I know I promised to limit myself to describing places where tourists normally don’t go, but one item of note that occurred while I was stationed in Pensacola was the arrival of Hurricane Camille. In August of 1969 this huge wind blew over the Gulf coast between Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian in Mississippi packing winds up just over 190 miles per hour with gusts over 200. The devastation was unbelievable. Whole sections of coastline up to miles inland were flattened with very little above two feet tall standing. Entire buildings were blown down or shredded. Huge trees three feet across were uprooted and simply disappeared. I know, because I was there immediately after it hit.
We had gotten quite a bit of rain and wind in Pensacola that day (the 16th) and it continued throughout the night. I was part of the Navy M.A.R.S (Military Affiliate Radio System) network and we fired up our radio systems and kept in touch during the storm. After the winds abated and we reported to our respective commands I, along with several of my fellow instructors who were also Amateur Radio operators, decided we would try and provide some communications to the stricken area of the Mississippi coast. The idea was passed up channels for review.
We were organized under the command of a Warrant Officer, wore the green, Seabee-style coveralls, and were traveling under orders from the base Commanding Officer. It was an official function, and we were ready. I provided my VW Camper bus as one of the vehicles, and other members of the party had radios in theirs. My bus was packed with food, water, spare parts, and all of my home radio station – good, hand-built, Heathkit radio gear. We had a generator, fuel, and lots of coiled wire for antennas and such.
At the time we left our base, most of us had been awake for quite a while already. By the time we stumbled back home almost five days later, we would have chalked up better than 100 hours without sleep.
Our drive over was slow but steady. We met roadblocks by the local and state police several times, but after they saw our six radio cars and our Navy orders they let us pass. The devastation became apparent miles away from Pass Christian, our goal. At first it was simply debris on the road but after another twenty miles or so we saw whole sides of houses in the fields.
The ring of officialdom around most of the coast was strictly controlled by the Army National Guard of Mississippi. They, being military, understood what good we were doing there and also let us through. They provided an advance jeep with orders to let us set up our station at what was left of the Seabee base at Gulfport. It was very dark at night when we arrived and we got lost. One road we managed to find with a lesser amount of debris took us over a causeway. We didn’t know until the next day that what we had traveled had been condemned by the engineers as being totally unsafe. It even had missing sections of concrete (that had dropped into the ocean below) which we blithely drove around.
We reached an area that used to be a school. High water marks appeared on the second floor about halfway up the wall. It wasn’t safe there so we found another place about a hundred yards from a thundering Guard generator the size of a tractor-trailer. The noise was deafening, so we moved yet again until a place in a partially destroyed warehouse seemed good.
Within an hour, we had everything going but no antennas. The winds had died down, but since there wasn’t anything left high enough to string antennas from we improvised. We found one telephone pole that had a power line drooping from it and another line that stretched to five other poles. It wasn’t connected to anything so we simply clamped onto the wire and did our best. It wasn’t perfect, but we had a station on the air.
We also had five other cars out trying to find their way around town. Since roads were generally impassable and, in fact, most of them were completely unnamed due to no street signs, we had to rely on a map of Gulfport to locate ourselves. Our outlying troops began to locate small groups of people who had survived and were just now coming out of their shelters to survey the damage.
We took careful notes of their names and addresses, which were then radioed to us at our base station. We would add them to master lists and when the list got to fifty names we would make up messages for transmission to various cities the outside world. The Amateur Radio message system is very efficient.
At first, we had trouble making anyone believe we were in Gulfport. Everyone on the Ham bands wanted to talk with us but we wanted to pass traffic out of the emergency zone. Finally, a supremely loud, and authoritative, ham in Chicago joined our group. She cleared off the frequency, enlisted the help of a couple of her friends, and we managed to organize an impromptu net.
That first hour, we only passed along the messages from around 150 people. But, as reports came in, and the word got around we were offering our services as a “we’re still here and alive” outgoing message center, things picked up drastically. We were passing messages by voice and Morse code using my station as the main station and two others as auxiliaries. That day we passed over 300 messages to the rest of the country. We accepted no inbound messages. Not only were we unable to spare the people to deliver them, but we had no way to even locate them if they’d stayed at their own house.
By the time the first day had ended, we had established ourselves on the ham bands as the only station on the air from the Gulf Coast. No others in the surrounding area had survived the storm. We continued passing messages throughout the night, shifting frequencies as the atmospherics dictated. We lost the big Chicago station but ended up with another loud station over in Dallas.
That night, we passed yet another 350 messages. We were getting tired now. We still hadn’t slept at all. The outriders in their cars came back to our station and helped file items for the rest of us. They also grabbed sandwiches. We had run out of our own food the first day – having given quite a bit of it away – so we were reduced to scavenging what we could.
As a sidebar, it might be of interest to note that the Red Cross was selling two pieces of dry bread with a slice of cheese or bologna for fifty cents; however, the Salvation Army was giving stuff like that away for nothing. In my estimation that was a really crass thing for the RC to do. Hardly anyone who survived in the area had anything to wear, much less to pay for food. Just my opinion.
The next morning, we re-established our station on a higher radio band with contacts in Omaha and New York. It was a huge success because we passed almost 500 messages that one day. I took some time away from the radio because my wrist had been cramping most of the night from running my telegraphic bug (a semi-automatic keyer) and walked around. I saw the ruins of another school. A sign, plastered against it’s brick wall, stating it was an emergency shelter seemed to mock the fact that there was nothing standing anywhere. The whole ground floor was nothing but piles of rubble from the other two floors above it. Fortunately, the citizens had been warned long enough in advance so they had evacuated rather than stayed at home.
There were ocean-going ships placed almost a mile from the shoreline by the 24-foot storm surge. The entire contents of a huge yacht basin were concentrated in one small corner that was left of a seawall. What seemed like hundreds of boats, small and large, were stuffed inside each other like artichoke leaves. What cars that hadn’t been bulldozed by the Guard were really nothing but round tubes of metal stuffed into the frameworks of what used to be some great restaurants along the waterfront. And, everywhere lay the remains of all the houses and trees. It was mind-bending the amount of destruction this storm had caused. I got discouraged and went back to the station and tried to get a nap.
Sleeping was not an option. I’d been up so long now that I wasn’t tired. I was still functioning so I took over the voice radio and kept the messages moving.
Finally, after yet another long night, help from the military and civilian establishment began to arrive. Huge helicopters carrying mobile vans were setting them down in compounds cleared by bulldozers. They began to take over. This was long before the advent of cell phones and satellite relay dishes. Communications were still either landline (non-existent) or by radio – the old-fashioned kind. It was nice to know that we’d played a part in the drive to assist.
We packed up our station, said our goodbyes to the Guard troops who’d helped us, and departed the area. We drove like zombies and, when we finally just couldn’t drive further, we agreed to stop at a motel. The owner took one look at us and asked if we’d been ‘the radio guys’ the television had been talking about. We didn’t know that news reports had been keeping track of our efforts all along, reporting on how we were doing. He offered us four rooms free of charge. Most of the group took them.
Myself, and one other car, decided to push on towards Pensacola, now only about fifty miles away. We chatted back and forth over the radio to keep each other awake and arrived back home after more than four days of pure, hectic, activity with no letup. I don’t know if this sounds nuts, but I actually enjoyed what we did in a sense-of-accomplishment way.
Next: Back to the Pacific Rim