by Homer L. Willess
I am honored by your request about how and when I built and operated WVUV before it had a “call sign”.
During early 1942, the Navy sent a sono buoy system to Samoa to guard the entrance to Pago Pago Harbor with instructions that only I, a Navy technician, could read the “top secret” technical manual and see the transmitter, power, and internal working parts. I was selected Navy style!
I had no place to work where others could not see during the day, so I had to assemble the system and perform maintenance and adjustments during evening/night hours in a blacked-out area so no one could see what I was doing.
VERY lonely, I got my hands on a Packard Bell record player capable of playing a stack of five 78-rpm records at a time, and a little ¾ watt transmitter designed to “cover” a few houses nearby. I played music for my own amusement. Then a Lt. Commander Navy reserve officer who had worked for the US FCC ordered me to “Get that thing off the air” because I had no call sign or license to operate.
I complied, but a Marine Corp Lt. General’s orderly came looking for the reason I went “off the air” and asked what I needed to get back on. When I told him what had happened, he left, but returned within an hour with a framed order signed by Lt. General Henry L. Larsen ordering me to “Get that radio back on the air, and don’t let anyone under the rank of Major General cause me to ‘shut down again’.”
That was the first time I knew anybody further away than 100 feet could hear it. So, as soon as I could get time, I devised an antenna and loading coil to increase “coverage”. When I hung the 200 foot antenna on the 465 foot tower near my workshop, I got reports that the signal/music was heard on Apia, Western Samoa, 60 + miles away.
I set WVUV on 1050kc because it was a “clear channel” at the time.
When I was relieved from the sono buoy assignment, we built a satellite station in Utulei Village near a Marine railway that went to the top of a hill where Marines had a gun emplacement. I was assigned to spend the nights at the satellite station, so I moved WVUV (still no call sign, or license) and played music into the night. That’s where I met my wife whom I still have 63 years later!
In late 1943 I was sent to Swain’s Island (Tokelau Group) about 210 miles north of Samoa where I generated power, operated a radio station, weather station, and a medical dispensary for the 126 natives living there. I lost track of WVUV, but later heard that the Marines got it affiliated with the AFRS. Perhaps that’s when it got a call sign and license to operate.
Thank you for letting me share my story with you. Wish we could talk more about my years as a communicator in the Pacific.
Homer L Willess served in the US Navy [356 04 69] from July 10 1937 to September 26 1945. He then spent many years working in communications in the Pacific until retirement in 1976. He currently lives in Yukon, OK together with his wife. We’re grateful to his daughter, Dinah Sanchez, for arranging this story for us.
Radio and romance have always gone together in the Pacific, as this remarkable story shows!
For another remarkable Samoan story of the same era, your copy of the 1940 movie classic South of Pago Pago.
Starring Frances Farmer and Jon Hall, this story of an ill-fated pearling expedition in the South Seas is full of romance and action-packed adventure.