“SOS tomorrow……… Men are hanging on trees……. Send supplies…… Water is receding……Try and get us water and gas…… People are suffering…….. Send this to Mayor Karb at once…… SOS.”
It was with these words sent by a 15 year old teenager exactly 100 years ago today that Amateur Radio entered into Disaster Service.
Herbert V. Akerberg was a student at West High School in the Hilltop neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio when he anxiously tapped out that Morse code message on the afternoon of March 26, 1913.
A slow moving storm had dumped 11 inches of rain over much of Ohio’s already saturated soil. In Zanesville the Muskingum River was cresting at 27 feet and 20 feet of water stood in her intersections. Five of the town’s seven bridges were washed away. Only the tips of the lampposts of the famous “Y” bridge could be seen.
In Defiance, Ohio the Maumee River rushed in 10 feet above flood stage and covered 268 homes. Row boats plucked people from trees and rooftops everywhere. In Tiffin help came too late for several. Nineteen people waiting on their roofs for help, perished when their homes collapsed and they were swept away by the Sandusky River
On the west side of Columbus, where young Herb Akerberg was manning his station, the Scioto River crashed through the downtown dumping flood waters 17 feet deep into his neighborhood. Thirteen people were rescued.
“For about three days and nights, practically continuously for seventy-two hours, young Akerberg remained on duty at his radio set, in communication with the radio station on top of the Huntington Bank Building, sending messages to the mayor and keeping the public advised as to the conditions on the devastated West Side. Many messages were sent to the friends and relatives of those in the devastated district.” C. B. Galbreath-Author “The History of Ohio”
The greatest destruction was in the areas around Dayton, where the rushing waters of the Great Miami River washed away homes and bridges claiming hundreds of lives. In Dayton 360 souls were lost, 3,400 domesticated animals and horses perished, 65,000 people were displaced and 20,000 homes were destroyed. Damage, in today’s dollars, exceeded $2 Billion.
The flow of the Great Miami River through Dayton during that Easter week storm in 1913 was equivalent to the same amount of water that spills over Niagara Falls in a month! In nearby Hamilton four-fifths of the town was covered and 400 people lost their lives.
“People talked about how fast the waters rose, sometimes one or two feet per hour, and there wasn’t any way of sending warnings downstream because of the downed wires,” she said. “There was no radio then except for a few ham radio operators, and the 1913 Flood is what triggered the legislation to create an emergency broadcast system.”…Trudy E. Bell-Author “The Great Dayton Flood of 1913”
Hilltop Business Men’s Association wants city to send boats……….Supplies will last until about
Back in Columbus, Herbert Akerman, pounding brass from his home shack is joined by the station from Ohio State University. Unlike Akerman, the OSU students are not proficient in Morse Code. To the North of Ohio, B.N. Burglund at the University of Michigan station was unaware of the flooding in Ohio until he intercepted a call from a operator in Freemont, Ohio who reported that the town was under water and that the Captain of the Port Townsend Life Saving Station had drowned while attempting a rescue. The operator reported that all telegraph and telephone lines were down. This call was followed by one from D. A. Nichols in Wapakpmeta, Ohio that his town was also cut off from the world.
Burglund put out a General Call to any station located in the flooded areas. This call was responded to by operators in Mansfield, Springfield, and Mt. Vernon, as well as the OSU station in Columbus.
Burglund, assisted by engineering students George Norris, Worth Chatfield, and Mr. Watts (who had once been a commercial operator) began handling Health and Welfare traffic from the devasted area.
The Ohio State University station was now being manned by a capable operator, J. A. Mercer who pounded the key for more than 70 hours before he collapsed from exhaustion and was temporarily relieved by operators from the U.S. Army Signal Corps.
Young Mr. Akerberg, the first Ham ever to use Amateur Radio in a disaster would go on to honorably serve with the men of the Army Signal Corp during World War I.
In 1923 he directed the building of Radio Station WPAL in Columbus. Six years later he joined the start-up network CBS, where he built much of their network of radio and television stations. Herbert Akerberg passed away in Scottsdale, Arizona on November 6, 1964
“Wireless has shown itself up so beautifully during this great crisis, that a bill is pending in the State Legislature of Ohio providing for a large central station or stations and each city to have a permanent local station, so in case of need all cities so isolated are in communication with the different central stations. By all means let this bill pass. This is a step in the right direction and it is a good example for other States to follow.”
“Wireless in the hands of the amateur, while it is used by some as a plaything, is capable of doing excellent service in time of need; and we hope the work done by these men who did all they could to maintain communication between the flood stricken cities and the rest of the world, will long be remembered.” B.N. Burglund –Modern Electrics, April 1913
Written March 26, 2013 by:
President-Frontier Amateur Radio Society
Las Vegas, Nevada