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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 explained:"In 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 click here.)

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 did.

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 "Sparks."

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, events:




The Last TC Class to
Wear "The Sparks"



Each guest invited to attend the Class 06-03 graduation ceremony on March 28, 2003 received a special invitation to the event. Here are some of the pictures we took at the graduation ceremony.

Graduating Class plus Fred Siegel of Fred's Place
 
CGCWOA's representative Larry Polito (ZUT-1333) congratulating SNTC Dan Williams, last person to graduate wearing the sparks


CGCWOA's representative Larry Polito addressing the group
 
Honor graduate TC3 David Robinson receiving certificate


Posting of the Colors
 
Unveiling of the classes gift to advisor, C. S. Davis


"Relieving of the Watch" presentation by member of OS class
 
TC3 pinning for members that made it.


M.A. Hernandez holding up his ZUT card for all to see!


All graduating members of the class, though not having to pass any "morse code requirement" to graduate, received an "Honorary Membership" in the Coast Guard CW Operators Association.




COMMEMORATIVE CEREMONIES
AT CAMSPAC/NMC





Revving up their transmitters in CW mode, and taking their old (electronic) hand keys out of storage, operators at the old NMC (Point Reyes, California), broadcast a special commemorative message on several frequencies in the MF and HF bands.

Click here to view the message, which was also used as the "QSL Card" mailed to stations that responded either on the air or by Email.

K6SG, the Marin Amateur Radio Society, provides us with an extensive description of the events at NMC, including many photographs. Please click on their banner to the right to view and read their report of the day.



The following is a "Photo Gallery" of a few of the pictures CGCWOA took during the event. (Click on a Thumbnail to view a larger image.)





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):

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

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:

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.

BT



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 button to return to this page.