Recollections of Bill Hutchinson
I remember WGK St. Louis very well as I was an operator there from 1947 until
1952, and I have some very pleasant memories of it. I left WGK in 1952 to
become a radio operator for American Airlines in St. Louis. In 1962 I left AA
and moved to Phoenix AZ where I got more education and became a manager in an
engineering department (Metrology laboratory) for Motorola.
WGK PERSONNEL: George Armerski was the station manager. I believe that he was about 50 and came from Cincinnati originally. Other than George, the other operators who were there while I worked there (1947-1952) were: John Frank, Joy Kinney, John Polenski, Bob Schnitzer and Bill Hutchinson (me). Of course, all of the operators had to have at least a 2nd class FCC license. Most of us had more. I have a 1st class phone and 2nd class radiotelegraph with radar endorsement. That was fairly typical of most of us. Schnitzer and Frank left there about when I did. Schnitzer opened up his own business in St. Louis - a sheet metal fabrication shop and Frank went with one of the St. Louis broadcast stations as an engineer. Joy Kinney eventually transferred to sister RMCA station KPH on the West coast. I don't know what happened to any of the others.
The operators did almost all of the maintenance at the station. Maintaining the radio and radar equipment aboard the vessels was done by the St. Louis based RMCA technician, Bill Dinniger, who had moved from Memphis. On occasion, he was overloaded with work and I would go aboard boats to install and repair radio and radar equipment. I knew Bill quite well and once went with him and his family on a week-long fishing trip to Arkansas. While on that trip we stopped at WJG in Memphis and visited there - the only time that I was ever there. Eventually, Bill left RMCA and went to work for the St. Louis Police Dept. as a radio technician. I lost track of him after that. He was an active ham, but I don’t remember his call.
The station was located on the 2nd floor of the Mississippi Valley Barge Line
terminal at the foot of Rutger Street in St. Louis. From the operations room we
had an excellent panoramic view of the Mississippi. Although MVBL was probably
our largest customer there were many others notably Federal Barge Lines.
There were two identical operating positions at the station. In the photo of one of them on the WGK main page, the unit with the sloping front panel was the main controller for the station. The telephone dial on the upper right, was the dial for the two-tone ringer system that we sometimes used. Many of the vessels that had RMCA radios had a ring detector. Each vessel had a distinct tone sequence. If the ship did not respond to our initial call, we would try to ring them. It seemed to work fairly good!
The main transmitter was made by Wilcox, and is identical to the one shown in the photos of sister RMCA station WCM - Pittsburgh. It had four large roll out bays, one for each frequency. In each bay the power was 2KW and used four Eimac 450TL tubes in push-pull. The AM modulator consisted of two 450TL’s. It was interesting to see the Eimac tubes in operation as their plates ran red hot (even white at times) when they were on! We also had a emergency transmitter (one off of a boat) that had a single end fed antenna and appropriate tuners so it could be used on all four frequencies. Actually, this transmitter also had channel 4 (ship-to-ship) in it and once in a great while we would use it on that channel to call a ship and then switch him over to one of the regular channels. This was a rare instance but I remember doing it several times.
All four antennas at the station were ½ wave dipoles and all were fed by open wire feeders spaced 6 inches apart. They were supported on telephone poles about 60 feet high. There was something funny about those antennas and their ladder feed lines. On a few occasions during the cold winters in St. Louis the feed lines would ice over and we could not use the antennas. When that happened we used the emergency transmitter with its single feed line until the ladder lines thawed out.
When I arrived on the scene in 1947 almost 100% of the operating was done via
radiotelephone, and CW operating was, for all practical purposes, over with. I
can only recall George using CW with one vessel a few times. That was a small
freighter that had a run from Havana to St. Louis. That particular operation was
a failure because often the ship could not make it all the way to the St. Louis
harbor without becoming grounded on a sand bar! I remember one Christmas Eve
when it was necessary to send a towboat and an empty barge downstream from St.
Louis in order to off-load the little freighter to lighten it up so that it
could continue on to the harbor. When it finally arrived at the harbor the crew
had rigged Christmas lights from the masts and the newspaper made a big deal of
Almost all the traffic was with river boats. We worked them on all the tributaries of the Mississippi: the Illinois River, the Missouri River, the Ohio River, the Tennessee River and the Intercoastal Waterway from New Orleans to Houston. The clerks were often also radio operators on the vessels, but the pilot also had the capability of using the radio, and often did. Occasionally we did a little phone patch work for various aircraft. Most notable in that category was President Truman’s Lockheed Consolation, The Sacred Cow. The vast majority of our traffic was in message form. However, there was a considerable amount of phone-patch traffic, especially to MVBL. The cost for a message was $0.75 each plus tax. Once the message was received it was forwarded to the recipient by telephone or teletype.
On a more humorous side there was even some occasional "non-standard" operations as we had a 75 meter ham crystal that on very rare occasions we would slip in and make a few qso's on the ham band! (Those of us who were hams of course.) There was an old Hammerlund general coverage receiver that we could use to listen to the ham bands and other stuff.
Up until about 1948 all the boats had four letter call signs. After that the FCC began to assign call signs that consisted of two letters followed by four numbers.
Radar was something fairly new to the river boats. We sold a radar system that
was made by RMCA which was originally designed for ocean going ships. It had a
PPI scope display. Right off the bat we discovered that this had a real short
coming. On foggy nights, as the boat captain approached a bridge, the bridge
piers would not show on his scope because they were the same distance (in line)
from him as was the bridge superstructure! We did some experimenting to overcome
this problem. First we installed some waveguide reflectors directly above the
piers on the bridge surface in the St. Louis harbor. These consisted of a horn
to pick up the signal from the ships radar. The horn was connected to the end of
a length of waveguide which included a directional coupler and then back again
pointing in the same direction as the input end of the thing. The idea was that
there would be some delay in the waveguide before the signal was passively sent
back toward the vessel. On the radar scope the captain would see a little line
which was perpendicular to the main bridge structure. This worked only fair.
Then we installed some transponders on the bridge piers, especially on the Ohio
River at first. These presented a rather bright spot on his display where the
piers were. That worked great and that is what we finally went with.
On a related note, the wife and I have been taking river cruises on the rivers in Europe for the past several years. There, I see, they use a passive reflector system. Each bridge pier there has a rather long boom protruding out from it and a radar reflector on the end of it. This works fine because the reflected signal is at a considerable distance from the main bridge structure and is easily seen on the ships radar PPI scope.
Bill Hutchinson, W7EX - Phone: 623 544 0154
Reconstruct the e-mail address: wbhutchinson-at-hotmail-dot-com