The Samoan Earthquakes and the Early Radio Scene in American Samoa

In recent time, news personnel have commented about what they see as a current epidemic of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions around the world.  These earthshaking events have occurred on all continents, and even out in Hawaii with a strange double event; both volcanoes on the Big Island, Kilauea and Maunaloa, were erupting simultaneously.

The islands of American Samoa out in the Pacific; they have not been exempt either, and they also have undergone a long series of earthquakes.  In November last year (2022), the official government agencies in Pago Pago announced that they were registering earthquakes at more than 2000 daily.  Fortunately most of those earthquakes have been at a lower level of intensity, though some in December (2022) were significant, including at least one at 6.7 on the Richter Scale.

This reference map depicts the topography and bathymetry of the volcanoes in the Manu‘a Islands, American Samoa, where seismic unrest has been ongoing for several weeks. The highest elevation in the area is Lata Mountain on Ta‘ū Island, standing 3,179 feet (969 meters) above sea level. The bathymetry data—courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Maxar/DigitalGlobe, and the University of Hawai‘i School of Ocean & Earth Science & Technology (SOEST)—depicts submarine topography in high-resolution down to 1,148 feet (350 meters) below sea level, and at coarser resolution to greater depths. A shallow submarine ridge extends to the northwest from Ta‘ū Island towards Olosega Island; it was along this ridge that a submarine eruption occurred in 1866. There are now 3 broadband seismometers (pink circles) and 4 microseismometers (pink squares) monitoring seismic activity in the Manu‘a Islands. Sources/Usage: Public Domain, from https://www.usgs.gov/observatories/hvo/frequently-asked-questions-about-earthquakes-american-samoa

American Samoa is a small group of small islands in the exotic South Pacific with a total land area of only 76.8 square miles, a little more than the area of Washington DC.  There are five main islands, and two coral atolls, with a population of 45,000, most of whom are bilingual in both Samoan and English.  Language historians inform us that there are 38 different Polynesian languages in the South Pacific and that most of them are interchangeably understood.

American Samoa lies east of the international dateline, and New Zealand Samoa lies west of the International Dateline.  Some local tribal customs reach both Samoas, sometimes even over-riding local government regulations.

Raising the German flag at Mulinu’u, Samoa 1900. Photo: Alfred John Tattersall, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The first Polynesian settlers came to Samoa around 600 BC, and the first European visitor was the Dutch explorer Commodore Jacob Roggeveen, who was actually (unsuccessfully) searching for Terra Australis (Australia).  The first missionary to American Samoa was John Williams from the London Missionary Society in England.  In 1879, government officials from the United States, England and Germany established an American, English & German tripartite government in Samoa.

Ten years later in March 1889, an Imperial German naval force entered a village in Samoa, and in doing so, destroyed some American property.  Three American warships then entered Apia Harbor (New Zealand Samoa) and prepared to engage the three German warships at anchor there.  Before any shots were fired, a typhoon wrecked both the American and German ships, and as a result, a compulsory armistice was called because of the lack of warships.

Ten years later (1899), the two Samoas were separated into German (Western) Samoa and American (Eastern) Samoa.  During World War 2, American military personnel outnumbered the local citizens by two to one.  Then on September 28, 2009, a massive earthquake was measured at 8.1, and it triggered a tsunami wave 20 feet high that flooded one mile inland.

We look now at the wireless/radio scene on American Samoa, and we go way back to the very beginning, way back more than a hundred years to the year 1912.  It was at that stage, just a dozen years after experimental wireless became a practical form of distant communication, that the American navy began active plans for the development of a small network of wireless stations in their Samoa.

Five years later (1917), work on a network of four wireless stations on four different islands in American Samoa was completed.  The network headquarters station NPU was established in the naval headquarters at Pago Pago on Tutuila Island with two transmitters (5 kW and 30 kW).  The subsidiary stations for the three other islands were each at a lower power level.

Ofu Island with a population of less than 200 people is linked by a narrow isthmus with Olosega Island, also with a population of less than 200.  In earlier times, people would walk between the two islands at low tide, though a highway bridge now connects the two (almost) islands.  The original callsign for the navy wireless station on Ofu Island was NPU2, though this was subsequently changed to NGX.

    US Naval Radio Station, Tutuila, American Samoa (NPU)    (From 14th Naval District reports 1917-19)
Located on the island of Tutuila, American Samoa. Equipped with a 5 kw composite spark set adjusted to the following wave lengths: 600, 756 (working) and 952 (calling) meters. Also with a 30 kw arc set adjusted to the following wave lengths: 4000 (calling) 3000, 5000, 6000 and 8500 (working) meters.
    Radio Communications: Arc set: Is effective with Pearl Harbor, Heeia Point, Guam (new arc set), Papeete and probably effective with San Diego and Darien, Canal Zone and with ships equipped with arc apparatus, depending an their range. It is probable this set will work with arc stations in New Zealand and Australia. Spark set: Now effective with Wahiawa (night only), Suva (night only), and Apia, British Samoa. Also communicates with ships equipped with spark sets, dependent on their range.
    Comment: This station handles commercial traffic. It is of military value in furnishing the only outside communication of the Naval Station and for communicating with ships of the Fleet in the Pacific. The present spark set is old and in great part makeshift. There is a semi-high-powered radio station in Apia that works regularly with Suva and Awanui, New Zealand,, The Apia station contains two 500 cycle quenched spark sets, one 50 kw and one 10 kw. The apparatus is Telefunken and is practically the same as that in use in the U. S. Navy. The antennas are of the umbrella type and are supported by one guyed steelel mast 400 feet high. Apia communication is now successful with Wahiawa.
     There is a 1/2 kw field set in the Manua group, American Samoa, used to communicate between Ofu and Tau and with Tutuila. This set is for administrative purposes only and is not open to commercial business. It is operated by hand.

From: https://www.navy-radio.com/commsta-prewar.htm

Tau Island with a population under 1,000 is the easternmost island in the Samoas, and it is considered to be the birth place of the Polynesian peoples in the Pacific.  Tau was also the site where the American anthropologist, 23 year old Margaret Mead, conducted her dissertation research about teenage girls in Samoa in the 1920s, after which she published her book entitled Coming of Age in Samoa.  The original callsign for the navy wireless station on Tau Island was probably NPU3, though this was subsequently changed to NCM.

Manua Islands is the collective name for the cluster of three islands (Tau, Ofu and Olosega) that lie 70 miles east of the main island Tutuila.  There was an additional half kilowatt wireless station installed on one of the Manua Islands that served as a relay station between the three subsidiary islands and NPU on the main Tutuila Island.

During the South Pacific search for the missing American aviator Amelia Earhart in 1937, the main navy communication station on Tutuila Island in American Samoa, NPU, was in frequent communication with other stations in the Pacific, and also with several navy ships from different countries.  More than a hundred different radio communication stations in the Pacific, mobile on ships and fixed on land, served jointly with cooperative messages.

This feature was written by Adrian Peterson and originally aired on Adventist World Radio’s “Wavescan” DX program of January 22, 2023

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