Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Saturday, October 13, 2012
Navy radio facility slips into history
From Morse code to broadband, station was link for 107 years

When Hurricane Andrew tore through Homestead in 1992 it severed nearly every communication line between the Florida Keys and the mainland -- save one.

Tucked away on Boca Chica Key at Naval Air Station Key West and on the northern edge of the Saddlebunch Keys are two plain, whitewashed buildings that for the better part of the past century have been quietly providing high-frequency radio communications between naval vessels at sea and their shore-side counterparts.

The Naval Computer and Telecommunications Station Jacksonville Detachment Key West -- call sign NAR -- was about to embark on one of its busiest missions in its 107-year existence shortly after the hurricane made landfall.

"We had hunkered down and were riding out the storm," said Director David Flight. "It began to dawn on us that no one had communications, no phone service, but we were quite capable out at the transmitter site."

And so Flight and his crew of "Conch communicators" -- some of whom also set up ham radio stations -- opened their often-clandestine mission to Navy families, the Red Cross and civilian Keys residents, all needing to send word to the mainland.

"In the first four days we sent 18,000 messages out to families," Flight said.

Flight came to the Keys in 1973 as part of the now-defunct Air Force 671st Radar Squadron. He moved over to the Naval Computer and Telecommunications Station in 1979.

Last month, the Navy began the process of closing the long-running radio communications center. Improvements to high-frequency broadcasting require fewer stations.

By November, the Key West service will be consolidated with Air Force assets in Puerto Rico and Maryland. The station was officially decommissioned on Sept. 21.

The station's mission began in 1905 at what is now Truman Annex, when it was called the Naval Wireless Telegraph Station.

The operators formed a link in a chain of Morse code stations in what was then known as the Coastal Signal Service of the Navy, said Naval Air Station Key West spokeswoman Trice Denny. The chain extended from Maine to New Orleans, La., and included Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Isthmus of Panama.

In those days, many of the messages included non-classified information, like weather reports, Denny said.

"The hardware in those days wasn't the best, so carrier pigeons were kept as well to ensure messages were delivered between here and the fleet, as well as other stations," she said.

"In the mid-1930s the Navy reduced its mission here with the radio station, becoming the only mission left," Flight said. "For a time, the officer over the radio station had a duel role as commander of the base as well."

World War II changed that, and the Navy dramatically expanded the radio station's role as new voice communications went online. By the mid-1940s, new Teletype and encryption technologies were on the rise.

"In essence, the Navy began broadcasting Morse code at an extremely fast rate," Flight said.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, when naval assets in Key West cemented the city's role as the "Gibraltar of the Gulf," as Commodore David Porter said a hundred years earlier. The radio station's role provided vital communication between military branches that had massed in the Southernmost City. The military buildup led to the expansion of the station as it swelled to 19 officers, 268 enlisted personnel and 31 civilians, Denny said. In 1965, the Navy bought more than 600 acres of land in the Saddlebunch Keys to build the transmitter site.

From that time to the present, more changes -- most notably the advent of satellite and Internet communications -- were made as technology improved, and it finally became a civilian-operated facility. By 2000, the formerly named Navy Wireless Telegraph Station became the Naval Computer and Telecommunications Station Jacksonville Detachment Key West.

Military high-frequency broadcasts will continue as backup communications for the military, but the time has come to "close up shop" and turn the buildings over to NAS Key West commander Capt. Pat Lefere, Flight said.

Naval Command Telecommunications Station Jacksonville Cmdr. Matthew Lear called those who manned the station a "cast of characters," and told them at the decommissioning ceremony last month that the history of the station will live on.

"That is the nature of classified communications," Flight said, reflecting on his 30-year mission. "We were never out there in the limelight for obvious reasons. Radar and communications are always the first target of the enemy, so we kept a low profile over the years."

alinhardt@keysnews.com

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