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 separation, relays in the decoder will clamp shut triggering alarm bells in the radio room, in the radio officer's sleeping quarters, and the bridge. It warned of a distress message about to be sent on 500 kc.
Now, the two-tone AA (Auto Alarm) 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 500 kc career, there had never been a silence like this I thought.
Then it came:
I was first - in A2 mode, I sent:
Once the RRR SOS replies ceased, NMO took control. I asked the standard questions for situations such as this:
SOS NMO DE DJNK WILL DO OM
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:
SOS NMO DE DJNK HV TO LEAVE SHIP NOW TU OM FER
I couldn't accept this - the man at that key couldn't have just perished! I sent:
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.
End of Part 6.