Monday, December 14, 2009

U.S. Navy warships and the hydroplanes were assembling for the attempt to fly across the Atlantic

Thursday May 08, 1919.

Headlines:-The Flotilla of U.S. Navy warships and the hydroplanes were assembling for the attempt to fly across the Atlantic from Newfoundland to Europe.
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All over town that day, the subject of conversation revolved around the news coming from Trepassey. The Flotilla of U.S. Navy warships and the hydroplanes were assembling for the attempt to fly across the Atlantic from Newfoundland to Europe. The newspapers were filled with reports of their progress. Another popular source of information came from monitoring the radio transmissions from the ships and aircraft involved in these operations.
It was Thursday and Ike had to deliver the pay packets to the shops at the dockyard located on the east side of the bridge to the south-side. Walking through the alleys connecting the buildings and railway dock shops, Ike came across one of his friends, Bobby Johnson, who also was a railway employee. "Hi Bob, what's up?" said Ike.
"Lot's, Ike! Have you been following all the excitement around these flying teams who want to be the first to cross the ocean by air?" said Bobby enthusiastically.

"For sure, I get to deliver telegram messages to their airdromes and hotels and my boss Mr. Wells said that there is going to be a whole lot more of these messages to deliver before this is over." said Ike.

"Did you know that there is big excitement going on right now in Trepassey? Nine U.S. warships and two seaplanes are on the way and expected to arrive very soon. There was supposed to be a third one too but, It broke down on the way" said Bobby.

"How do you know all this? There is nothing coming over the telegraph wires about this" replied Ike inquisitively.

"Oh shit man, telegraph wires is tres passe, get with it, don't you know that radio is the thing of the future, when it comes to finding out what's gong on. All the guys got themselves crystal radio sets (1). I got one myself and it's a lot of fun to listen in on the voice transmissions coming from the all the foreign ships and the like. That's how I knows what's going on out at Trepassey" said Bobby with a tone of superiority in his voice.

"Let's take the train down the Southern Shore to Trepassey this weekend. We could take the train Saturday morning, check out the scene with the yaks and take the afternoon train back to town Sunday. Maybe we could get in a little bit of fishing too." proposed Ike.

"Sure! Count me in who else is going?"

"You're the first one I asked. Ask around and see who else wants to join us. I am going to ask Dick Neugent from the express office."

"What do you think we need to take along with us? Do we need to bring food?"

"Bring a lunch and some fishing gear; there are a couple of nice ponds up near Capahaden. We could catch the early train on Sunday, jump off on a long grade, put in 4 to 5 hours at a pond and jump the late freight and be back home before seven Sunday evening."

Ike, Dick Neugent, Bob Johnson, and Toe Burn met early Saturday morning at the train station. just as the conductor called "ALL ABOARD." The four were in no hurry to board and all at once the the train began to move with a lurch, slowly at first. Then with a shunt shunt shunt shunt sound from the locomotive, the speed increased and the boys carrying their fishing baskets rods and hip waders, broke off their conversation and made a run for the second to last car of the five car train. One by one they grabbed for the hand rail and swung aboard, with Toe bring up the rear, like regular railway pros.

The trip consisted of lots of smoking and riding the brakes, as the train snaked around long curves. With flankers flying, she works her way across the steeply undulating coast line on her way up the French Shore to Trepassey. Ike and Bobby are standing on a small railed platform at the back of the last car, watching the scenery roll by and the rails recede into a point on the horizon. They are finding that it is hard to pursue conversation with the clickity, click clikity, click rhythmic sound of the coaches wheels as they roll over the small expansion gaps separating the sections of steel rails.

"Tell me sometime about how the crystal radios work. I like the idea of knowing what's going on."

"OK I can tell you all I know when we go inside." Bobby almost shouts, to make himself heard over the background noise. The country side is quite rugged with occasional steep cuts through the rock faces and high drop-offs on one side or the other all to allow for a manageable grade, that the locomotives can climb though not always without difficulty. The narrow gauge road bed, which is common to all tracks on the island is especially suited for mountainous terrain, the most prevalent conditions across most of Newfoundland. Stunted spruce and fir trees cling to the sparse topsoil by their shallow roots. Green scrub is often marred by blackened areas burnt by forest fires started by flying flankers from the engine's smoke stack and fire box. Many of these areas seem to have originated close to or at the sleepers (as the locals called the ties) which supported the rails of the track. "Oh shit, let's get out of here and go inside. I just got a piece of soot in the eye" cried Ike.

Once back inside the relative quiet of the day coach, Ike turned to Bob and said. "Getting back to Crystal sets. How do they work and what do you need to get started?"

"One thing at a time Ike. Let me start by saying that radio is the new and coming thing and pretty soon there will be stations all over the world broadcasting news and information on every subject that you can imagine. There are basically two types of apparatus, a transmitter to send signals and a receiver to listen to the transmissions. I don't know much about transmitters, but then I don't have to because all that I am interested in is listening into transmissions, sort of snooping in on other peoples broadcasts you might say. Receivers, well that's another matter. You can't buy one, unless you're a millionaire or some thing but you can build your own. The only thing that is way pricey are the headsets but, if your not too fussy, you can get them cheap at the war surplus store for a couple of shillings, or if you can't spring that kind of money I have one with the right ear phone broken that you can have for next to nothing."

"That would be great Bob, I'll take em off your hands. What else do I need?"

"You need a Cat Tail"

"A what? Why do I need one of those?"

"It's not what you think It's a length of very fine stiff wire for probing around the crystal for a signal. They call that thing a Cat's Tail"

"Oh! is dat right"

"Yes! and that reminds me you got to get a Glena pirite crystal and make your self up a tuning coil with some fine shellacked wire and broom handle or paper cylinder, a few other odds and sods plus a hundred feet or so of 18 gauge wire that you can bum at the electrical shop down at the dock yards and your in business. I'll even come over to your place and help you set it up. Just to change the subject for a minute. Ye know something Ike, after listening into the transmissions the other night from the USS Aroostook and the Chicago, these Yanks mean business, never mind the Brits, the Americans are going to be the first to cross the Atlantic by air, you mark my words, and when it happens, which will be any day now, remember where you heard it first."

"That's bullshit Bob! from what I hear around town , Hawker and Greves are the favorites and the Martinside crew are not that far behind."

"Do you want to bet? I say the Americans will be striking out any day now and then it will be all over" said Bob.

Finally after 3 hours of chugging up hill and coasting down dale, the express rolls into Trepassey, a little coastal community where the main livelihood is derived from the inshore fishery. This is the end of the line and everyone has to pile off the train. The sun is high in the sky and there are only a few scattered clouds on the horizon, but the wind is blowing at 25 to 30 knots as it does most of the time.

The waterfront is cluttered with an assortment of flimsy wooden wharf s, flakes and store houses. The wharfs are lined with dozens of white and green fishing boats. Out on the bay laying at anchor are several large steam ships, cruisers and destroyers painted in that unmistakable grey color of the U.S. Navy. "Let's take a walk down to the wharf and see if we can find some one to take us out in the bay for a closer look and see if there are any of those crazy looking Hydroplanes" said Toe who was standing nearby on the platform with Dick chatting up four of the local girls who had come to the station to meet the train.

"My Brother has trap skiff and he can take all of us out in the bay for a closer look at what's going on out thar" Said one of the girls.

"That's a great idea. Will it cost us much money?" said Bob.

"Na, he only wants supen fer de gas dats all. Any way he's me brudder an he always like taken me an me friends fer a ride in his skiff."

The boys and girls stroll towards the shore in a bunch, taking the short cut through the small railway yard, which consisted only of a couple of sidings and a "Y" arrangement of tracks, used for turning whole trains for the return trip to St. John's because Trepassey is the end of the branch line. The sidings were occupied by an assortment of rolling stock but next to the buffer at the end of the far siding, was a dining car with a strange sign painted next to the Reid Railway Logo. The sign simply read "NANCY -5". "That's no ordinary dining car." Dick remarked in a puzzling tone.

"No, that's a special car belonging to the Reids, for taking trips over the island, fer dem and der rich important friends. I heard talk of it over de radio that it is being hired out to the press das hear to report on the air race, de same guys das been hanging around the Cochrane Hotel wit dem airmen" replied Bob.

"I seen dat car lots a times but it didn't have NANCY -5 wrote all over it" remarked Ike.

"Yar right Ike! Das just a joke by dos furen news men, caus de hydroplanes are all NC's: N.C. one, N.C. three and N.C. four. De "N" stands fer Navy and de "C" stands fer Curtiss, The Glen Curtiss Company, dos are de ones who made em fer the Navy. I listened to a broadcast from New York de odder night on the radio and they talked all about it."

"The U.S. Navy contracted with Curtiss to build a Hydro Avion to bomb the Kiaser's submarines from the air. It was built with the hull like a Dutch Wooden Shoe and held the tail in place with bamboo poles and wire rather than have a long hull so the tail gunner would have a good shot to the rear without fear of shooting off the aft hull and tail" Said Bob.

"Come on you guys let's go down to the stages and find my brudder. I wants to see if he will take us out on the bay and get a closer look at all of dem ships, cause der full with thousands a sailors and I must say dat I loves it when they makes those funny whistles at us girls"

The walk to the shore was only a couple of hundred yards. The shore line was paralleled by a narrow roadway set back a hundred feet or so from high water line. On the ocean side were the stages and fish flakes owned and used by the fishermen for landing their cod fish and curing their catch into the dry salt fish which was the main product of all Newfoundland Outport Settlements of which Trapassey was only one of thousands scattered about the coastline of the Island.

They quickly arrived at the wharf where the brother's boat was tied up. "Hay Kevin! Wares ya at? cried one of the girls.

"In here , splitten the last a me fish" came the answer from within a small room near the end of the warf.

"Can ya take me and me friends out in the bay when yar dun splitten yar fish?"

"Sure, I bin on the go since 5 dis marn and I wouldn't mind haven a look me self at the goings on out der me self, I'l just be a minute. I just have ta wash the blood an guts off me hands first." replied Kevin. A couple of minutes later they were climbing down the makeshift ladder attached to the wharf to the white trap skiff with it's single cylinder make and break engine partially housed in a enclosure located approximately at midships. Everyone took their place some in the bow and the rest at the stern, while Kevin removed the forward cover of the box-like engine cover, exposing the large heavy flywheel at the forward facing end of the weather beaten Acadia engine. "Untie the bow line and cast off a stern." shouted Kevin to his passengers, then with a flip of a switch and a clockwise flip of the massive flywheel against the engine's compression, the old

engine sprang into life running in the opposite direction. Then the tiny craft pulled away from the wharf with a Putt-putt-putt exhaust note from the vertical back iron rusted exhaust stack sticking up from the right side of the engine cove. Kevin's boat started out into the harbor and took a heading for the cluster of warships anchored in the middle of the bay. "I'm going forward, the smell of that exhaust is making me sick" said Bobby. As they were approaching the ships, Bobby who was looking forward, suddenly let out a cry. "Look, up a head beyond to the right of those ships. There is a hydro-avion about to land on the bay"

The straight-in approach of NC-1 with her brilliant yellow wings glistening in the afternoon sunshine was magnificent. The big biplane with it's yellow box kite like tail trimmed with vertical red white and blue bars presented an amazing sight as she floated in for a perfect touchdown on the calm water of the Bay. Just at the instant the hull met the water a fine white spray was emitted from the keel, spreading towards the tail and disappearing as the strange craft quickly slowed and settled into the water like a giant kite carrying boat. The engines roared as the revs increased and the NC-1 turned towards the ships and the trap-skiff. She taxied by the skiff barely a hundred feet away with her four giant liberty engines roaring away, as she ploughed through her large bow wave, trailing an impressive wake astern. She taxied up to the destroyer Aroostook stern, cut the engines to idle and stopped. While still bobbing up and down from the effect of her own wake, lines were thrown to crew men in the bow and the NC-1 was secured to the destroyer.

The skiff hung around the Aroostook for another half hour as the aircraft's crew climbed aboard and the mechanics serviced the engines and blocked the control surfaces so they would not be damaged by sudden wind gusts, which were always possible in this environment. The sailors finally stopped whistling at the girls, who themselves never seem to grow tired of acknowledging their attention with a wave or an air kiss. During the boat ride back to the wharf Bobby related to Ike how he had learned through listening to radio transmissions with his crystal set that Towers had formally assumed command of NC Seaplane Division One. His orders had been signed signed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, acting Secretary of the Navy. Towers had chosen NC-3 as his flagship and then made the crew assignments. Richardson was to be chief pilot of the NC-3. Naval Aviation pioneers Patrick N. L. Bellinger and Albert C. Read were detailed to the NC-l and NC-4 respectively. Walter Hinton was to be one of the pilots of the NC-4.

LCdr. Richard E. Byrd was ordered to go aboard the NC-3 with Towers, but to proceed only as far as Newfoundland. The Navy was banking on succeeding with this mission. In case the NC's couldn't complete the crossing, there was an extra card up his sleeve The long-range airship C-5 was to be flown to Newfoundland to make it's own bid for a successful crossing, and it was Byrd's assignment to work on the navigation plan for the NC's and make arrangements for the C-5 in Newfoundland. The flying boat the boys had seen land earlier in the day was probably NC-1. The Flag Ship NC-3 didn't arrive until several hours later around 7:00pm while the boys were having their evening meal at widow Le fever's house.

The boys had heard about the great meals she served in her kitchen for only 10 cents a plate. Every one who visited Trepassey ate there and she was famous with railway workers who especially loved her Jigs boiled dinner complete with corned beef, cabbage, dumplings, and peas pudding which she happened to be serving tonight. "De ya wants some Figgy Duff ana cupa tea when yer finished eaten yer supper boys?" she asked, as though she all ready knew the answer. "Yes Misses!" the four answered all together.

After they had finally finished eating, they thanked Nelly for the wonderful meal and slowly walked back towards the station. Looking out over the bay they could clearly see the Navy ships. "That must be the Aroostook, remember she is the command ship, that's where Towers and the members of his flying flotilla's crews will be staying while they are preparing for their Atlantic crossing. Do you see that yellow contraption moored near her? Thats N.C. 1." said Bob.

Back at the station, Toe met up with one of his friends who was working as a chef in the Reid's dining car (NC-5). Toe who was always working the angles found out that NC-3 had arrived an hour ago while the boys were at supper and that there is going to be a press conference at 8:00 in the dining car with free drinks for all. After a lot of cajoling, Toe managed to wangle a invite for himself and the boys to the conference. They were so excited about their good fortune that it showed all over their faces as they entered the dining car a couple of minutes before 8:00.

They were welcomed by Byrd himself who gave the opening address, where he briefly described the flight from Halifax, describing it as smooth and picture perfect and how splendid a view that they had of the magnificent ice bergs as they approached the Newfoundland coast. Citing fatigue from his journey, he announced that he was turning the conference over to NC-1's Technical Officer Chief, Machinist Mate C.I. Kesler, who would be taking questions from the press about the crossing attempt. After fielding questions the press for almost three quarters of an hour Kesler, summed up by saying that the biggest challenge was to control engine temperature by keeping the radiators from clogging and overheating. "With these big engines, if you can keep them cool and well lubricated they will theoretically run forever." he concluded and was warmly applauded by his audience.

The drinks and banter was well under way when the boys finally decided that they had enough; mainly since they all agreed that they found the questions and conversation of the press a little silly at times. Lacking of any real understanding of aeronautical science, as Bobby had put it... Questions like...what do you think about when you are up there?...How do you manage doing your business on these very long flights? and the most common brainless question...How high do you fly?

"What did you think of that Guys?" Asked Bobby as they exited the dining car.

"Well if you ask me, if it wasn't for the beer, I'd say it was a total waste of time." responded Toe, who was always the clown and the least interested of the four.

"I thought it was interesting except for some of the dumb news men's questions, that is." commented Ike.

"By the way where are we going to spend the night? Has anyone thought about that?"

"Didn't I tell you I got permission from Joe Cleary, one of the section men, who said we could stay the night in his shack because he is on days leave."

Catching the morning train back to the city at 8:00 AM everyone was tired and a little hungover because, they had stayed up late telling jokes and chatting half the night. "Are we jumping off at Capahaden for some fishing?" demanded Toe. You could by tone of his voice that he wasn't too enthusiastic about the idea.

"Let's go on to Bay Bulls Big Pond and jump off there. That way if we miss the late freight we can still walk home from there if we have to." suggested Ike. The idea was very attractive to all; it meant that they could all sit back and dose for another couple of hours before they would have to vacate their comfortable seats in the coach.

Gathering up their belongings two hours later, the group easily disembarked the train as she chugged up the steep grade coming out of Bay Bulls settlement. They donned their hip waders and fishing gear as they sat on the still warm shiny rails. The lads got ready to set off, to walk to a nearby pond that was well known place to fill your basket in record time with speckled mud trout which are the favorite pan size eating treat. Three hours later, their baskets were full to overflowing with a fine catch of mud trout mixed with a German Brown here and there. They had chosen a gravel pit at the side of the right of way for their boil up. After a filling meal of delicious pink flesh mud trout and a mug of tea, they were just putting out the fire when Dick shouted. "I hear the freight and the engine is about to pass us by. Come on let's go." They all scrambled to gather up their gear. The gravel pit had drowned out the noise of the train as she negotiated the grade at what seemed like a faster than anticipated speed. Exiting the mouth of gravel pit, it was immediately apparent why the freight was eating up the tracks...She was only five cars long, less than half the length of the usual freight. Ike was the last to get underway; he couldn't leave the still smoldering fire without scraping some gravel with his foot over the still live embers. The last car was just passing as he scrambled up the bank to the road bed, clutching his precious basket in his right hand with the rest of his belongings flying in the wind. He raced past the caboose on his race to the freight car. The one with the door left intentionally open so that the boys to scramble aboard for the trip back to town. With his three friends standing in the open door urging him on, he let fly with his basket as he drew up to the open door, but his heart sank to his boots, as he miscalculated and the basket slammed up against the edge of the doorway spilling it's contents. As Ike stumbled over them, he quickened the pace towards that still illusive open door. Urged on by his friends, running flat out, he slowly drew up to the open doorway. "Gimme yer pole and lunch can and grab Toe's hand" yelled Bobby. Clutching the out stretched hand and with all his mite, Ike threw himself head long throught the doorway, unto the box car's floor. He breathed a sigh of relief laying there with his feet and legs still hanging over the edge. He thought to himself, I made it aboard the train ... now I can forget the thoughts of having to make that long walk home alone.

The boys continued following with keen interest, all the developments and events associated with the Great Race for the Atlantic that unfolded over the remaining months of that memorable year. Using their crystal radios, they were there among the first to learn of the successes of the U.S. Navy's Atlantic expedition. History recorded that on May 31 1919 N.C. 4 completed the last hop of the crossing, when it landed at Plymouth England. Thus completing the first Atlantic crossing by air. Many came after, but only Albert C. Read and the crew of NANCY 4, would ever be the first.
Take a trip into the past, and view this:

See a modern Replica of Glenn Curtis's America Fly

(1) Every one had a crystal radio set; this was particularly true of the young people. They offered a inexpensive alternative to conventional radios that cost hundreds of dollars. The crystal radios could be adjusted to receive any radio frequency by simply moving a very thin wire known as a Cat Tail over the surface of the crystal and making fine station adjustments with a single slide wire coil. The apparatus was capable of monitoring radio station voice broadcasts and radio telephone transmissions.

1 comment:

  1. Randy WhitehorneApril 5, 2010 at 3:12 AM

    I like this story David

    Randy Whitehorne