Morse Code

Discussion in 'WWII' started by Naphtali, Mar 14, 2020.

  1. Naphtali

    Naphtali Practically Family

    Seeley Lake, Montana
    While I believe only the U.S. Navy currently uses Morse Code, during World War II its use was ubiquitous. During my intermittent attempts to learn code, I butt against my inability to differentiate one letter/numeral from another.

    How are individual letter/numerals differentiated, particularly during high-speed transmission (via bug??) to read and write words and numbers (above single digits)? For me, everything just runs together, kind've like reading German.:)
  2. GHT

    GHT I'll Lock Up

    New Forest
  3. RudyN

    RudyN One of the Regulars

    San Jose, California, USA
    There are a combination of five dots and dashes in numbers. In letters there are is a maximum of four. punctuations are a bit different. I knew it was hard for me to learn to receive morse code when I was studying for my amateur radio license. To send it was easy and what i finally did is buy an old multi band receiver and just try and listen to morse code and I was finally able to learn it. Of course now you don't have to know it to earn you license, but it is fun to still use it.
  4. Rmccamey

    Rmccamey Call Me a Cab

    Central Texas
    Morse is most definitely a learned skill - use it or lose it. Your ear becomes trained to distinguish characters and gaps between characters (letters or numbers). With use and training, you then begin to recognize character groups (words). When I finally cracked the 20 WPM barrier, I could hear and visualize the characters/letters/words in my head faster than I could write them down, so I stopped using pencil and paper other than to take notes, not to transcribe every word as sent. Old timers (years of experience) could copy code to the point they could literally have entire conversations in code just like so many people do who know a second language....just as natural as everyday speech to the rest of us. As noted earlier, listen to the novice segments of the ham radio bands and practice at slow speed. It is frustrating at the start but once you begin to pick out letters and words, Morse comes alive and you get excited about trying to copy the next new word!

    .-- ..-. ..... --
  5. Peacoat

    Peacoat Bartender Bartender

    South of Nashville
    The military still uses Morse Code, sometimes. Or at least it used to. Back many years ago, I was a pilot with MACV SOG working with the 5th Special Forces out of Kontum/Dak To (RVN). We would insert a team into Cambodia or Laos and return to base. The team would belong to me (and my crew) until the mission was complete, and the extraction was successful.

    When a team was compromised, and the NVA were close which mandated an extraction, the radio operator on the ground would whisper in the radio. No pilot ever wanted to hear whispering over the air. That was really bad news for those of us coming in to get them out. Unfortunately, we heard it all too often.

    Early one morning, it got worse than whispering.

    One night long after I had gone to bed, the guys in the TOC at Dak To started hearing "odd noises" from the radio. The TOC Is the Tactical Operations Command. The odd noises they were hearing was the breaking of squelch (pressing the transmit button) by one of the 3 or 4 units they had in the field. The TOC radio operator noticed a pattern and recalled his Morse Code training. He was hearing, "Dot, Dot, Dot, Dash, Dash, Dash, Dot, Dot, Dot." Morse code for SOS. One of the teams was in trouble. The enemy was so close, the radio operator couldn't even whisper. A rescue pilot's nightmare.

    By process of elimination the TOC guys figured out which team was in trouble. With that information they had the grid coordinates the team had given before they hunkered down for the night. Unfortunately a unit of NVA also picked the same spot for their night bivouac. The team of 6 was surrounded, but as yet, not compromised.

    The commanding officer waited until an hour or so before dawn before he woke us up and gave us the bad news. That gave us a few minutes to plot them on the map, quickly plan an emergency extraction, preflight the A/C, crank and be at the area just at daylight.

    The team had communication with the TOC through the use of rudimentary Morse Code by breaking squelch on the radio. I imagine all they told them was that help would be there at dawn. But, that's all they wanted to hear, anyway.
    No need to go into the details of the extraction except to say we safely got them all out without any injuries or anybody getting shot (on our side).

    So, at that point in time,* Morse Code could be used in emergency situations. I doubt it is still taught, even in radio operators' school, but it sure came in handy that night. It saved the lives of those guys.
    *Now known by some as the Stone Age.
    Rmccamey and Héctor Fernández like this.
  6. Héctor Fernández

    Héctor Fernández One Too Many

    Greatest Country, U.S.A.
    My salute fellow veteran. My dad taught us M.C. because we used to go cave walking growing up and he thought it would come handy if we got caved in.

    I haven't used it in a long time, but like riding a bicycle, you never forget.

  7. Tiki Tom

    Tiki Tom One Too Many

    Vienna, Austria
    My dad was also of the WWII generation. Growing up, we’d often go on camping trips. He thought MC was one of the basic skills a boy should have. That and good map and orienteering skills. My wife and kids are still amazed how I know the basic compass directions no matter where we are. Regrettably I have forgotten my MC.
  8. LizzieMaine

    LizzieMaine Bartender

    Not just boys. My 1923 edition of Scouting For Girls, the official Girl Scout manual of the Era, requires that you must be able to send and read Morse at the rate of at least 16 words per minute to qualify for the rank of First Class Scout.
    Ian, Tiki Tom, Rmccamey and 1 other person like this.
  9. EngProf

    EngProf A-List Customer

    I was BARELY able to get Morse understood well enough to qualify for First Class Scout (boys).
    I remember almost nothing of it now, and still get mixed up whether "SOS" is dot-dot-dot-dash-dash-dash-dot-dot-dot or dash-dash-dash-dot-dot-dot-dash-dash-dash.
    However, I figure that if I got in trouble and sent a code message saying "O-S-O", the person on the other end would be perceptive enough to know what I meant.
    Tiki Tom likes this.
  10. Tiki Tom

    Tiki Tom One Too Many

    Vienna, Austria
    Well said.
    (It is dot dot dot, dash dash dash, dot dot dot. I had to look it up!)

    I remember thinking as a kid “This is ridiculous! Who would ever use this now and why?” Then, not so long afterward, I heard the story that John McCain used MC to communicate with his fellow prisoners in Hanoi by tapping and scratching on the wall. Rather an extreme example, granted.
  11. I think it helps if you play a musical instrument & you learn to recognize Morse code letters as a musical note, then words & short sentences (bursts) as musical riffs.
    Peacoat likes this.
  12. MisterCairo

    MisterCairo I'll Lock Up

    Gads Hill, Ontario
    Somewhere in a box are the two railway telegraphers' keys my dad bought at an auction. I used to have the hand-written Morse code translation page my dad did up. I tried it out as a kid, using those massive 9v batteries to power them to send and receive. I never got close to learning it. If I dig them out, perhaps I'll give it a try again!
    Rmccamey likes this.
  13. I studied & got an Amateur Radio (Ham) license as a teenager. At the time you had to pass Morse code at 5 wpm for a Novice license, 15 wpm for a General, & 20 wpm for the Extra class license, plus theory. There was definitely a learning curve to reach 5 wpm or maybe a bit more, but once you hit that threshold it became much easier. Very quickly from there the problem becomes how fast you can write the text while receiving. Sending is just a matter of rhythm.
    Rmccamey and MisterCairo like this.
  14. Peacoat

    Peacoat Bartender Bartender

    South of Nashville
    Did you keep up with your skills in Morse Code? It's a communication medium that fascinated me as a kid, but I never learned it as I had no need. I would think one's skill in Code would be like reading music or speaking a foreign language—if not used, they deteriorate. I can no longer read music or speak Spanish because I haven't done either in 50 years. So had I learned Code, I probably would have lost that as well.
    Rmccamey likes this.
  15. Morse code or CW (continuous wave) as it's called in amateur radio was always my favorite way to transmit & communicate, rather than voice on single side band (ssb) or FM. I was active up until the late 1990's. Several yrs before the FCC came up with a new class or two of licenses with watered down requirements in order to get more numbers of amateur radio operators in the fight for bandwidth; amateur vs commercial. That, plus the advent of cell phones caused me to lose interest.

    Weighted bugs & electronic keyers made it easy to send 20 wpm. Whatever I've lost in receiving could be regained quickly I think.
    Bamaboots and Rmccamey like this.
  16. Harp

    Harp I'll Lock Up

    Chicago, IL US
    You guys were always fantastic. :D

    Morse will forever remain a SF skill; along with the garrote and bicycle chain wrapped with black electrical tape.;)
  17. Ian

    Ian New in Town

    My old man was a wireless telegrapher/operator on Corvette ships in the Royal Australian Navy during WW2 and told me of recognizing other operators "hands" so he could tell who was sending before they identified themselves. He told a poignant story of knowing other ships ops over the course of different theatres of war, Pacific and Middle East. Not recognizing the hand of an operator from a sister ship he enquired after the previous op to be told he was killed as his post the previous week.
    He said he used to dream in Morse during the war after particularly stressful actions because he was of course locked in a tiny steel box under the bridge and had no idea what was happening other than the guns firing and depth charges, and developed a habit of convulsively ducking after every 3rd word he sent!
    He could still read it in the late 70s and taught me as a scout (I barely passed, no doubt a great disappointment to him).
    An outwardly unemotional man he once saw a navy Morse key and head set at a museum, put his hand on it and changed somatically, rounded his shoulders, concentrated, furrowed his brow and all but disappeared to 40 yrs previously.
    Bushman and Rmccamey like this.

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