Radio Broadcasting from Ships in New Zealand Waters and The Story of the Wandering “Apache”

The South Pacific nation of New Zealand was settled first by Polynesians migrating south from the Central Pacific more than 1,000 years ago. The islands were first visited by European explorers in 1642 when Abel Jans Tasman tried unsuccessfully to make a landing. He named the islands after “Sea-Land,” a coastal province in northern Holland.

The first European settlements were established by foreign traders around 1790, and British administration of New Zealand was established from Sydney in 1839. The Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 guaranteed the rights of the Maori people, and in 1841 New Zealand became a separate Crown Colony. Although there was some discussion with Australia around the turn of the century a little more than 100 years ago, New Zealand opted not to be federated into Australia, and separate Dominion status was granted in 1907.

New Zealand lies 1,000 miles off the coast of eastern Australia, with the Tasman Sea separating the two countries. In the era of travel before airplanes were modernized, obviously sea travel connected the two countries to each other and with the rest of the world.

In those days, all of the large ocean going passenger liners and cargo vessels were constructed overseas, usually in England and Northern Ireland. Several of these ships were noted with the broadcast of radio programming, and we look at these in this edition of Wavescan.

On February 3 in the year 1931 there was a massive earthquake in the Hawkes Bay area, on the west coast of the north island of New Zealand. Telephone communications were knocked out and electricity services were disrupted. The only means for adequate communication was by radio, amateur and professional.

It so happened that the Royal Navy vessel, HMS Veronica, was anchored in Hawkes Bay near the city of Napier at the time, and their radio equipment relayed personal messages, voice reports and radio programming out of the area for wider broadcast. Several other unnamed ships at anchor in Hawkes Bay also provided a similar radio relay service.

In the year 1934, a refrigerated cargo vessel, the “New Zealand Star,” was launched at Belfast in Northern Ireland. This ship was considered to be the most modern ship of its type, and it was constructed for the New Zealand meat trade.

The launching ceremony was scheduled for Thursday morning November 29, 1934 at Belfast in Northern Ireland, and it was planned that this event would be broadcast worldwide on shortwave. In preparation for the launching ceremony and the radio broadcast, a rehearsal of the entire program was conducted on the Monday, four days in advance.

The New Zealand section of the rehearsal ceremony, including a speech by the Governor- General of New Zealand, Lord Bledisloe, was broadcast from the 1 kw shortwave transmitter of station ZLW at Titahi Bay, near Wellington. In Sydney, station VK2ME relayed the rehearsal program to London with one of its 10 kw shortwave transmitters, where it was recorded as a precaution in case of propagation difficulties at the time of the actual event.

The rehearsal broadcast from ZLW was heard in Melbourne quite by chance by the column reporter for the weekly radio journal, “Listener In,” and he reported the event a few days later in his newspaper.

The Australian trade magazine, “Broadcasting Business,” reported in full detail in 1937 about a special broadcast from the passenger liner “Mariposa“. While the ship lay at anchor at Circular Quay in Sydney Harbour, AWA engineers installed a 250 watt broadcast transmitter. This unit was tuned to 190 metres, 1580 kHz, which was at the time just above the top end of the standard broadcast band.

While the “Mariposa” was still an hour or two away from Auckland Harbour in New Zealand, a broadcast was made over this small and temporary radio station. The live programming consisted of songs by the famous Italian tenor, Tito Scipa, and a speech by the Mayor of Auckland, Sir Ernest Davies. This programming was picked up by station 2ZB in Auckland and relayed on the ZB network throughout New Zealand.

While the “Mariposa” was anchored at Suva in Fiji, Tito Scipa made another broadcast, though this time in the Suva Town Hall and not from the ship itself.

Another New Zealand vessel, the “Dominion Monarch“, made an international radio broadcast while on its maiden voyage to London in 1939. This event was reported in the daily newspaper, the “Melbourne Herald,” on February 10, 1939.

In 1947, DXers in New Zealand heard radio communications on 4460 kHz from the inter- island ship, the “Hinemoa“, under the callsign ZMFQ. The DX report in the Australian magazine “Radio & Hobbies” states that the 500 watt transmitter was constructed as a broadcast transmitter, but it was instead installed in the “Hinemoa”. Even though this transmitter was a broadcast quality transmitter, there is no reference anywhere to the broadcast of radio programs from this ship.

The most famous of all radio ships in New Zealand waters during this era was the passenger liner “Awatea,” but that’s an interesting story for another time.

The Story of the Wandering Apache

The Apache Indians lived in the southwest of what is now the United States, and they were made up of five different tribal groups. The Apache Indians became famous, in legend at least, as a wandering people, giving rise to the designation, the “Wandering Apache”.

There was an old ship that was built in Baltimore, Maryland, and launched in 1891. Under its original name, the “Galveston,” this ship saw duty in the Spanish-American War, after which it was renamed the “Apache“. This ship was de-commissioned in 1937, and after the American entry into World War II it resumed official duties as a troop transport.

In the year 1944, the “Apache” was taken to Sydney, Australia where it was totally rebuilt and equipped with electronic equipment for service as a radio broadcasting ship.

Generators, receivers, cables, antennas, all were installed, including two shortwave transmitters at 10 kw each.

This mobile broadcasting station sailed north from Sydney in late September 1944, arriving at General Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters at Hollandia, New Guinea on October 10. Two days later the “Apache” joined a flotilla of American war vessels for the return invasion of the Philippines.

It was somewhere around mid-morning of October 20 that the “Apache” made its first transmission, a navy report to California about the new invasion of the Philippines. The allocated callsign for this radio broadcasting ship was WVLC, reminiscent of the Australian callsign, VLC in Shepparton, Victoria.

For the next one and a half years, the “Apache” was heard on the air quite often, sometimes with the relay to America of Pacific war news & reports, and sometimes with the onward relay of radio programming from the shortwave stations in the Voice of America network in California.

After a spate of on air service in Manila Bay, the “Apache” moved to the Lingayen Gulf early in the new year 1945 to cover the moving tide of warfare on the island of Luzon. At the time of the signing of the surrender documents on the USS “Missouri” in Tokyo Bay, the “Apache” was there, but it was silent, simply because the more powerful land based shortwave station at Nazaki in Japan was carrying the programming on relay back to America.

After this, the “Apache” was noted with radio dispatches and occasional programming off the coast of Korea, and then further south off the coast of China.

The saga of radio broadcasting from the reconditioned “Apache” came to an end on April 20, 1946, when the American navy vessel, USS “Spindle Eye” took over not only the radio programming but even the callsign WVLC. The “Apache” was decommissioned, and then in 1950 it was scrapped.

During its 18 months of radio history, the “Apache” served as a communication ship, an intermediate relay station for armed forces communications, and as a radio broadcasting unit carrying programs on behalf of the American Armed Forces Radio Service and the Voice of America. It is quite probable, too, that this station also carried a relay from Radio Australia on certain occasions.

The “Apache” was logged in Australia, New Zealand and the United States under three very similar callsigns. The basic callsign was WVLC. Another callsign in use for a brief period of times was WVLO, and it is suggested that this was in reality the second transmitter, which was noted subsequently under the callsign WVLC2.

Numerous QSLs exist in old radio collections in New Zealand, Australia and the United States but they are all in the form of typed letters. There is no known QSL card in existence bearing the callsign WVLC, not even for the relay of VOA and AFRS programming.

That, then, is the end of the story of the radio broadcasting ship, the “Apache,” but there is more to the story than this. Not so well known is the fact that there was another radio ship travelling with the “Apache” with the identification FP47. Ah, but that’s a story for another time!

From: Wavescan 405 – Sept. 29, 2002

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“Wavescan” is a weekly program for long distance radio hobbyists produced by Dr. Adrian M. Peterson, Coordinator of International Relations for Adventist World Radio. AWR carries the program over many of its stations (including shortwave).