USS HOUSTON CA 30
“The galloping Ghost of the
By David Flynn
A stout peg, thought to be made of teak, was securely imbedded, about five feet above the floor level, in a hardwood post located in the center of the hut. Fellows called it the hook. It was the butt of considerable off-colored humor, the cause of injury to some and the source of annoyance to everyone. There had been a lot of talk about removing it. For some reason, the difficulty, individual lassitude, whatever, this was never done. But, we're getting ahead of our story.
Justin Carruthers, along with hundreds of other multi‑national POW's, stood in the sopping nocturnal tropical heat. They were lined up along a narrow roadway which separated barbed wire enclosed prison compounds. Recent bouts of malaria, dysentery, beriberi, coupled with the effects of slave labor, beatings, poorly attended wounds and meager foul smelling scraps of food had reduced his once proud weight to something approximating a hundred pounds. His clothes were held together with poorly sewn, oddly shaped faded patches. They were the tattered remnants of his service uniform.
He had been awakened by a series of abrupt kicks accompanied by screams and shouts in a tongue in which he could only comprehend the inflections. He quickly left his vermin infested mat in the desperate hope of avoiding further blows. Justin wondered what had caused this latest cataclysm. He remembered seeing a mobile radio direction finder while on a working party earlier in the week. He shuddered upon realizing the object of his captor's excitement. The thought of the possible consequences to a successful search caused droplets of ice cold sweat to issue from his armpits.
In his civilian days, he had been an avid "ham" (amateur) radioman. He would haunt thrift shops for discarded radios. These, he would take to his basement workshop, remove, classify and put the many component parts into labeled boxes. He would later build CW (continuous wave - Morse code type) radio receivers and transmitters. Although this CW equipment was simplistic in design, it was capable of communicating over great distances. Under the right conditions contact between any two distant places on the planet was achievable. His hobby was to "work" (contact) other "hams" with his CW equipment. Successful contacts would be followed by the "hams" exchanging cards (known as QSL cards) each giving their station call letters, location and some technical data. These cards would be proudly and prominently displayed on the wall of the ham's radio station even though the station was located in a lowly basement. It was only natural that he would enter the communications field following his induction into military service. His service duties were not too different from his "ham" days. In the service, he would copy press, weather reports and work as an operator sending and receiving messages to and from other military units. The military had their own unique procedural way of doing things but that was pretty much the extent of the technical differences.
Justin was taken prisoner on his 22nd birthday. During the first few months of their captivity, he and his fellow POW's were moved continuously. They were eventually placed in one of the slave labor camps on a comparatively permanent basis and the long monotonous period of incarceration began. It was on one of the work parties to which they were assigned that one of the fellows found an abandoned radio chassis. At considerable risk, the group managed to smuggle the chassis into the camp at the end of the work day. Justin's technical abilities were known to his immediate buddies and it was tacitly assumed by them that he would eventually provide some relief from the propaganda supplied by their captors.
This small group, consisting of the five POW's responsible for finding and smuggling the radio chassis, concluded that total secrecy about the chassis was "sine qua non", to their survival. There were in the camp informers, known as "sponge cake quislings". They would readily sell-out for a slice of the doughy delicacy. Converting the radio chassis into a functioning radio receiver progressed at an agonizingly slow pace. The opportunity for productive work was rare. Attempts were made to change its basic design to prevent it from emitting signals that could be traced. This approach was abandoned owing to the lack of equipment and essential parts. Then, there was the constant threat of not knowing when a search of hut would occur. There always had to be a place where the device could be hidden quickly and successfully in such an event. The chassis was at times secreted beneath one of the stone slabs of the hut's floor, sometimes in the wall and at other times in the ceiling. Coming up with a good location was a constant challenge and. there were many close calls.
Whenever slave labor was needed at another location, it was the practice of their captors to select men that, in their opinion, were physically capable of making the trip. This determination was made by their doctor. On one such occasion, the doctor motioned to an aide to fetch a stool that had been placed in front of one of the huts. Unknown to everyone except, the chassis gang, the stool contained the illicit radio in a false bottom section. The doctor sat down on the stool and proceeded with his job of selecting "healthy" slaves. The selection process continued to conclusion without incident. The adrenalin and pulse rates of the chassis conspirators, however, soared to new heights. It seemed to those standing in the roadway, more or less at attention, that their ordeal would never end. But the radio had been a success and its contribution to morale was beyond measure. It was worth the risks taken. The mosquito’s continued to attack in increasing numbers and the heat produced a sweat that scorched tropical ulcers. Loud noises, yells and thunderous explosions of objects being smashed emanated from the huts. There was a period of comparative quiet followed by the counting process. The POW's, after months of imprisonment, were able to recognize certain phrases. "How many men do you have?", the senior officer would yell at his subordinates and numbers would be given. Each time they had finished counting, no two of the counters would agree on the total and the process would start over. Finally, with much screaming and yelling, the POW's were herded back to their huts.
Complete devastation, pitiful bits of clothing and "personal" belongings scattered everywhere greeted their eyes. There, oblivious to everyone and wrapped in a dirty sack-like bag, hung the radio from the much maligned Hook.