Reports From NMO - My First SOS at NMO

Copyright © 1994 by Jeffrey Herman – All Rights Reserved.
Permission is given to publish this piece as long as no monetary gain is to be made. Please notify me prior to publishing.

In the following true narrative the ship's name and her callsign have been changed.

As mentioned in an earlier Part 1, I always sat the 12 hour 500 kc night watch on my duty nights; I loved listening to the steady flow of calls from ships in far off waters. Even though we sat in the Central Pacific I would sometimes even copy a fluttery East Coast US shore station.

Throughout the night I would hear ghostly signals, just above the noise level, that would fade in and out from who knows where. We used a Beverage-type long wire that stretched over one mile in length, and NMO sat in a very electrically quiet region. We were able to copy any ship or shore station anywhere in the Pacific.

One evening, feeling a bit drowsy (0200 local!), I thought I was dreaming when I heard a long dash, a pause, another long dash, a pause, another long dash, a pause, ..... Like an electric shock, adrenalin flooded through me at the speed of light - OH MY GOD - SOMEONE IS SENDING AN AUTO ALARM! My eyes shot to the clock to time the dashes: 4 seconds on, 1 second off, 4 seconds on, 1 second off - those 12 long dashes almost froze me. I yelled into the intercom to the chief `Auto Alarm on 500' knowing at the same time alarm bells were ringing on board every ship scattered around the Pacific within radio range of the distressed ship.

Recall that when a shipboard operator goes off watch, ITU rules dictate he leaves a receiver tuned to 500 kc with a decoder attached - if that decoder hears at least four 4-second dashes each with 1-second seperation, relays in the decoder will clamp shut triggering alarm bells in the radio room, in the radio officer's sleeping quarters, and up on the bridge, to warn of a distress message about to be sent on 500 kc.

Now, the two-tone AA used on the voice SSB MF distress/calling freq of 2182 kc was common: Mexican fishing crews used them when they were drunk. But AA's on 500 kc are *never* sent except when a ship is in distress.

This was the first one I'd heard since my radioman school days; I can't put into words the terror I felt while sitting out the ITU-required 2 minute wait (recall that the ITU dictates every step the distressed vessel's radio officer takes: Auto Alarm, then the 2-minute wait [if possible] for off- duty ops on other ships, woken by their Auto Alarm receivers, to race to their radio shacks to copy the distress).

500 kc was now in an extended silent period. Someone started tuning up and was immediately pounced on by myself:

QRT SOS

was all I needed to send - dead silence.

One of the Australian shore stations was sending a CQ at the same time the AA went out - he must have heard the AA through his CQ for he stopped in mid broadcast. Nothing but an occasional static crash - dead silence. Throughout my brief 500kc career there had never been a silence like this I thought. Then it came:

SOS SOS SOS CQ DE DJNK DJNK DJNK SOS BT MV PANAMA TRADER HULL CRACKED IN HEAVY SEAS MAJOR FLOODING 42-27N 42-27N 178-51W 178-51W NOW ABANDONING SHIP SOS BT MASTER AR K

Then came the 10 second-long dash (ITU: for direction finding). I was first - in A2 I sent:

SOS DJNK DJND DJNK DE NMO NMO NMO RRR SOS

and after me 500 kc was flooded with ships and shore stations sending sending the ITU response:

SOS DJNK DJNK DJNK DE NMC NMC NMC RRR SOS (San Francisco)

SOS DJNK DJNK DJNK DE NOJ NOJ NOJ RRR SOS (Alaska)

SOS DJNK DJNK DJNK DE NMQ NMQ NMQ RRR SOS (Long Beach, CA)

SOS DJNK DJNK DJNK DE KPH KPH KPH RRR SOS (San Fran.)

along with KFS in California, NRV in Guam, a couple Japan shore stations; the radio operator aboard DJNK must have breathed a sigh of relief and taken some comfort knowing his message was heard by so many.

Once the RRR SOS replies ceased NMO took control; I asked the standard questions for situations such as this:

SOS DJNK DE NMO BT NEED FOLLOWING INFO NR OF POB (number of persons on board) CSE (course) HULL ES SS COLOR (hull and superstructure colors) NR OF BOATS (number of lifeboats) BOAT RADIO FREQS, EPIRB WX, WIND SPD ES DIR, SWELL HT ES DIRECTION, CURRENT (weather and sea data) BT SOS K

and DJNK patiently answered each.

After getting these important answers I had the uncomfortable task of asking:

SOS DJNK DE NMO BT OM PSE CL KEY BEFORE U LV OK? K

SOS NMO DE DJNK WILL DO OM

Every shipboard telegraph key has a switch which, when closed, will continuously cause the ship's radio to transmit. This enables rescue aircraft to home in on the distressed vessel using their direction finding equipment. I had asked the op to close his key switch before he leaves the ship.

At the same time our AMVER computer was generating a printout of the locations of ships transiting the North Pacific: No ships were in DJNK's area! At least no AMVER reporting ships; it's possible there was a ship close to DJNK that wasn't sending us his AMVER position reports. A very slim possibility but a chance we couldn't ignore.

I was ordered by our Rescue Center to send the DDD SOS, i.e. to relay DJNK's distress message from our 10 kW transmitter. In A2 I sent:

AUTO ALARM (12 four second dashes with a one second pauses) then with my hand shaking, clenching the key: DDD SOS SOS SOS DDD CQ DE NMO NMO NMO SOS BT (DJNK's message) BT ANY SHIPS IN AREA DIVERT AND ASSIST SIGNED US COAST GUARD AR DDD SOS K

Dead silence reigned for minutes that seemed like hours. An awful, awful feeling of helplessness overcame me as I sat in that chair with the entire NMO crew standing in silence - all of us knowing at that very moment men were perishing in an icy ocean... Already we had aircraft in the air heading to DJNK's position so I notified him:

SOS DJNK DJNK DE NMO NMO BT USCG AIRCRAFT LAUNCHED TO UR POSN ETA 3 HRS BT HOWS UR COND? K

SOS NMO DE DJNK HV TO LEAVE SHIP NOW TU OM FER

His transmitter had emitted a - a scream - it actually screamed! I turned to the Chief asking ``Is that...?'' ``Yes, the ocean water just flooded his radio room shorting out his transmitter and batteries.'' I couldn't accept this - the man at that key couldn't have just perished! I sent:

SOS DJNK DE NMO SOS DJNK DJNK DE NMO

At this point the Chief put his hand on my shoulder and only said ``He can't answer you - he's gone.'' Throughout the night at 15 minute intervals I continued to send the Auto Alarm and the DDD SOS to no avail.

At daybreak our aircraft reported seeing only debris: bales of hay, which was the cargo of DJNK; no lifeboats, no bodies, only debris. Even to this day I sometimes hear, in my sleep, the scream DJNK's transmitter emitted that terrifying and horrible night. I pray the crew of that ship rest in peace.