The Early Days of Aeradio on Lord Howe Island
by Roger Meyer

Jock Cowie was one of the first Aeradio Operators. Here he describes his varied life on Lord Howe Island between 1939 and 1944.

In December 1938 the Civil Aviation Board advertised for ex-Marine Radio Operators. Six of us were selected, namely Marc Savage, Stan Coles, Jock Sutherland, Bill Sims, Harry Tuppin and myself. Initially we were posted to Holbrook which was the first Aeradio station erected by the Board. The idea was to familiarise us with the type of equipment we would be working with. Marc and I were assigned to Cloncurry for installation experience. The understanding was that I would proceed to Lord Howe Island towards the middle of the year after I had spent a short spell at Liverpool (NSW). This was to familiarise myself with the new High Frequency Direction Finding (HFDF) equipment. Liverpool was the first such installation, and Lord Howe Island was to be the second.

I was scheduled to assume charge of the new Aeradio station at Lord Howe as soon as the installation was completed. The small ‘pip-squeak’ transmitter Stan Fenton operated was to close down, and Stan was to join the new station as my assistant.

When I arrived at Lord Howe there was a crew of Linesmen who erected the two 150-foot transmitter masts, as well as installing the control lines to the office from the transmitters and the Direction Finding hut. As well, there were two acting Radio Inspectors who were installing the transmitters and, of course, the control equipment in the office. There were two AWA J2876 transmitters and one 500C transmitter if I recall correctly, and there were six or seven communications receivers.


The Aeradio transmitter site at Lord Howe Is photographed in 1939. The OIC's residence is being constructed at the far end of the site. (Photo: CAHS collection)

Fortunately, I was not involved, but initially quite a number of palm trees had to be cut down, not only for the transmitters but also to provide clearance space for the various overhead control lines. Seemingly that was almost sacrilege in the eyes of the Islanders. There was quite an upheaval over it. The matter even went to Canberra, but of course to no avail. Some of the older people viewed the station with disapproval, but that eventually wore off.

World War II was declared at this time, which accelerated the opening of the Aeradio station. Radio silence was the order of the day, but in the early days was not strictly adhered to. I was instructed to commence continuous watch keeping, making use of Stan Fenton and Ken Dalziel. This was not a good idea because, in the first place, Ken was not an Operator, and had his own ideas of how things should be done. Eventually, Stan and I took over the watch-keeping, and as I recall, Dalziel and Turner left on one of the boats. In turn, John Abel arrived to complete the installation.

The site for the DF was not a good one, being surrounded on three sides by hills. Consequently, the results were a bit suspicious, although the bearings to the southeast were fortunately not too bad. When providing a DF service, the Operator would perform his functions from the DF hut. In those days, the service was operated by Sunderland flying boats, which took anything up to twelve hours to make the crossing, depending on the winds. On occasions we kept watch on trans-Pacific flights by Catalinas.

On one occasion a tropical storm, plus an earth tremor hit the island. The high winds broke tree branches, and in turn, control lines. I actually effected temporary repairs in the dark, so as to get ourselves back on the air.

Another thing I had to do was survey the lagoon and designate a safe landing area for flying boats. This involved a lot of time out on the lagoon taking countless soundings, cris-crossing to ensure no coral heads had been overlooked. I eventually deemed the lagoon safe and indicated the proposed strip to the powers that be. During this period I relied heavily on Gerald Kirby, of Pinetrees, as my marine adviser. Somehow we obtained a punt for the maintenance of moorings, etc. Alas, one night the middle beach mooring broke adrift, and finished up on the rocks. The buoys weighed 15 hundredweight each. Gerald and I manhandled the buoy, in and out of the water, pulling and pushing to get the buoy safe above the high water mark. It was a squally night, so we did not exactly enjoy ourselves.

When the war fever was at its height, we organised a coast watch utilising everyone on the island. The selected spot was on the south head to keep a look out for possible Japanese invaders. In the event, we could alert everyone with the aid of a forty-four gallon drum and a couple of sticks of gelignite. I made up a small transceiver to contact the Aeradio office, which had a link to Garden Island via Rose Bay Aeradio. With the station on 24-hour watch-keeping, additional staff included Noel Ericsson and Clarrie Skrivener.

Among other things, I was Postmaster and Bank Manager, which involved quite a lot of clerical work. The Islanders did quite a bit of shopping by COD, which involved handling a lot of cash. Fortunately, I had to pay a few pensioners, so that the cash I gained from the parcels helped to balance the budget. Ship arrival days were quite hectic because, as Postmaster, I had to take delivery of anything up to 20 bags of mail, mostly parcels. The Aeradio staff, whoever was on duty, acted as Postal Assistant, attending to whatever was required.

Throughout our stay there was no accommodation provided by the Department, but towards the end they decided to build a house for the OIC. A Works supervisor and a carpenter came across and built a cottage at the bottom of the transmitter site. There was no provision in the plans for electrical wiring of the building, so I took it upon myself to wire the house from leftovers from the original installations. I never used the house, and handed the keys over to my successor, Arthur Lenevez.

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