A Navy communications technician named Glenn Pladsen shared an interesting story of how Morse Code saved a naval ship when all other communications were down. Pladsen was recruited by the Naval Security Group to be a Cryptologic Tech, Maintenance (CTM) where he developed his skills in Morse Code and electronics. In 1972 Pladsen was assigned to a direct support position where he was one of eight CTMs that actually was positioned on ships. His placement was aboard the USS William M. Wood destroyer in 1973 where he was placed to maintain electrical gear and do repairs when needed.
The duty of the ship was to show the presence of the U.S. Navy in the Mediterranean and they did so by sailing from port to port. That summer the USS Wood was ordered to participate in a NATO exercise where it would act as a “bad guy” and shadow the NATO taskforce. Part of this exercise meant hiding and pretending to be a ship from an enemy navy. Upon the onset of the exercise the other US ships had been designated to other areas and had sailed away.
Given the old age of the USS Wood it was probably not surprising that it ran into some problems out in the wide ocean. As the exercise ensued the USS Wood experienced engine problems and was left stranded in the ocean. Normally this would not have been a problem but the two emergency generators on board were down and restoring power to the ship would take another eight to 10 hours. Being that the ship was in a major shipping lane with no power, no lights and no radios and no expectations of being at any port they were facing a bit of adversity.
Turns out adversity came in the form of a huge freighter which was headed straight for the destroyer. Luckily a Russian destroyer was in the area and with some quick thinking was signaled using battery powered flashing lanterns. The American ship managed to use Morse Code to communicate to the Russians and luckily they understood the international language of the code. The Russian destroyer then helped divert the freighter out of harm’s way and stayed with the USS destroyer until it restored power.
If it weren’t for the use of the Morse Code than this story may had an entirely different ending. Unfortunately Morse Code is no longer a requirement and thus fewer people are learning this useful and potentially life-saving skill.
Contrary to popular belief, the Morse code for symbol for SOS (. . . – – – . . .) is not an abbreviation or acronym for “save our ship,” “save our souls,” or “send out succour.” The code above was originally intended solely as a signal for distress and was first adopted by the German government in radio regulations in 1905. It soon became the global standard after the second International Radiotelegraphic Convention signed in 1906. The SOS distress signal remained the maritime signal up until recently when in 1999 it was replaced by the Global Maritime Distress Safety System, an international set of safety procedures. Learn Morse code!
Origin of SOS in Morse Code
The Germans never intended on naming the distress signal SOS, the codes makeup was just a simple way to transmit the signal and was easy to remember. It is easy to see why the code was translated into the popular terms mentioned above and how people confuse it for what it really is. One of the original distress signals used was “QCD” and was used by Marconi International Marine Communication Company. This code stood to mean “all stations, distress” and has also been commonly misinterpreted to mean “come quick, danger,” “come quickly, distress,” or “come quick- drowning!” The signal was used by Marconi operators but was never adopted by international standards because it could be mistaken for simply “CQ” or “general call” if the reception was poor. It wasn’t until 1912 and the sinking of the Titanic when the ship’s Marconi operators used both QCD and SOS distress signals to try and get help. Because of this ill-ending story and inconsistency amongst ship operators the use of the CQD has died out.
SOS as a distress call has always been transmitted as a continuous sequence of dits-and-dahs without the spacing that goes between letters in traditional transmissions. The term was regarded as safe for use as long as the Morse code operators were aware that it was just a convenient way for them to remember the distress signal and not transmit it in the literal sense. Eventually SOS was written with a bar over it to designate that it was to be transmitted continuously and without internal spaces.
Another notable characteristic of the signal is that it can be used visually as well. It can be used in three short flashes, three long, then three short to signal distress visually as well as spelled out so that it can be viewed from above perhaps by a rescue plane or chopper. The neat thing about SOS is that it is readable upside down as well as right-side-up from above.