Silent Keys

My father was a lifetime Ham Radio aficionado. Many of my childhood memories are of him tapping away on his key, scribbling on a notepad in his all-caps style of writing that I unconsciously emulated, fiddling with gear and devices, listening to shortwave radio from all over the world. Dad– Jim N. Griffin– was a devoted ham and pretty good at it, too. His call sign was W0NCD (“Nine Crazy Dogs”). We used to play with his set, practicing in Morse (so long as we weren’t transmitting), and I even took a radio class when I was in junior high. I failed the test because, despite being pretty good at code, it turns out that you really did need to know all that stuff about frequency bands and such.

Dad did know that stuff. He hung a folded dipole antenna– whatever that is– in the attic in Boulder. I’m pretty sure that was in the 40-meter band but it’s been so long that I could be wrong. But he could explain why it worked; why all the knobs and switches mounted on the pegboard above his transmitter did what they did. Even in later years when he switched over to a voice set on the two-meter band and joined a weather-radio circuit, I remained impressed and a bit mystified by the whole scene.

After Dad passed away, my brother ended up with boxes of his old photos and papers. One item of interest was a five-year diary that he kept starting in 1940, a trove of information that showed me aspects of my dad that I never knew before. It’s taken years to actually assimilate all the information, papers, and photos, but occasionally something clicks into place that makes me go, “Oh… NOW I get it.” Recently the thing that clicked had to do with his ham hobby, and it all seems to have started with a childhood friend of his, a kid named Ed Nightenhelser.

My dad grew up in rural Indiana, north of Indianapolis a few leagues. In 1940 he would have been turning 15 and entering high school. Remember, the term “teenager” was not yet in use at this time. My dad spent his time with the usual school activities and social life, with a heavy emphasis on band. He often seemed to spend his evenings listening to shortwave radio from around the world, and often his radio activities involved Ed. There is a diary entry from August 12, 1941 where Ed hired my dad to come take photos of Ed’s ham shack– 90 pictures, and Dad made 45 cents, which he calls “not bad”.

Ed Nightenhelser in his “radio shack” on August 12, 1941. He was 17 years old here.

Moving forward in the diary, Ed makes occasional appearances, generally in the context of radio. Then comes an entry about Dad writing Ed a letter; after that the entries stop. A year later, Jim went to Army basic training, and the diary ended.

I have been researching various aspects of my dad’s youth for a while now, correlating this and that. Among the rabbit trails is his friend Ed. Obviously this was the time of World War 2 and I have investigated many of the names from his records. The internet contains enough factoids to build pictures of the life trajectories of most people, especially if they ever served in the military (which most young men of that generation did). As it turns out, there is no enlistment record for Ed in the National Archives Army enlistment records. No surprise; if he served in a different branch then obviously his record wouldn’t be there. (My dad’s record is also not there, due to the fire in the St. Louis archive in 1974.) But I also check other sources for information, notably, as well as doing basic old Google searches. Plus, I have my dad’s own files and papers, conveniently digitized by my brother, and that’s where I began to put some things together. Correlating all this, I was able to piece together a sketch of the story of Ed Nightenhelser.

Ed was born in 1924. By his mid-teens he had become an active ham (Call sign W9RDC), and was listed by the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) as a wartime local Emergency Coordinator in their August 1942 issue. Sometime later, in late 1942 or very early 1943, Ed entered the U.S. Navy. The military was very interested in enlisting ham radio operators, for obvious reasons. By the April 1943 ARRL issue he’s shown as residing in Chicago, although that may have been a military APO address. In the Navy, Ed was able to pursue his love of radio as an Aviation Radio Technician, First Class. The ART’s were the crewmen who serviced radio equipment on naval aircraft– in his case Ed joined the crew of the new Essex-class aircraft carrier the USS Bunker Hill.

Ed Nightenhelser’s QSL (contact) card

The Bunker Hill was commissioned in May 1943 and Ed was soon aboard; he may have even been a plank owner. He served onboard as the ship carried out strikes on Rabaul, Tarawa, Truk, the Marianas, Leyte, Iwo Jima and other places, including ultimately Okinawa.

Two years after the ship entered service, on May 11, 1945, it was operating off the island of Okinawa in support of the titanic land battle taking place there. On that day, two kamikaze pilots managed to locate the ship and pass undetected through the antiaircraft screen. The first pilot slammed his plane into the aft flight deck, setting off catastrophic fires among the aircraft parked there. Thirty seconds later the second pilot crashed into the deck at the base of the ship’s island, after sending a bomb through the deck which exploded below. The ship was a raging inferno within minutes, and only a heroic effort by her crew kept her from sinking.

USS BUNKER HILL hit by two Kamikazes in 30 seconds on 11 May 1945 off Kyushu. Dead – 372. Wounded – 264. (Navy) NARA FILE #: 080-G-323712 WAR & CONFLICT BOOK #: 980

Unfortunately, Ed was not among the crew who saved the ship. Sometime during the attack, he and 392* shipmates perished in the flames. The intelligent, outgoing youth from north-central Indiana who just wanted to tinker with radios met a horrifying end in the seas off Japan. He died ten days before his 21st birthday.

My father never mentioned his old friend Ed to any of us. But he had one of Ed’s QSL cards in his papers, and a photo of him in the same stash. He used to say things like “At least I got a two-way ticket from the war; not everyone was so lucky.” I always thought he was referring to his comrades in the Army, but now I’m quite sure he thought of his friend Ed, the one who introduced him to ham radio. I have no doubt that he would often spare a thought for his old, lost friend as he would sit down at the transmitter and begin tapping out CQ…CQ…

Dad’s and Ed’s keys are both silent now.

* figures vary

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