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RETIREMENT OF THE SPARKS
Its been several years since
the U. S. Coast Guard and the rest of the maritime services phased out the
use of CW as the primary
means of wireless telecommunications, with the Coast Guard changing the
Radioman (RM) rate to Telecommunications Technician (TC) along the way. But
the year 2003 marked the end of the symbol people usually identified with
Coast Guard personnel proficient in communicating via Morse Code —
that is, the "Sparks" on the rating badge worn by Radiomen and early TCs.
Veteran CW operators who had practiced the craft were sad to see the last
vestige of a special skill be replaced with the old Radarman symbol when the
two rates were merged into the new Operations Specialist rate.
(Incidentally, the U. S. Navy,
in accomplishing a similar rate consolidation in 1999, kept the Sparks
symbol to identify its new Information Systems Technician rate. The Navy had
discontinued the routine use of CW long before the Coast Guard, but
keeping with the proud tradition of the RM rating, the rating badge of
electronic sparks associated with the rating is being retained." For the
full text of the CNO's message explaining the change
Some might argue that the Coast
Guard's retirement of the Sparks was appropriate because the people holding
the new rate will no longer be using CW to communicate with CG ships and
stations and with other units in the maritime service —
and the Sparks will forever and rightfully be associated with only those who
The Coast Guard did not let the
retirement of the Sparks occur without some memorable ceremonies. This
included a special celebration for the last Telecommunications Technician "A
School" class to graduate from Coast Guard Training Center at Petaluma, and
commemorating their distinction of being the last TCs to be awarded the
And on July 1, 2003, the date
all TCs were changed to the new OS rate, the Coast Guard's CAMSPAC
(Communication Area Master Station Pacific), at the site of the old
Primary Radio Station, NMC, configured its CW transmitters to broadcast a
final message saluting "all those who have worn the Sparks.
The remainder of this page
provides details and pictures of both of these memorable, though melancholy,
Quite a few stations QSL'd the NMC message. The following service message
is the reply sent by KPH, located down the road from NMC (now closed, but operating
as an "on the air" museum):
Earlier, the following message was sent by KPH, over the sine of "DA" who is
also a former Coast Guard operator stationed at the old NMC:
THE MEMBERS OF THE MARITIME RADIO HISTORICAL SOCIETY, AS THE KEEPERS OF SAN FRANCISCO RADIO KPH, WOULD LIKE TO TAKE THIS OPPORTUNITY TO THANK THE HUNDREDS OF U.S. COAST GUARD MEN AND WOMEN WHO OVER THE YEARS, TIRELESSLY STOOD WATCH ON THE INTERNATIONAL DISTRESS AND CALLING FREQUENCY LISTENING FOR DISTRESS SIGNALS WITH THE INTENT OF PROTECTING LIFE AND PROPERTY AT SEA. WE REGRET THAT THE SPARKS INSIGNIA WILL NEVER AGAIN BE WORN ON THE RESPONSIBLE SHOULDERS OF RADIOMEN, WHO DEDICATED THEIR LIVES TO THE SAFETY OF OTHERS. IN THE TRADITION OF THE MARITIME COMMUNITY, LET US WISH YOU ALL FAIR WINDS AND FOLLOWING SEAS.
~ ZUT/88/73 DA STOOPS
IN 1975 I WAS A RADIOMAN AT WHAT WAS THEN KNOWN AS COMMSTA SAN FRANCISCO, NMC. AFTER MY
ENLISTMENT WAS OVER, I WAS FORTUNATE ENOUGH TO BE HIRED AT KPH, WHO IS ALSO PARTICIPATING
IN THE BROADCASTS TODAY AS A MUSEUM. 6 YEARS AGO, YESTERDAY, ON JUNE 30, 1997, KPH THE
WIRELESS GIANT OF THE PACIFIC CLOSED ITS DOORS TO COMMERCIAL TRAFFIC.
TODAY WE RETIRE THE SPARKS INSIGNIA WORN BY ME BACK IN 1975, AND BY RADIOMEN AROUND THE
WORLD AND IN THE U.S. COAST GUARD.
FOR THE OLD CHIEFS AND EX RADIOMEN WHO MIGHT BE LISTENING TODAY, I WOULD LIKE TO FIRE UP
SOME MEMORIES OF WHAT IT WAS LIKE TO BE AN HF AMVER OPERATOR AT NMC. THESE PICTURES HAVE
BEEN SWIRLING THROUGH MY MEMORY ALL WEEK AS I PREPARED TO WRITE THIS MESSAGE.
THE COMRADERIE AND COMPETITION TO BE THE BEST CW OPERATOR, WAS UNDERSCORED ONLY BY THE
ENTHUSIASM TO BE RADIOMEN. OPERATORS ANXIOUSLY AWAITED OBS SKEDS, FIGHTING OVER DUTY
ASSIGNMENTS, DURING WHICH WE COMPETITIVELY PERFORMED OUR CRAFT.
LEARNING HOW TO COPY CUT NUMBERS FROM INCREDIBLY FAST RUSSIAN OPERATORS, AND HOW TO COPY
BEHIND IN ORDER TO TYPE FASTER, WERE PART OF THE JOB. I REMEMBER THE FIRST TIME I SAW AN
OPERATOR SITTING AT A TYPEWRITER AND COPYING A PRESS BROADCAST FROM KPH USING ONE FINGER
ON ONE HAND, SMOOTHLY MOVING FROM ONE KEY TO THE NEXT IN A EVEN RHYTHM. I HAD NO IDEA
HOW I WAS EVER GOING TO GET TO THAT LEVEL OF ABILITY, BEING SOMEWHAT STUCK ON 22 WORDS
PER MINUTE AS A RADIOMAN SCHOOL GRADUATE, BUT I WAS CERTAINLY MESMERIZED BY THE SKILL
OF THE YOUNG MAN COPYING THE PRESS. PRESS BROADCASTS TYPICALLY WENT OUT AT AROUND 25
WPM, SOMETIMES FASTER. COMPARED TO A NORMAL WEATHER BROADCAST THAT WAS SENT AT 18 WPM,
25 WPM PRESS WAS COMMONLY COPIED BY THE STAFF AT NMC FOR CODE PRACTICE.
THE FIRST TIME I SAW SOMEONE USE A SPEEDKEY, I KNEW I HAD TO HAVE ONE. THERE WAS ONLY
ONE CATCH, I WOULD HAVE TO PROVE MY PROFICIENCY AND BE TESTED TO OBTAIN A SPEEDKEY
CERTIFICATE IN ORDER TO USE ONE ON THE AIR. WITH A LITTLE PRACTICE I DID EARN THAT
CERTIFICATE, AND EVENTUALLY WENT ON TO OWN MY OWN SPEEDKEY, WHICH IS A CHROME PLATED
ORIGINAL DELUXE VIBROPLEX, THAT I STILL USE TODAY.
BEGINNING AS A RADIOMAN IN THE U.S. COAST GUARD PREPARED ME FOR MY CAREER AS A COMMERCIAL
RADIO OPERATOR, AND IT GIVES ME GREAT PLEASURE TO BE HERE TODAY TO SEE THE SPARKS INSIGNIA
THAT I ONCE WORE, BEING COMMEMORATED AND REMEMBERED WITH THE RESPECT AND REVERENCE IT
DESERVES. FROM THE SINKING OF THE TITANIC, TO THE DAWN OF THE SATELLITE COMMUNICATIONS
AGE, THE RADIOMAN HAS STOOD HIS WATCH AND LISTENED TO THE MUSIC OF MORSE WITH DEDICATION
AND EXPERTISE KNOWN ONLY BY HIS FELLOW OPERATORS. WHETHER AT SEA OR ASHORE, THEIR JOB WAS
THE SAME, TO PROTECT LIFE AND PROPERTY AT SEA WITH RELIABLE COMMUNICATIONS.
I AM PROUD TO HAVE WORN THE SPARKS INSIGNIA, AND IT IS WITH A SAD HEART THAT WE RETIRE
THAT EMBLEM OF PROFICIENCY TODAY. NMC AND KPH , BESIDES BEING PHYSICAL NEIGHBORS, HAVE
WORKED WELL TOGETHER THROUGH THE YEARS, AND THE MEMBERS OF THE MRHS THANK NMC FOR
INCLUDING US IN THE CEREMONY TODAY. IN THE TRADITION OF THE MARITIME COMMUNINTY, WE
WISH THE COMMUNICATIONS SPECIALISTS OF TODAY AND TOMORROW, FAIR WINDS AND FOLLOWING SEAS.
And several more QSLs via EMAIL:
Master Chief, et al,
Sadly, I wasn't able to copy 8574 kHz from Maine today. I had both my
Kenwood transceiver with vertical antenna and my Drake R8 receiver with
dipole antenna doing double duty scouring the airwaves for signals. I had a
very faint copy on 17314 kHz with the voice broadcast. I certainly was able
to hear both KPH and KFS on 17 MHz sending out their call tapes.
Additionally, I actually managed to hear a watery "NRV" SITOR marker on 16
MHz. That was very unexpected, but timely considering the circumstances.
So with a tear in my eye, I have to shed my "Chief Sparks" insignia.
The "Sparks" were always a source of pride with me. Before the Coast Guard,
my only exposure to radio was playing with a neighbor's CB radio set back in
the mid-70's, as well as kiddie walkie-talkies. It wasn't until I received
orders to Radioman "A" School (while striking Boswainsmate as a Seaman) that
I found that I really enjoyed radio. It was also at "A" school that I
picked up my Novice ham license (thanks Perry Angiono). I haven't looked
back since. In 1993 I sent the final 500 kHz broadcast from NMC. I have
attached a copy of that final log. Some people listed in this e-mail
already have a copy. Once the CW was gone the job changed.
For those that don't know, Master Chief O'Banion was my "Chief" aboard
the USCGC Chase/NLPM/NNN0NXY when I was a TC2. He can certainly attest to
my efforts providing MARS phone patches, digital MARSGrams text messages and
Winlink HF E-mail that I provided to the crew. I knew that ham radio
license would come in handy one day. This was before the days that underway
e-mail was commonplace aboard MEC and HEC cutters. It certainly kept me
busy between watches down in radio. It was also Chief O'Banion that perked
my current interest in computers. He could make Unisys "Green Screens" and
PC's sing. I was certainly impressed.
Anyway, best wishes and a big thanks to all that were involved in this
event. It was certainly memorable.
~ 73 de Eric, KB6YNO/1
To view a full sized image of the radio logs reference in Eric's Email, above, just
click on either of the thumbnail images to access the PDF file. Use your browsers back
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