1954: Clyde Williams returns to ZLW

By Clyde Williams

Clyde Williams
Clyde Williams

In April 1954 I left Milford Sound (ZMV Radio) and, after a couple of weeks leave, reported to the RNZAF station at Wigram (Christchurch) to begin my Compulsory Military Training.

Once the introductory training was completed (the marching up and down bit) I was posted as “skilled recruit” to the Main Signals Office, RNZAF Wigram.

The work was mainly point to point (radio and teletype circuits) communications both within NZ and with Air Force stations in Fiji and Australia. Not a lot different to the message handling stuff I was used to.

Aircraft communications were mainly handled by the control towers using R/T but occasionally we would work direct to the aircraft where morse was being used; usually just to meet training requirements. At this time morse communications with aircraft were being phased out everywhere and increasingly its only use was to identify aeronautical beacon and ILS (instrument landing systems) stations.

There I “marked time” until the other members of my draft had completed their technical training and we were then posted to the Active Reserve with no commitment other than a 3-week annual posting.

Wellington Radio ZLW in the early 1950s
The original 1912 stone building at Wellington Radio was extended and housed the station’s transmitters in the early 1950s. Courtesy Chris Underwood

In the spring of 1954 I was back at Wellington Radio ZLW. There had been a number of changes since I left there early in 1952; in particular Tom Gates, who was the Superintendent when I went to Milford Sound, had retired in June 1953. He had been replaced by George Marston, formerly of Auckland Radio ZLD.

A number of the older operators had retired or moved on in my absence and there were many new faces. A couple of the new people were former seagoing radio officers. I felt it was a great advantage to have actual sea experience in the station.

A number of the senior and longstanding operators were, however, a bit pipped about this.

To be a Supervisor or higher, one had to have certain qualifications; most importantly either an internationally recognised operators certificate or an equivalent certificate recognised by the station’s administration. Some of the more senior experienced, but otherwise unqualified, operators who had got used to “acting in a higher position” with increased salaries were faced with the loss of that privilege and did not like it one little bit.

One of the other new operators was Frank (Pat) McInerney. He had taken on the job of keeping our canteen stocked and was very good at that. He had not been operating for very long when he developed a medical (skin) issue which, while it did not affect his operating ability (which was high), it did make life very uncomfortable. It was finally diagnosed as a reaction to Bakelite (our headphones had Bakelite ear pieces) and he had to leave the radio operating arena. He did go to Telegraph Division, POHQ, and ultimately became the Director-General of the Post Office; the very last person to hold this position.

I took over his job as canteen manager and was surprised at the amount of time that had to be spent at this unofficial work, which had to be done in your own time.

I resumed normal operating duties and immediately noticed that there had been a large increase in message traffic; with the four-hourly HF broadcasts becoming quite lengthy. The A, B and C operator classes had been abolished and, once trained, each member of the staff performed all duties.

There were many more small vessels equipped with radio, and the radiotelephone watch was now a headphone watch rather than the previous speaker watch.

The operating room had been rearranged when the aeradio responsibility was relinquished and the 24-hour radiotelephone/telegraph watches were now in separate, enclosed positions at the northern end of the room.

The magnetic wall map covering Area 5 was also installed during this period. Many were the arguments about the accuracy of the ship positions; but it did give a quick view of the shipping and their whereabouts.

Placing magnets on a map of the South Pacific at Tinkori Hill radio station in 1957.
Placing magnets on a map of the South Pacific at Tinkori Hill radio station in 1957. Evening Post photo

Beginning in the New Year 1956, and until the early spring of that year, I worked permanently at Room 53 in the General Post Office. The 1956 Summer Olympics were held in Melbourne, Australia. Extra operating staff were allocated to Room 53 to handle radio picture traffic arising out of the event.

I remember that we lost considerable circuit time due to bad propagation factors and it was quite frustrating at times; not only to us but to the press people meeting tight publication deadlines.

High-speed radiotelegraph at Wellington GPO
High-speed radiotelegraph at Room 53, Wellington GPO, 24 May 1954. Supervisor Dave Shearer is seated. The radio picture equipment was housed in a small room immediately behind the photographer. Courtesy Chris Underwood

Mystery of the Joyita

The MV Joyita was a small motor vessel from which 25 passengers and crew mysteriously disappeared in the South Pacific in 1955. It sailed from Apia in October on a 48-hour trip to a nearby island. It never arrived but was found adrift, abandoned and hundreds of miles off course on 6 November of that year.

The ship was in very poor condition, with corroded pipes and a radio which, while functional, had a range of only about 2 miles, because of faulty wiring. However, the extreme buoyancy of the ship (her refrigerated hold was lined with cork) made sinking nearly impossible.

MV Joyita was found abandoned and listing to port with her decks awash.
MV Joyita was found north of Fiji, abandoned and listing to port with her decks awash.

An Official Inquiry was held in Apia in 1956. There was worldwide interest in the matter and the inquiry generated thousands of words of press traffic; a very considerable amount of this traffic was received at Room 53.

Jack Clinch and Peter Colquhoun were sent to Apia with a Morse tape puncher and transmitting head so as to type and send to New Zealand the findings of the inquiry. Over about three weeks, three of us – Peter Dunn, Frank Fleetwood and I – copied thousands of words produced by the inquiry.

Morse teleprinter position at the Radiotelegraph and Cables Terminal, Wellington General Post Office
Morse teleprinter position at the Radiotelegraph and Cables Terminal, Wellington General Post Office, 24 May 1954. This is where news from the Joyita inquiry was received. Courtesy Chris Underwood

In the photograph above, the right hand operator is typing from a telegram form which is reproduced on a perforated tape which is then fed into the transmitting head by the left hand operator. (This is the job performed by Peter and Jack in Apia). For our part of the job we worked in the left hand position typing directly from the aural CW signal to standard telegram delivery forms which were delivered by hand to the New Zealand Press Association, who had their own office. I believe we were recorded receiving at some pretty high speeds.

Busy circuits

There were a large number of Pacific Islanders living in New Zealand and the Apia, Niue, Rarotonga and Tongan circuits were busy indeed.

Judging from the very large number of money order telegrams regularly sent to these islands, their local economies depended highly upon the generosity (and sense of family responsibility) of their New Zealand relations.

Big changes

I returned to ZLW on Tinakori Hill in the spring of 1956, but I had a problem. I had earlier in the year met the lady who was to mean much to me for many years. Our relationship had advanced to the stage of announcing our engagement, but after getting the ring, etc., I had very little in my bank balance – certainly not enough to start our life together.

We both wanted to start our marriage in our own home but just could not see a way to do it. I learned that there would soon be a vacancy at ZLC Radio in the Chatham Islands and, after consultation with my fiancée, we agreed we would put off our marriage for a year with the expectation that in that time at ZLC I could save enough for a deposit on a house.

I applied to the department for the transfer, was accepted, and on 15 December 1956 I departed from Evans Bay in a flying boat bound for the Chathams.

Next: Clyde Williams at Chatham Islands Radio ZLC