO #3 replaced him, remaining with the ship until its return to New York in the fall of 1963.

RO #4 joined the ship while in the states, probably at Bayonne, in summer 1964. He was aboard through its arrival in Oakland. Being quite fond of the liberating liquid, he staggered around the ship looking for drink. Two nights before arrival in the bay area, on my way into survey control, I ran into RO #4 in the chart room talking to the deck officer. "John, JOHN! have you got any whiskey?" he pleaded. "Sorry, sparkie, I just finished it all last night" I replied and went on watch.