|This article forms part of the Radio Heritage Collection ©. All rights reserved to Ragusa Media Group, PO Box 14339, Wellington, New Zealand. This material is licenced on a non-exclusive basis to radiodx.com for a period of five years from June 1 2001.) Author: David Ricquish|
For those of you who enjoyed our first visit to WXLE, we’ve been able to track down some more fascinating facts about this AFRTS broadcaster on Canton (or Kanton) Island in the early 1970’s.
WXLF Canton 1944
First, a little history. Subsequent research reveals that WXLE was actually the second Armed Forces Radio station on this very small atoll. The first began broadcasting in November 1944, with the call WXLF, using 950 AM and the fleapower of just 5 watts. It was reported to still be on air in early 1946.
Canton Island was a major link in the U.S. military air supply chain running from Honolulu through to Townsville in Queensland, Australia. The chain also included Pago Pago, American Samoa (also a major airfield), Nadi, Fiji (operated by the RNZAF as another major airfield) and Auckland, New Zealand. This built, as mentioned in the earlier article, on the Pan American Airways Clipper Route which had been pioneered shortly before the US entered WWII after Pearl Harbor in 1941.
WVUU Christmas 1944
In fact, nearby Christmas Island also had one of the earliest AFRS radio stations in the Pacific. Like WXLF, it was part of the Pacific Ocean Network. Operating on 1480 AM with 50/75 watts, the call for Christmas Island was WVUU, and this station closed down in June 1944.
KIBE Serves Pan American Airways
After WWII, and the eventual closedown of WXLF Canton, the island returned to its pre-war position as a key refueling station for the Pan American Clipper service from San Francisco to Auckland.
In the early 1950’s, the United States Civil Aeronautics Administration and Pan American Airways staff on the island got local entertainment from KIBE, which operated on the off-channel frequency of 1248 kHz with a power of 50 watts according to the 1954 World Radio TV Handbook.
The Hermit Crab Network
By the early 1960’s, the station had changed its callsign to KIBS. It operated as a non-profit, volunteer run station, using equipment supplied by the US Government.
At this time, it served the FAA personnel on the island, which had one of the longest runways in the Pacific. Soon after, the US Mercury Space Program was inaugurated by President Kennedy, and Canton would become a key site for monitoring astronauts and capsules from the American Space missions.
In 1960, KIBS was managed by J V Cox, and technical operations by C J Miesel for the FAA contractors. The station used a 25 watt transmitter on 1510 kHz, with a schedule of 0000-1000 Tue-Sun, and 1900-2400 on Mondays. All programmes were pre-recorded or taped.
ID was given as ‘Radio Station KIBS, The Hermit Crab Network, 1510 on your dial, Canton Island.’
Needless to say, there are no known reports of reception in New Zealand or elsewhere of this low power station. However, we’ve yet to check our Archives issues of the NZ DX Times from 1960-1961 to see if the signals were ever hinted at being heard beyond Canton.
The station apparently closed down in early 1961.
KB6CA Canton signs on
Jeff Burris tells us ‘I was on Canton from 1961 through July 1963, and worked for Bendix Radio. We operated the Pacific Missile Range site for tracking astronauts and capsules of the Mercury Program.
As far as I know, I was the first US ham operator on Canton, callsign KB6CA. I was a communications operator on the site, and one of the technicians, a radio ham, got us a Collins transceiver to run phone patches between the guys on the site and their families.
I got my licence, and whenever I got on air, I’d be bombarded with hams trying to make contact. Our primary purpose was to run phone patches, but I had contact with some of the hams not involved in the patches. It was a lot of fun, but when I left Canton, I never continued with ham radio.
Another ham, KB6CB operated much later’
What we’re not totally sure of is whether any station continued on Canton between 1961 and when WXLE suddenly arrived towards the end of the decade from Eniwetok.
WXLE Eniwetok 1944
As also noted in the first article, the call WXLE was originally allocated to Eniwetok in Micronesia as part of the infamous Jungle Network which followed allied forces as they moved northwards towards Japan. Opened on July 16 1944, WXLE used a 50 watt transmitter on 1320 AM and broadcast for almost three years, finally closing on May 4, 1947.
WXLE Moves to Canton
Using the same call, the Eniwetok station came back later to serve U.S. military personnel through the 1960’s and 1960’s. The station was closed down around 1969-70. When operations on Canton Island were rapidly expanded to serve the missile launch program from Vandenberg AFB and to house a LORAN facility for guiding U.S. nuclear submarine forces, the whole WXLE facility was taken out of mothballs and shipped from Eniwetok.
The WXLE call followed the transmitter and studio facilities. This maintained the old AFRS Jungle Network practice of sometimes closing down a station at one island location during WWII, and reopening it again at another location, complete with the same call to confuse later researchers! So, this is how WXLE, tracing it’s roots back to the WWII Jungle Network suddenly re-emerged on Canton Island in 1971.
Everything from Eniwetok was shipped to Canton. Everything. A story even appeared in a Honolulu newspaper shortly after the airfield operation at Canton was established. Apparently, aircraft landing at Canton were greeted by a ‘follow me’ truck with a sign on the back which still read ‘Welcome to Eniwetok’. Is it any wonder DXers were equally confused when they first heard WXLE on 1385 AM in early 1973 and thought they were hearing Eniwetok!
WXLE DJ Tells the Inside Story
Larry Girard, one of the WXLE DJ’s takes up the story.
I was on Kanton from August 1971 to July 1972, and worked at WXLE for several months, from around February to July 1972. I shared the 1700-1930 shift, working three to four days a week (1400-1730 on Sundays). I called myself ‘The Tree on the Horn’ (‘Tree’ is a nickname, I’m 6’5″) and used some spots recorded for me by a college student (and her roommates) I was corresponding with at the time.
The first time I used one, it caused quite a stir when a sultry female voice did the station ID, as there were no women on the island at the time. One of my roommates sprinted about 150 yards to the station to investigate.
I had both general WXLE station IDs and some specific to the Tree on the Horn. The voices came from the girls at Marymount College in Detroit – I still have the original tape! I also had official WXLE IDs which came from AFRTS, but it was easier to use the unofficial ones.
All the equipment came from Eniwetok, as well as the record library. There was a gap in the collection to account for the time between WXLE closing down on Eniwetok and then restarting on Canton., but we had a substantial library. Most programing came from pre-recorded 33 rpm records supplied by Armed Forces Radio, and I also played a one hour version of Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 on Tuesday nights. We then sent the tape down to American Samoa to be played on WVUV 1120 down there.
The original studio was located in the same building as the company doctor. There were plans afoot when I left the island for the new station, which was also rumored to have an FM transmitter as well as the AM outlet.
The studio equipment I used included three large turntables, a TEAC reel-to-reel and an AMPEX tape deck which was used only for American Top 40 and had to be cleaned before each use, or it wouldn’t track. We could bring in an audio feed from a shortwave receiver, but rarely did due to poor quality.
Tired of the dingy look of the console, I spent one night (after signoff) repainting it!
News was read from an Associated Press teletype supplied by the com shack. We tried doing weather reports for a while. However, they were always almost exactly the same ‘temperature 90 degrees, partly cloudy’ so that died an early death.
There was no tower when I was working at the station, only a top loaded goody, which was attenuated to boot. I did hear that once they upgraded the station, they got many reception reports. We sometimes had contact with a commercial airline flight which passed over us a little after 5pm each day. The stewardesses would give us music requests via the airfield radio.
The USAF weather people I worked with were fairly close to the radio folks, and were known to fill in for the regular operator’s vacation time as well. The guy that usually followed my shift went by the moniker ‘The Rusty Nail’ and always started his show with a pre-recorded ‘Bobby Troup Show’ which often featured singer Julie London.
I understand the salvage people didn’t leave much when the station was eventually dismantled.
Kanton In More Recent Times
Canton Island has since had its spelling changed to Kanton, and in Kiribati, it’s also known as Abariringa. The Phoenix Islands have since been renamed Rawaki. There’s a local ham radio operator on the island, which has also been the scene of several ham radio DXpeditions.
Peter McQuarrie now lives in Auckland, New Zealand, and accompanied the 1999 Ham DXpedition from Fakaofo, Tokelau where he’d been working as a NZ Telecom technician. In the early 1970’s whilst living on Tarawa in what is now Kiribati, he remembers listening to WXLE, which also called itself ‘Radio Nowhere’.
The remains of the very large antenna systems that I saw on Kanton (and which had still been standing in 1982 on an earlier DXpedition) were not MF, but two huge rotating log-periodic antennas which had operated in the HF bands. There were a few other antenna systems and parts of systems still standing, but nothing that looked like a tall MF tower, so I guess it has fallen down or been dismantled. I also looked for the remains of the LORAN station, but there was nothing to be seen.
Peter has recently published a WWII history of Kiribati, part of the old Gilbert & Ellice Islands colony, and an article on the seashells of Kanton. If you’re interested in these two subjects, Peter can be reached at
Polish ham operator Lech Slawomic Tomczak, now living in Norway was part of the 1999 Dxpedition. His site includes many photos of Canton Island, which you can find at www.qslnet/la7mfa/kanton including this one of the old radio building:
Swedish ham operator Erik A Sjolund visited Canton in 1982 and again in 1999. He reports that in 1982, there were a lot of installations left, aircraft hangers, buildings, high antenna towers, although the 1385 AM 184 foot tower is not reported amongst them.
The Pacific Radio Heritage Collection is grateful to Bruce Portzer for his WXLE photographs which were taken by former Station Manager Joyce Haas; LarryGirard (1st Assistant Chief – Depauville Volunteer Fire Department, Jefferson County, NY); Peter McQuarrie in Auckland, New Zealand (for details on Canton Island radio facilities in 1999); Lech Slawomic Tomczak of Norway (for details of the 1999 DXPedition and permission to use photographs) Erik L Sjolund of Sweden (for comments about radio facilities on Canton in 1982); Chris Martin, Brisbane Australia (for the audio sound bite of WXLE) and Paul Ormandy, Oamaru, New Zealand for the WXLE QSL card view of Canton Island.
This collaboration spanning 5 countries is a good example of how the Pacific Radio Heritage Collection is able to bring together the story of Pacific Radio for all to enjoy..
Identification from Larry Girard:
Identification from Chris Martin: