Fifty years ago this coming June, I finished my first year at the University of South Carolina and had moved up to a prime time show on WUSC. But it was time to take a break, as a Naval ROTC Midshipman it was time for me to put up the headphones and take my Third Class Summer Cruise. I boarded the U.S.S. Little Rock at the Naval Academy at Annapolis and steamed down the Severn into the Chesapeake Bay and out into the Atlantic in search of adventure. But I didn’t leave my rock and roll very far behind. I found another station on board, WCLG, which broadcast over the 1-MC public-announce system after work hours and before chow time every afternoon. It was run by the sailors in the ship’s company and while they let me sit in the control room, they carefully guarded microphone time, keeping it to the full time crew only. The choice of music was pretty limited as well so I was still in search of something more up to date.
Left: USS Little Rock That led me to the fantail in the late afternoon as we approached the English Channel to make our passage to Cherbourg, France. I found a couple of sailors crouched around a transistor radio and quickly made friends with a couple of kindred souls looking for rock and roll music. The first sweeps across the medium wave band, which corresponds to the AM broadcast band here in the US, were pretty disappointing. The clearest stations we could hear were all British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) outlets and they were playing mostly big band music or chattering incessantly. Every now and then we would hear a piece of a popular song done by some swing band or big band but never by the artists we loved and wanted to hear.
Finally, about a day out of Cherbourg, as we were passing the island of Guernsey, the strains of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” by The Beatles could be heard above the static. One of my sailor friends, who had been this way before, said that this was Radio Luxembourg and they played only snippets of the popular songs. But to our amazement the song played all the way to the finish and then we heard a very British DJ who proudly announced that we were listening to Radio Caroline. Soon, there was a good sized crowd of sailors huddled around the radio as the signal faded in and out of the ether. We were stunned to hear good old American style rock and roll radio this far away, jingles and all. Clearly we were not listening to the BBC, but what was this? Nobody knew.
The next day we docked in Cherbourg and we were caught up in all the public events with foreign dignitaries touring the ship and our turn touring the town and the nearby beaches of Normandy. After 4 days, we set back to sea for some maneuvers with the French and British navies in joint anti submarine exercises in the English Channel. Our stalwart group met again on the fantail after hours. Someone had been able to ask the local French teenagers about what we were hearing and they told us that we were listening to the same pirate radio station that was all the rage in Northwestern France. Wow, this intrigued me, the very idea of pirate radio had a somewhat naughty and risqué feel to it. Radio Caroline became the highlight of our days at sea. Our group on the fantail grew in size as more transistor radio came out. Some sailors even purchased additional radios that picked up the medium wave band in France and later more were bought in The Netherlands. Listening to Radio Caroline became the thing to do for the younger members of the ship’s company. There was the kindred spirit of sailors on a warship listening to the sailors on the Motor Vessel “Mi Amigo” as we rocked and rolled over the same waves in the channel.
Left: Motor Vessel Mi Amigo When our travels took us near the edge of Radio Caroline’s coverage area, we noticed that strange fading in and out that we heard the day we first listened to the station. There was some discussion about what was going on until the young officer in charge of the radio room finally figured out what it was. He noticed the fading was occurring at the same interval that our ship was rocking back and forth in the waves. He pointed out that the antenna on Radio Caroline was probably swinging back and forth too. That meant that the radio beam was swinging down into the sea and up into the air. So at the edge of the signal, we heard that as fades and swells.
After that experience, I came home to Jacksonville and the home of WAPE, “The Big Ape” for a month before returning to Columbia and my WUSC. I was charged up by what I heard all summer long and was ready to put all that into practice. That was the year that WUSC first began early morning programming. Despite the prospect of bleary eyes and yawns while records were playing, I quickly volunteered for that show. Why? It was because on “The Dawn Patrol” show, that WUSC played Top 40 rock and roll for the first time. Life was good and my future career was cast! Fifty years ago last Friday, Radio Caroline began operations and changed the lives of so many people, including me. Happy Birthday, Radio Caroline! Oh MY!