U.S. Coast Guard Oral History Program
A Radioman in the U.S. Coast Guard
Chief Radioman Mike Chartuk, USCGR
World War II Coast Guard Veteran
December 8, 1941, [I graduated from] the U.S. Coast Guard radio school as a Radioman Third Class, owning a solid 26 wpm [word per minute] Morse code rating, I was assigned to a USCG monitoring station. It was located at Southampton, New York-inside a luxurious beach-front mansion. I was led into a small room where to see two USCG second-class radiomen wearing head phones, seated at a long bench, with but a glance at me each tuning, I could see, a National HRO shortwave radio receiver. A Chief Radioman, introducing himself as Hackworth, seated at a third HRO pointed to a fourth, saying “Get a pair of earphones.”
A moment to look out a window to see tall poles and strung wires, I sat at the radio receiver, plugged in earphones I found, they just like the ones at radio school, “What am I supposed to do?” I asked.
“Look for clandestine transmissions…five-letter code. If it’s a weak signal, copy as much as you can.”
It wasn’t long before I came across just that: five-letter code, at a pretty good rate, but with good “fist” which I could easily copy.
The Chief Radioman leaned over to look. “Never mind that,” he said. “It’s a German sub.”
A German sub I was copying! Never mind that!
The CRM looked at a paper which in a while I had filled up. He pointed to something I had scribbled down a long string of a 3-letter call sign followed by a cryptic “QRU AR K” meant. In radioman language it means, “End of transmission, please reply.” He asked, “at what dial position did I find that?”
I didn’t remember. “What is QRU” I asked.
“It’s a Q-Signal. It means, ‘I have nothing for you. Do you have anything for me?’”
Another day the other radiomen found my 3-letter call-sign guy and his “QRU AR K” This was my first German spy! And a day later, instead of a QRU, I copied solid my first spy message-in the 5-letter code the Germans always used. Proof: He signed off with an “HH.” Easy to guess what “HH” meant.
Three-letter call signs, 5-letter code sent in precise German “fist,” I soon learned it was what to look for. This was the communication between German spy stations and their home station in Hamburg. What was in the messages, save for what was pertinent to our operations such as call signs to look for, and was never divulged by decoders at Washington headquarters where all was sent. But for sure much of it had to be ship convoy departures from U.S. ports.
There were other suspicious radio transmissions to copy. Spanish ships with their raspy spark transmitters-unlike the pure constant-wave tones of the German transmitters. And there was daily a clandestine station using the odd call sign UU2 which sounded in Morse code like the rhythm of the William Tell overture.
And there was the spy home station in Hamburg with the call sign AOR (of the movie House on 92nd Street). He was on daily. The only one that did this, he never sent his messages in a complete string. He’d stop and shift frequency, to send V’s until contact again was made. This was a workout for us but we managed to keep up, knowing he’d shift soon as he used the Q-signal QSY.
Why was the Coast Guard doing this? Not the Navy or some other U.S. Government agency? Coast Guard radiomen being capable of this a good reason-but there was a better.
During Prohibition, interdiction of rum runners was the Coast Guard's task, along which the Coast Guard regularly monitored the clandestine radio transmissions between rum runners and foreign ships offshore. For these thirteen years of experience it was a natural choice to include the Coast Guard in the monitoring of clandestine radio transmissions, now by foreign spies.
It may well be asked, why weren’t these spy stations hunted down and put out of business, their operators shot? What for? We intercepted and decoded all of their messages, their harm neutralized. Just say, the devil we know is better than the devil we don’t know.
There was one station of great interest to me. He used the call sign CEL. His signal strength was low, which put him at a distant location. He came on only occasionally. His keying was extremely slow, it seemed a couple of seconds between characters, making it easy to tune right through him. He transmitted the usual formula of QRU AR K. We never copied a message from him.
Fitting right in, I did fine. The German “fist” was easy to copy; I found my share of new spy stations; and, yes, Southampton was a great liberty town. The war was just started; the people couldn’t do enough for us. I boarded at a local home. Good meals, laundry done, much visits to a USO started up at the American Legion hall, girls-ah, the life. Of course never to divulge what we were doing.
Trainee’s fresh from the Coast Guard radio school came aboard, soon to make up five men to watch. Promoted along the way to Radioman First Class, I was by this time watch supervisor.
A little more than a year at the Southampton station, I was called in by Chief Hackworth. He said they are sending out Naval Intelligence task groups to set up other monitoring stations. You have a choice between Recife, Brazil, or Coudad Trujillo, Dominican Republic. I “volunteered” for Ciudad Trujillo. Maybe because I never heard of the place.
“Okay. You will be in charge. Pick four to go with you.”
I, Radiomen Second Class Jim Harkin, Clint Wheeler, Tom Marks, and Frank Prior- we were on our way. A train to Miami for a week’s stay, a flight aboard a PBY, in an hour we landed at Ciudad Trujillo (the city formerly known as Santo Domingo)
Sea bags and all we boarded a taxi, vintage even in 1943, the driver, thinking exactly where to take us, dropped us off at a wharf on the river Ozama, there to see tied up a U.S. Navy destroyer escort and a U.S. Coast Guard 125-footer.
Seeing a USCG emblem on a door, we walk in, greeted with “Where did you come from!” by a USCG LTJG.
The Lieutenant had no idea what to do with us, but noticing U.S. Naval Attaché on our orders and seeing we were on “subs and quarters,” said, “You’re on your own. The Naval Attaché is at the embassy.”
One night stay in an old hotel, supper and breakfast beyond imagination, the taxi driver waiting around, he took me to the U.S. Embassy (on Cordell Hull Street).
LTCOL Roger Willock, U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Naval Attaché, took me to a storage room, my eyes to light upon a stack of 5 HRO’s, a pile of coiled antenna wire, insulators, locked file cabinet, and a typewriter. The colonel introduced me to a U.S. Army sergeant, with saying. “Sergeant Abrams here will help you get set up at the radio station.”
On a jeep ride heading north out of the city—on a bone-jarring ride—at times the only sign of road, the wood-poled power line that we followed along, dodging natives on their burrow, a while stuck in a scary cattle drive, long horns slicing in and out of the jeep, we arrived. “Kilometro Ocho” the sergeant announced.
If I expected something special, all there was to see was a decrepit white-washed concrete building, terminus for the power line we had followed for eight kilometers, barely emerged from head-high grass. The only thing radio station was what looked like a dipole antenna strung between wooden poles. There were people around Sergeant Abrams introduced me to a Dominican Army sergeant, Bacco by name.
I looked around-some primitive plumbing, a screen door, an almond tree Sergeant Bacco, who spoke a little English, to say to me. Looking very much out of place, a Hallicrafters radio transmitter sat on a high bench. I saw a separate concrete structure with a door less opening, inside it a concrete platform on which a charcoal fire glowed under a rattling coffee pot.
Sergeant Abrams took me on a narrow board walk out of sight into tall grass jungle to come upon an Adcock rotating direction finder, a U.S. Army private soldier, wearing earphones, on duty. “Nothing,” the sergeant received in answer to his “Anything?”
The sergeant found us a house to rent, complete with a cook at five dollars a month, a maid at two fifty a month, and a yard boy at two fifty a month, the cook, an English-speaking Jamaican to turn out to be a treasure.
Settled in, at the Coast Guard office to make sure of our pay, “Naval Intelligence,” but taken always with suspicion, in answer to questions I could not or would not answer, we stood well on our own.
Sergeant Abrams took me to the Dominican Army fort in the city to introduce me to LT Saladin, head of the Dominican Army Signal Corp, here a man to be of invaluable help. He had his men raise a 50’ pole at my request and string long-wire antennas from the top of the pole out in different directions into the grassy jungle partly cleared by stripe-uniformed convicts borrowed from a Dominican prison-enough wire slacked down from the top of the pole, climbed by a Dominican Army private, to lead into the concrete building, into each of four receivers (the fifth HRO a cannibalized spare).
We were in business. Our antenna array, if not very elegant, worked fine. Spy stations barely discernible at Southampton rose loud and clear here at Kilometro Ocho, and vice versa. We tried the Adcock out in the tall grass jungle, it proved of no use to us. Its receiver sensitivity was too low.
Sergeant Abrams and two U.S. Army radiomen that had manned the station with its transmitter and direction finder did not much comprehend our approach. Within a few days at their request they were transferred out, but I laid claim to their jeep.
In the days and weeks passing we became better and better at our work. Daily I delivered to the Naval Attaché written copy of all clandestine matter we intercepted. Among themselves my four radiomen set up twenty-four-hour, seven-day watch at the station. I became charged with all else. I was quartermaster, yeoman, caretaker, errand-boy, housekeeper, chauffeur, diplomat, and all-around scrounge wherever it took me; to Puerto Rico for clothes and supplies; to the Dominican Army garage for gas for the jeep or springs or the welding back on of the spare tire bracket; to the U.S. Embassy for money to pay bills, or to the U.S. Navy doctor there for medicine or for APC’s. Clint came down with jaundice. Tom got malaria. I had caught the dengue fever. Montezuma’s revenge did not spare any of us. I did spell anyone on his watch who couldn’t make it.
The Dominican Army on LT Saladin’s assurance, Sergeant Bacco in charge, maintained twenty-four hour guard at the station and daily saw to stripe-suited prisoners with machetes to keep down the grass jungle surrounding the station. In turn we were happy to teach English and to allow Morse-code practice.
In a list of clandestine 3-letter call signs sent us by headquarters there appeared the call sign CEL. I remembered it from back in Southampton. I heard it there only once, having to dig it out of static. Other operators there had herd it no one to ever copying a message. Maybe we could pick it up here at “Kilometro Ocho.” I remembered the very slow, deliberate way the operator transmitted a long string of his call sign, his QRU and his AR K. I told my watch-standers to look out for him. Maybe even a message. I gave a dial setting where he might be found.
It was a couple months and we were about to give up on this one. Well, almost.
Coming in with Jim Harking to pick up reports of our operations to bring back to LTCOL Willock for sending on to headquarters and Jim to relieve Tom Marks on duty since midnight, Tom handed me a paper and to say, “Look what I found. I got CEL and a message, solid.” We wasted no time. I got out our coding machine, adding some nonsense words, coded CEL’s call sign and message in our code of the day. We fired up the radio transmitter-our call sign, HIQG-and radioed the recoded message to headquarters in Washington.
The German spy stations by now had settled pretty much into routine. We could sit and wait for them, their time to come on and band positions well known to us. Those that changed call signs, we’d know in advance what they’d be. We were on new spy stations soon as they came up. As always, we never knew what was in the messages, they always being coded. It to say, we fell easily into their operation, even to taking breathing spells with them. With exception, the station using CEL was once and away. We did not hear from him again-even a receiver locked in on him.
Riding in with Tom Marks, Tom to relieve Frank Prior, Frank to take the jeep back, it was my intention to spend the day with Tom on his eight to four. I wanted to try out a wax cylinder Dictaphone given me by LTCOL Willock. Between me and Tom, hooking up the Dictaphone, we found a weak station where we could copy only about half its message. On playback the machine did well. We were able to retrieve several code words missed the first time around.
Lunch time came around, we shared some rice and beans and Coca Colas with the station guards. I started on some paper work when I heard a guard halting a car. It was an embassy car. I let in two U.S. Navy officers. One of the officers pinned a green/white ribbon on my undress whites blouse and said, “Radioman Chartuk, you are awarded the Naval Commendation medal and you are promoted to Chief Radioman.”
Promoted to Chief. More pay, Chuck the sailor suit, Great! A medal? What was that for?
“We are not supposed to tell you…but. . . . . .”
The German Navy had deployed a wolf pack of forty submarines in a line stretched across the expected path of a shop they were out to sink. They set up a radio lookout station disguised as flotsam. The lookout aboard the flotsam, whose call sign was CEL, spied the subs’ target under way and alerted the submarines. The targeted ship would have to pass between at least two submarines which would converge and fire torpedoes into to ship’s stern with the intention of disabling its propellers and rudder to put the ship dead in the water or make it run helplessly in a circle with a jammed rudder. The other submarines would close in and fire volleys of torpedoes until the ship was sunk with all aboard. Life boats and survivors in the water would be machine-gunned.
“The lookout’s message that your station intercepted-you were the only one-when decoded gave them away. The ship was given urgent advice in time to set course out of harm’s way.”
“The ship? Was it the Queen Mary, the Gray Ghost, sailing independent with a division of U.S. soldiers aboard, 15,000 soldiers, along with 400 of the ship’s crew?
The war in Europe came to an end. As if someone threw a giant switch the German spy network fell silent. Four months and nothing Japanese, no enthusiasm for Russian stations, their messages in tiresome five-number code, came news of the dropping of an atomic bomb.
On orders, I burned every evidence of our operations, and then I sent everyone home. With gratuities I thanked our cook, maid, and house-boy. I paid off Mr. Pou, the landlord and moved into the Jaragua, a hotel on the Caribbean. On chief’s pay I could afford it. But my job was not quite finished. There was U.S. Government property to look to.
It took a couple of months, but I managed to sell it all, at cost, to the Dominican government-the HRO’s, the transmitter, the Adcock direction finder, the emptied file cabinet, the Dictaphone, the typewriter, the jeep, and anything else around. I thanked and said goodbye to LTCOL Willock and to LT Saladin. They whom of such help to me; made sure Tom got recommended for the Naval Commendation medal; found out what happened to CEL on flotsam (a U.S. Navy destroyer took care of that); and a twenty-four year-old U.S. Coast Guard sailor who did represent the United States in a foreign country both militarily and diplomatically-who did shake hands, eye-to-eye, with the president of the Dominican Republic—returned home to ship out.
A few years ago I wrote to the Bureau of Naval Personnel requesting the medals to which I was entitled. I did receive the U.S. Coast Guard Good Conduct Medal with bronze star, the American Defense Service Medal (with clasp), the American Campaign Medal- the World War II Victory Medal, but as to the Naval Commendation Medal-there was no record of this award.