Dan in Australia

My second assignment in the Navy was to Harold E. Holt Naval Communication Station on the NorthWest Cape in Exmouth Western Australia.

This base was essentially a relay station for forwarding radio traffic to ships and submarines in the Indian Ocean. It had a High Frequency (HF) receiver site to pick up messages, a high power HF transmitter site to retransmit them and a VLF transmitter site (north-most portion of the Cape) for relaying messages to underwater submarines. I worked at the HF transmitter site working on about 60 old vacuum tube driven 10KW and 40KW HF radio transmitters (AN/FRT-39 and AN/FRT-40).

They would fail occasionally and had to be repaired quickly so we could get back to transmitting to the ships or the mainland. The transmitters had not been very well maintained when I arrived and failed frequently, mostly because the operators (rate:Radiomen) were told to ignore problems that the technicians (rate:Electronics Technician) considered to minor to repair.

Having passed the testing for ET2 at my last station, San Nicolas Island I was promoted to Electronics Technician Second Class just after arriving at HEH. I hosted a major kegger, and everyone had a great time.

So how did a guy like me get such plum duty? In fact I know how, one day I ran into my detailer, the guy who decideds where to send you next. He had assigned himself to Australia, and introduced himself to me. I asked him, why did he send me here? He told me that he thought it was a nice place and that I might like it! He said, "Why do you think I'm here?". Obviously I thanked him profusely, it appears that good things do happen to good people, namely ME.

As the highest ranking working ET at the transmitter site, I took charge and established some rules. If a radioman had a complaint about a transmitter, I wanted it fixed. Even the simplest thing, like a light bulb out in the band switch area, I wanted it fixed. One reason things were so bad is that things like that were overlooked. If the radioman could not see the band-switch when changing bands, they might not get it in the right position and when they brought up the high voltage it would burn up the band-switch taking the transmitter down for days or weeks. Fixing the light was a minor thing that could prevent a serious outage. So I told my guys that I had told the radiomen, if you complain about something and an ET doesn't fix it, I want you to come to me, I will get it fixed and I will yell at the ET who didn't listen to you. This put the fear of God in everyone so things started improving. Good thing too, because in just a few months we were about to be stressed beyond our capabilities.

The brushfire

We were asked to work extra hours when we didn't have enough transmitters to go around. One Saturday I was working on transmitters and my boss asked us to finish up best we could and head over to the base to help put out a brush fire that was headed towards the base. We had to pull brush to create a firebreak to protect the base. Later they came in with bulldozers and accomplished 10 times what we did in just a few minutes. To thank us for our hard work the CO hosted a barbecue and a beer bash. So we had a few hours of eating and drinking, then walked out to see the brushfire up close and went to bed. Moments after putting my head on the pillow (about 3AM) my boss knocked on my door, time to come back to the transmitter site and try to get some more transmitters working.

The Patch Panel

I saved the day when an antenna patch panel burst into flames at the Transmitter Site. The Transmitter Site ETs were in the middle of a meeting when a Radioman flew into the ET shack and asked me to come with him. I wasn't on duty (the Radiomen came to me all the time, because they knew I would help them), but I came along anyway. He started running, so I followed and found an eight foot by ten foot antenna patch panel fully engulfed in flame. I grabbed a fire extinguisher, yelled to everyone to shut down all the transmitters on that wall and put the fire out. We had to rebuild the panel twice with spare parts flown in. We worked non-stop for four days before those transmitters could go back online. I also got a commendation from the fire department for acting so quickly and potentially saving the whole building (although I doubt the fire would have spread much in this place).

The Iranian Hostage Crisis

We had been making progress on the transmitters when on November 4th, 1979 Iranian Islamic revolutionaries took over the US Embassy in Tehran. Suddenly every ship in the US Navy appeared to be steaming for the Persian Gulf, and they all wanted comm (communications). We were still in pretty rough shape, many of the transmitters were is such rickety shape they would not stay up for more than a few hours, if they went down we had to find another one to replace it. We were ordered to put in as many hours as possible, that usually meant 16 hours a day, 7 days a week. Our new Maintenance Chief, Chief Athey started to grow out his beard and told the guys they could shave it off when we had 90% of the transmitters up and running.

We worked our asses off, 16 hours a day, not just fixing, but troubleshooting, that's the hard part. I had not studied much about radio in my training (I had a sub-classification as a Radar ET) but it came pretty easily to me. Phase lock loops were our biggest problem, they were very sensitive to temperature, as well as just the overall poor state of the machines. Plus it was all very high voltage, 150V was the lowest voltage we dealt with, and that's enough to kill you. 300V was more common, on upwards to 1000V all the way up to 20,000V at 20A. This kind of power would cook you instantly and all they would find would be your cooked meat and a puddle of fat on the floor. We got shocked daily, sometimes several times a day. At another site an ET was cooked by the 440V input power, he got stuck inside the transmitter and couldn't get out when his elbow touched a breaker terminal. Fried his ass right there in the machine.

Of course the really sad part was that we were living in a paradise, but had to work all day and couldn't really enjoy it, at least for a while. In the tropics, the days are almost exactly 12 hours all year round, so we would go to work at daybreak and get out after dark, with only enough time to toss back a few Emus to get us calmed down enough to go to bed and get ready for the next day's fun.

beer

Fun stuff

I had lots of fun at Harold E. Holt, eventually we got 90% of the transmitters up and we had a big party where everyone of the ETs got to hack away at Chief Athey's beard to celebrate.

Me shaving Chief Athey's beard

With the transmitter situation under control we were allowed to put in 8 hour weekdays and enjoy our weekends.

Motorcycles

I had my motorcycle that I had shipped over from the States and rode it all over the Northwest Cape.

My Suzuki T305 on a trail in the Outback

My bike in a Western Australia sunset

I also took it on several long distance trips to Coral Bay and Carnarvon, the nearest "big town" at the time. April and I even went there on my bike through the oppressive heat, in the summer (December) to get our wedding rings for our upcoming wedding. Here are a few shots of that trip.

First stop, a few days at Coral Bay

Arriving at Coral Bay Resort

Dan at Coral Bay Resort

April with Coral Bay in the background

April had never been to Coral Bay before, and made friends with one of the gals who worked there. She came to visit us in the States a year later.

April and friend at Coral Bay Resort

Then off to Carnarvon, on the way we cross the Tropic of Capricorn

April and my bike at the Tropic of Capricorn

As I mentioned above, the heat was brutal, blasting at 60MPH on my Suzuki (which took the heat pretty darn well!) was like riding in a blast furnace. At the junction of Learmouth Minilya Road (the main road on the Northwest Cape) and Highway 1, the Northwest Coastal Highway was this windmill driven water well and water tank.

Water well that saved our (fried) bacon

We pulled in there and climbed into the water tank and got our clothes wet, ready to continue to Carnarnvon. Once back on the bike we were dry in under 5 minutes.

April had her own bike, a little Suzuki 250 dual sport bike which was good for riding in the local area, but not very good for road trips.

April and her bike at the off base parking lot in front of the base

Gliding Club

Exmouth used to have a gliding club, established by Basil Cazalet who was the main instructor. The club operated out of the Exmouth airport and had one Blanik L-13 dual place glider.

Basil and his niece Andrea with the Blanik and tow-plane

This is a picture postcard with our Blanik above the NW Cape range.

Our Blanik flying over the Northwest Cape, Indian Ocean in the background

Click on this link to see a Blanik being flown. The Blanik is an aerobatic glider, so we occasionally did things like loops, hammerheads, and other crazy maneuvers like this guy.

Our Blanik landing

Me in the Blanik with my instructor John Marden

We had two other single place gliders, a KA6 high performance glider, Joel flew this one a lot.

KA6 High Performance glider

We also borrowed John Marden's single place "Kingy" or Kingfisher, Australian built wooden glider. This was my favorite after I learned how to solo.

Kingy with John Marden assisting the launch

Our Blanik crashed while we were there, then we borrowed a two place "Kookabura" wooden glider, but I crashed that one when our ground crew fouled our landing field while I was up and I had to come in too short.

After the tow plane towed me to 2000 feet he returned and the ground crew started setting up to launch another glider. Problem was, the "Kook" flew like a brick and I had to get in the landing pattern pretty much right away after releasing. When I made my final turn, the tow plane and another glider was already on the field. With no engine I couldn't go around, I had to land. My instructor John Marden advised me to deploy full air-brakes and come in very short. Well, we came in short alright, a little too short and hit so hard it cracked this bird in half. The Australian version of the FAA cleared me and John of any wrongdoing, but that didn't save the club. At least this time we had insurance.

Kookabura after the crash

We still did some flying after that, April and I flew up to Port Hedland with our Flying Doctor who served as our tow pilot. Port Hedland Soaring Center was hosting a Fly-In so we spent the weekend there flying, doing "bombing runs" with sacks of flour and doing landing competitions. It was extremely hot in Port Hedland, over 115 degrees F and when we arrived there were no buildings open so we just sat under the wings of our Tri-Pacer and waited for someone to show up and let us get into a building. Not that that the buidings were any cooler, they simply had more shaded space than the Tri-Pacer could offer.

Keeping out of the sun at Port Hedland

The Shack

Someone had donated a dilapidated single wide mobile home to the Gliding Club and it sat not too far from the airstrip. I ran into April preparing to go out and spend the night there (we were friends at that point) and I decided to join her for this little "camping trip", knowing that she wasn't very mechanically inclined and could probably use the help to make the place livable for the night.

The Shack

Well, we just fell in love with it, and each other. The Shack had no glass in the windows, we used the doors for our beds (don't want to sleep on the floor, too many scorpions). It had no water, no power and no gas, nothing. However, we just couldn't get enough, we hardly ever went back to the barracks, and spent nearly every night there, commuting to work from the airstrip by motorcycle, or for April, via the Receiver Site van. They would come by and pick her up for her shift, then drop her off on the way back to the base. Our only water was at a bathroom near the airstrip with a water tank that was refilled every month or so. We had to be very careful of our usage. We cooked with a gas stove, friends donated a bed, and we cobbled together a reasonable place to live, usually ending the day with a campfire of wood scraps, going to sleep to an Al Stewart tape running on April's boom box.

Snorkeling, etc

Of course there was excellent snorkeling at HEH, you could walk from your barracks room or the Shack to the beach, leave your clothes, wallet, beer, etc. on the beach and go out into Exmouth Bay for hours. When you came back you would find your stuff completely undisturbed. Here is a group of my friends getting ready to go snorkeling on the Exmouth Bay side of the cape, we'll just leave our stuff here and it will be just fine.

I also would go over to the Indian Ocean side of the Cape to fish and occasionally snorkel. The Indian Ocean was about 10 degrees cooler than the bay, and with my thinned out blood (due to the daily temps in the 110 degree range) I couldn't stay in the Indian Ocean for long.

Here is a shot of my bike at my fishing spot ready to unload and spend the day. You can see I have my pole, mono cassette boom box and backpack full of bait, beer and food.

And here is a shot of the beach where I fished and occasionally snorkeled.

One case where where we did snorkel a lot on that side was a trip to Yardie Creek. I went there with my friend Joel and others in a rented Toyota Land Cruiser. We spent a few days at Yardie Creek camping and snorkeling.

Joel Wilcox at Yardie Creek, Indian Ocean in the background

April couldn't be there because she was working, but she had four days off a few days later, so before we left we planned to rendezvous with her halfway between HEH and Yardie Creek, pretty sure we could find a place to camp. We headed back up the coast while April rode her bike down the coast over the rough dirt road to meet us. On the way up Joel and I stopped off to get a shot with us near one of the many huge termite mounds that littered the outback.

Here is how I described our trip in a letter to my grandparents at the time.

We camped for a few days at this sand hook beach.


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Here is a shot of me and April at our campsite. Obviously Joel took the photo.

And here is a shot of the two of us out in the water for a swim, it was just fantastic.

April and I got married in Exmouth and then took a trip to Perth. One hundred miles from Exmouth out in the middle of nowhere the car we borrowed began to overheat. I found the problem, a stuck thermostat, so I pulled it out and ran without it. Problem was we were low on water. We limped along until we came across our savior, once again, the watertank on the highway. We climbed in, got some water and filled up the radiator. So in fact this one water tank saved our lives twice!

Once in Perth we had a lot of fun with our hosts, Mike and Margrit and their daughter Andrea. They showed us the town and we had the time of our lives. Here is a shot from Kings Park. Move your mouse over the picture to see a shot of Perth taken almost exactly 30 years later.

Perth, summer 1980 and 2010.

Since April and I got married before I got my next assignment, the Navy was obligated to try to station us together. I was assigned to go to Mare Island to teach at a school there, and April was assigned to work in the Message Center where she would send, recieve and distribute official messages between Mare Island and other Naval units.