Monday, October 18, 2021

My affinity for Collins equipment

I hadn't thought of the Collins KWM-380 or the S-twins in years - and wouldn't have today if a posting on Thomas K4SWL's blog hadn't led me down Memory Lane.

Quite a bit of new and old ham gear is currently being auctioned by Schulman, including that mentioned above. When I saw the front panel of the KWM-380, I immediately remembered not only the rig, but the interior of the radio room at Pensacola's Corry Station Naval Base and the Submarine Base in Groton CT.

I was at Corry Station in 1984 as a brand new Navy squid, fresh out of boot camp and still saluting anything that moved .

Being a ham got me out of a lot of tedious watchstanding that consisted of this building or that sidewalk being under constant watch, 24/7, by someone pacing back and forth. I did my share of that, at all hours and in all weathers, both in Pensacola and in Groton.

At some point in Pensacola, I noticed a log-periodic array on a tower and asked if the building housed a ham club station. The short conversation went something like this:

"No, it's a MARS station, why do you ask?"

"I'm a ham."

"No, you're a MARS operator."

And so began my very fulfilling watchstanding conversion from guarding buildings to running phone patches for ships at sea.

Pensacola had the KWM-380; Groton had the S-twins and a 30L-something amplifier. Both had fantastic antennas on tall towers.

I could use the stations whenever I wanted, either as a ham or to make MARS phone patches. The stations were managed by retired Chief Radiomen and they were still looking out for their active-duty counterparts at sea - we were "strongly encouraged" to spend more time making phone patches than playing ham radio and everything was logged.

I think this is where I first heard the term "voluntold" as in "I was told to do it, therefore I volunteered".

The phone patches were fulfilling and I didn't have to be voluntold to stay off the ham frequencies too often. I left each session feeling like I'd done something that mattered. Lots of emotions were packed into many of those calls and I was required to hear every word in order to make the T/R transitions between "Overs".

A session would begin with me announcing my callsign (NNN0xxx) on some frequency just below the 20m band, and that I was available for the next hour or two. After a few minutes of this, a ship's radioman would call and give me the heading to which I should point my Yagi. He might mention that he had half a dozen guys who'd like to call home - could I accommodate?

That's why I'm here, buddy!

One by one, I'd call the Stateside phone numbers of the crewman's wife or parents and explain to them who I was and that they'd soon be talking to Billy at sea. Their reactions made the day.

I heard it all: pregnancies, illnesses and I-love-you's by the bushel. Every now and then, a wife or girlfriend would refuse to take the call - I just told the radioman at sea that no one was home to answer the phone.

In all cases, the gratitude was never lacking.

And ironically, it was a way of escaping the Navy for an hour or two - even though I was in uniform, on a military base and talking with Navy personnel there was no character of military regimentation at all - the entirety of those phone patches were emotional and familial in nature. Disconnecting the antennas at the end of a session and going back into the real Navy was often quite a let-down.

Two very different worlds existed on each side of that door to the MARS station.

Yep, that's how I remember Collins gear. 




  1. We used Collind gear by the bushel (kwm2 30S1 30L1) in Operation Deep Freeze, when the Navy did the grunt work. NNN0ICE was the McMurdo station... THe field parties used the KWM-2, and we had a room full of 6146W tubes, cause the non-amateur operators had a hard time with dipping the plate... Good gear

    1. Great callsign for that location. There were only two other MARS ops during the time I was at the two locations - both were hams and knew how to tune up the xcvrs and amps without decreasing their lifespan. Always good to have spares though.


  2. We were on the receiving end of one of those phone patches, when my son was in the 82nd Airborne. It was marvelous hearing from him, and as a ham I knew about the MARS setups that made it all possible. I tried to get the operator to give me his frequency so I could see if I could hear it direct, but no soap. Anyway, just wanted to say thanks to all those MARS ops that made this possible. You have no idea how much it means to families like ours.

    1. Those were good old days, when radio was still in its magic phase - no other method of connecting such families existed. It was a lot of fun.

      I've also been on the other side of the coin...for a year, I was on a merchant (military sealift) ship that regularly pulled into VQ9. We could call home from there but it was $10/minute - and this was in 1989. Prior to our second visit to VQ9 I bought an FT-101EE in Singapore and used it with my new callsign (VQ9BL) and to contact MARS ops Stateside who would then patch me to my family in TX.

      Now it's all satellite - how boring!