Don C. Wallace and President Woodrow Wilson

In 1919, following World War I, President Woodrow Wilson sailed to France aboard the President’s Ship, the USS George Washington. The purpose of this trip was an attempt to craft the League of Nations agreement.

Radio communications was young and not very efficient. Because Don C. Wallace, was the head radio operator aboard the USS George Washington during World War I, he was appointed to select thirty-six radio operators of his choice for the purpose of keeping communications going between the ship and Washington, D.C. while crossing the Atlantic.

According to a 1986 interview with Wallace the radio installation should have taken several weeks, but it was completed in three days and they set sail before all the tests were completed.

Wilson was interested in the communications and asked to visit the radio room. Wallace, still a teenager, told the President it would be okay as long as he sat in the corner.

Upon reaching France they remained at anchor and handled all the radio traffic to and from the states.

Wallace made provisions for the Wilson to speak directly to his Secretary of War. But when Wallace keyed the microphone the president was struck with mic fright. Several minutes passed before he said a word.

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The Babe

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Source: Internet

In the spring of 1919 the Boston Red Sox began training. But George Herman Ruth – Babe Ruth – refused to play unless the owner agreed to pay him $15,000 for one season, or $10,000 per season for three years. Harry Frazee refused and even threatened to trade him. The fans even discussed ways they could raise the money Babe demanded. But at last they came to terms and Babe was up to bat.

They say Babe heaved his shoulders and when the pitch came he hit it out of the park and over the race track beyond. No one had ever seen a ball smacked that far.

The boy who recovered the ball claimed he found ice on it.

Communications Aboard The USS George Washington in 1919.

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Photo from the Internet

 President Wilson’s ship, the USS George Washington en route to France in 1919

The largest ship to sail the sea was President Wilson’s USS George Washington. Perhaps it was a bit of an overkill, using such a large vessel for the president and his staff and crew. But it was a symbol, having been captured from the German Navy two years earlier, during the Great War – World War One.

Obviously, it served America well, but communications was one glaring shortfall.

I plan to write several chapters concerning the year following the close of World War One, 1919. This segment will focus on communications problems, the installation and operation of a larger, more powerful wireless transmitter. While amateur radio operators were using a thousand watts to send a signal thirty miles, the USS George Washington were trying to communicate halfway across the Atlantic Ocean to the White House. The only transmitter capable of producing such power was an arc.

Don Wallace (W6AM (Don’s Amateur Radio Call Sign)), a United States Navy wireless operator happen, by chance, to meet a former commanding officer with whom he’d served during the war. The commander was searching for wireless operators to serve on the president’s ship. He stated that of the 400 radio stations, nationwide, he was unable to find a single operator who knew anything about arc transmitters. Don had the necessary experience and accepted the challenge.

The transmitter in question was a 40 kilowatt arc. Not only was it yet to be installed, Don would have locate a number of top-notch operators. After a time he chose 35 telegraphers and they began the task.

Normally, six weeks was allowed for the installation of a wireless system, but the president was sailing for Paris to take part in the Versailles Peace Conference. He was leaving in three days.

They were still fine tuning it when the USS George Washington set sail.

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Photo credit to John H. Payne

Research Lab., General Electric Co.

Operation were scheduled in hour-long segments – one hour sending, one hour receiving. At first the transmitter was kept on low power. During the receiving hour they were able to resume preparation for the higher power. As the distance increased they were able to increase the power. Communications continued without a problem.

Because of the extreme voltage required, keying relays were required. This slowed the transmission rate to about 20-words-per-minute. This combined with the increased number of messages resulted in some being not yet sent before the hour was up.

Don approached the president’s chief-of-staff, asking if he would ask the president to shorten his messages. The Chief-of-staff was enraged that a 20-year-old-kid would suggest the president should shorten the messages.

Somewhere en route the president decided to talk personally to someone back in Washington, D.C.. A microphone had to be installed in the antenna feed line, and the current was so great it required water cooling.

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Photo Credit to John H. Payne

Research Lab., General Electric Co.

Only then did they discover that President Wilson suffered from mic-fright. They had to clear everyone from the room before he could utter a word. After that they would camouflage the microphone.

All the challenge aboard the USS George Washington proved successful