SEOUL – Amateur radios once played a key role in US military operations before they faded into the background with the arrival of better and more accessible forms of communication such as cell phones, the Internet and Skype.

But just as you begin to believe that amateur radios could break the trail from rotary phones, 8-track cassette recorders, and phonographs, disaster strikes and the ancient warhorses of communication fill a void in emergency response.

Amateur radio operators were widely recognized as aides in emergency communications following the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina. Sixteen days ago, when an earthquake and tsunamis devastated Japan, amateur radio hobbyists and their outdated technology once again got involved in bringing families back together and delivering relief where it was needed most.

“In the relatively early stages after the earthquake, several radio amateurs were able to activate their stations with car batteries or generators with small motors,” said Ken Yamamoto, department head of Japan Amateur Radio League International, in an email to Stars and Stripes. “They transmitted rescue requests and information about the disaster situation, including the refugee centers and their needs and / or the availability of basic infrastructure such as electricity, water and gas.”

Yamamoto said information gathered by amateur radio operators in the hardest hit areas of the country has been “reported to rescue and disaster relief organizations for their appropriate use.”

Radio manufacturers distributed hundreds of transceivers for use in relief and refugee centers, which “should help … facilitate the smooth and adequate delivery of disaster relief supplies.”

In some cases, amateur radio operators also helped anxious people around the world learn about the welfare of loved ones in Japan.

Trevor Jones, of British Columbia, Canada, called embassies immediately after the earthquake and checked social media websites to check on the welfare of his son Jonathon. However, it was Jonathon’s grandfather’s amateur radio that played a key role in reconnecting with the 32-year-old English teacher in Sendai, according to the Montreal Gazette.

“I think they forgot amateur radios,” Trevor Jones is quoted as saying in the Gazette. “If you went back to when I was 32, it was the only system that wouldn’t break down.”

Military connection

Ham radio may be a dying form of communication, but amateur radio hobbyists don’t want a static representation of their passion – one that appears to have a significant following among members of the U.S. military.

“I will be the first to admit that using amateur radio to communicate is by no means the most efficient means of communication,” said US Army Maj. Scott Hedberg, a radio amateur based at Camp Red Cloud, South Korea. “I think the best way to see it is, ‘Why do people ride or bike? Isn’t there a more efficient way to get from A to Z? ‘

“Sure, but it’s the enjoyment of the journey that is key.”

There are still references to the use of amateur radio in military regulations. For example, US Forces Regulations in Korea state: “Amateur radio operators will assist in providing communications for all types of disasters as directed, and work with various aid agencies as necessary.”

However, Hedberg said, “Just based on the solid communication we have here today … I would think that from a military point of view it would have to be quite extreme circumstances that they would come to me for any kind of assistance . “

That hasn’t stopped hobbyists – they number “in the hundreds” of the active troops, Hedberg said – from spending their free time turning dials and connecting with others around the world, with a passion for the technology and quirks of amateur radio conversations .

Richard A. Bartlett, the 90-year-old author of The World of Ham Radio, 1901-1950: A Social History, said, “Morse code may go away and the number of hams will decrease, but what about the innovators?

“I think the curious, highly intelligent radio gadget deserves a stable place in our society, including the military. Amateur radio offers its smart, curious people in its social aspects contacts, rivalries, challenges and, yes, friends with similar interests.

“It would be tragic if her wonderful hobby disappeared.”

Still needed

At the moment, the hobby does not seem to be in its last legs: Today there are an estimated 2 million amateur radio enthusiasts worldwide.

Hedberg explained that there are a number of reasons why, despite the introduction of simpler and more advanced forms of communication, people are still drawn to the amateur radio hobby.

“Just the challenge,” he said. “It takes a while for everything to be set up correctly. It’s about a little magic. Just being able to speak back to the US from here is pretty cool.

“Can I pick up a phone and do that? Of course I can, ”he continued. “It’s a more difficult journey to get there, but I’m much happier with it.”

Bartlett said, “Computers and the World Wide Web are wonderful, but dedicated hams are still required in times of disaster. You are the first point of contact in the event of natural disasters. Ham members from clubs contact ham members from other clubs. Club members spell their ham brothers in disaster when they are on the air for 24 hours or more at the same time. Your contributions are vital. “

Hall said if a disaster strikes, things like cell phones and Skype won’t necessarily work.

In order for a ham radio operator to connect to the world, he said, “All you need is a car battery and a coat hanger, and you can put ‘MacGyver’ on it.”

Yamamoto said one of the lessons learned from the disaster in Japan was, “Radio amateurs should receive regular training in well-controlled and reliable disaster communications, even in chaotic situations.

“Amateur radio clubs should coordinate their role in disaster situations with local rescue and disaster relief organizations and emergency medical centers,” he said.

Bartlett concluded his book by asking readers to introduce their children to the world of amateur radios.

“You will be doing not just a favor to your son or daughter, but indirectly to the world,” he wrote.

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U.S. Army Maj. Scott Hedberg speaks about the amateur radio set up in his barracks at Camp Red Cloud, South Korea.
JON RABIROFF / STARS AND STRIPES