Coudersport Man receives reward and letter from president of United States for helping people during a bad flood

excerpted from the 1941 book, "Calling CQ"   by Clinton B. DeSoto

EACH YEAR the president of the Columbia Broadcasting System, Mr. William S. Paley, awards a trophy to "that individual who, through amateur radio, in the opinion of a distinguished board of judges, has contributed most usefully to the American people, either in research, technical development, or operating achievement."

The awards for the years 1936, 1937 and 1938 were each made on the basis of heroic accomplishment in emergency work. The feats performed by amateurs in winning this award are epics of courageous public service.

More than that, they are tales of high adventure.

The first amateur to receive the Paley Trophy was Walter Stiles, Jr., of Coudersport, PA. A youthful employee of the Pennsylvania Railroad at the time of the disastrous 1936 Eastern states' flood, operator of amateur station W8DPY, he was given the award because of conspicuous service in that emergency.

The story of Walter Stiles, radio amateur, is typical of the stories that might be told of many an amateur--even including the exceptional emergency performance. The principal difference is that Stiles performed under circumstances that ultimately brought him recognition in the form of the Paley Trophy. The others still await their recognition.

At the age of ten Walter Stiles got the money to buy his first radio equipment--a crystal receiver--by selling garden seeds. Four years later he passed his examination and was granted a federal license. Immediately he went on the air, his transmitter utilizing a receiving-type tube with a power output of almost four watts!

By 1933, when he was twenty, Stiles had talked with seventy-two foreign countries and a good many of his fellows in the U.S. His subsequent marriage cut down on his ham activity for a time, but by 1936 he was active again with a powerful station set up in a small room built onto the rear of his Coudersport home. There Walter carried on his radio pursuits, assisted at times by his young bride--who, by exposure, had contracted a slight case of radio fever herself.

There, too, he performed his duties as State Net Control Station for Pennsylvania in the Army Amateur Radio System. There he executed the experimental and writing chores associated with his post as technical editor of the Mason-Dixon Straddler, 3rd Corps Area Army Amateur publication issued by the Signal Corps. And there he occasionally stole a few moments from amateur radio for secondary hobbies: photography, a stamp collection, his miniature railroad complete with passenger and freight engines.

The model railroad was associated with his job. Walter Stiles was very proud of the fact that he was one of the youngest workmen on the P.R.R.--proud that in the year and a half that he had been in its employ he had already received two promotions. Starting as an electrician's helper, he had been promoted to car repairman's helper and shortly afterward he was made a full-fledged car repairman. The miniature engines and rolling stock in his model railroad were modeled exactly after the full-sized cars and locomotives on which he worked every day at the P.R.R. shops.

But radio--first, last and always--was his hobby. It was radio, therefore, that claimed his attention when the Allegheny River reached flood stage at Coudersport in 1936 and it became apparent that a general flood emergency was in the making. His first thought was of the opportunity for radio work that this might mean--bridging communications gaps when wire lines went down.

When Walter arrived home at 3 P.M. on the afternoon of Wednesday, March eighteenth, therefore, he went immediately to the radio room and put his station on the air, standing by ready to serve in any way he could.

He stood by throughout that afternoon and evening and at nine-thirty the next morning he was still on watch. Occasionally a little routine traffic would come through, but for the most part--despite the fact that hundreds of stations were on the air standing by--there was little actual emergency traffic in his immediate vicinity. Stiles puzzled over this silence, for he knew that communication lines were down in many sections. Throughout the rest of the state and up in New England relief traffic was clogging the few clear channels. Yet in northern Pennsylvania there was only silence . . .

Until about nine-thirty the following morning. Then Stiles tensed in his operating chair; the weariness of his nightlong vigil vanished. A faint signal was calling "QRR"--the SOS of the amateur air lanes. He answered the call, and contact was established. It was W8LYB calling, operated by Stuart Over at a CCC camp near Westport, Pa., seven miles from Renovo. Signals were weak and fading, but Stiles finally succeeded in copying the message:


The operator at W8LYB had time only to add that all public highways as well as the railroad tracks had been washed away before his signal faded out completely.

Stiles checked over the hurriedly penciled message and placed a long-distance call for Governor Earle at the state capitol in Harrisburg. A few minutes later the operator called back--all telephone lines between Coudersport and Harrisburg were down.

Stiles reached for the switch on his operating table and prepared to relay the message by radio. But after it had gone he sat in thought. They must be receiving dozens--hundreds, even--of such messages at the state capitol. Could they take care of all the needs? Could they get there in time? After all, Coudersport was nearer Renovo than was Harrisburg. . . .

Pushing back his chair, he took his jersey from the hook on the wall and shouted to his wife. "I'm going out for a minute, dear," he called, and down the street he ran, the long legs on his lean, tall frame eating up the ground.

Down to Red Cross headquarters he went, and there he described conditions in Renovo. The Coudersport Red Cross chapter acted immediately. A meeting was hurriedly called, and a course of action charted. By 1 P.M. a CCC truck was being loaded with medicine, food, clothing--and radio equipment.

Every doctor and merchant and just about every citizen in Coudersport contributed to the store. Hundreds of dollars' worth of medicines were provided, as well as large supplies of bedding, clothing and food.

Stiles recognized that even this would only be a stopgap for the community as large as Renovo however. He realized, too, that communication would be a vital necessity in organizing and directing further relief and rescue work. He was not needed in Coudersport--another local amateur, Bernard Hauber, would stand watch. . . .

And so he resolved to take his portable station to Renovo. A member of the A.R.R.L. Emergency Corps, he had assembled the station with just such an emergency in mind. A rugged twenty-five watt transmitter and a three-tube receiver of proved dependability were the basic units; together with spare parts, accessories and a large gasoline-engine-driven generator, they were loaded onto the truck along with the medical supplies and food.

A tent was loaded, too, as well as food rations for the relief party, changes of clothing, medication, whisky--all the crew's necessities, accessible without disturbing the relief supplies. The six-man crew was a picked lot--including two husky CCC drivers, a physician, Dr P. W. Shaw, Stiles, Fish Warden Wright Rumsey who acted as guide and an expert wire-and-rope man.

At 5:15 P.M. they started out. It was still raining but the roads were good. They traveled twenty-two miles to Galeton on the direct route to Renovo. There still more food and clothing were taken aboard. There the hard road ended.

For the next twenty miles they followed a dirt road that led from Galeton to Cross Fork. This road had been officially closed by the State Highway Department. Local farmers said they had failed to get through even with horses.

Undaunted, they pushed on. It was not long before they understood what the highway patrolmen and the farmers had been talking about. Washouts threatened them from below, landslides from overhead. Slides from the rain-soaked hillsides covered stretches of forty or fifty feet in places. Currents of raging water crossing the road and digging huge valleys seemed to recur every quarter of a mile.

But still the party pushed on. Somehow the huge truck, growling and snarling in defiance of the elements, plunged through the ruts and valleys and slides.

At midnight a faint gleam of light could be seen in the distance ahead, and half-hour later the party drew up at Cross Fork. The few inhabitants of this small community were completely isolated. Neither man nor beast of burden had conquered the water barrier since the first day of high water, they told the relief crew.

Food was unloaded for them from the supplies, and after a twenty-minute pause the party again started for Renovo.

The road from Cross Fork to Renovo follows the river's edge all the way. It is normally a hard-surfaced road, but so little of it remained intact that night that it was hardly recognizable as a road at all. There were washouts of fifteen to twenty feet in width, some of them as much as twenty feet deep. There were landslides blocking the road for hundreds of feet, through which paths were cut with pickax and shovel. Temporary roads had to be dug out of the mountainsides. Where bridges were out temporary planking was thrown in place. For miles the road was covered with floodwaters.

Yet foot by foot and mile by mile Stiles and the rescue party slogged along. The mechanical behemoth they rode strained and bucked and battered its way through the rain and the night. Finally they reached a point only five miles from the isolated town.

There a mountain landslide had washed the roadbed into the river, taking a large bridge with it. Further progress was impossible. Stiles and Dr Shaw got out of the truck, removed their clothing and plunged into the swift, cold current to seek a possible footing for transporting supplies and radio equipment on the backs of the crew.

Precious time was spent trying to locate a passage for the truck's load of supplies, but it was a hopeless attempt. Finding no bottom, they clambered out and returned to blaze a trail around the landslide over the steep mountain slopes.

Following this trail, armed with supplies of food and water, they started on into the city on foot through dangerous rushing currents. The city was finally reached. Conditions were fully as bad as they had been pictured.

The aid of some twenty-five additional CCC lads was enlisted. With this augmented crew they made their way back to the truck and shortly after daybreak they carried the radio equipment into the town on stretchers. The food and supplies followed.

The only semblance of order to be found in that valley of distress was in the vicinity of the Pennsylvania Railroad shops. There light, heat and shelter were to be had, and there Stiles and his radio equipment were taken. Gallons of water were poured out of the cabinets, the parts hurriedly dried with a sponge, connections made--and at nine-thirty that morning portable W8DPY was on the air.

Radio operation in Renovo presented problem because of the disorder of the city. Wires were lying across roads and buildings in a tangled mess mess, some of them still alive and producing crashing bursts of electrical interference that made reception difficult. With the aid of P.R.R. electricians the worst of these were cleared, and the situation improved.

The actual operating procedure of the station presented the next problem. Anxious refugees seeking to send messages crowded in. Bedlam and confusion reigned. Finally two National Guardsmen were placed at the door to take messages and keep the room clear.

All messages going back to the headquarters depot at Coudersport were forwarded to Bernie Hauber, W8KKM, who had stayed behind to serve as base station. Messages of a personal nature were transmitted to W8YA at State College, Pennsylvania, from which station they were routed to their destinations. Official and semiofficial messages were sent to W8INE at St Marys, Pa., where they were placed on telephone wires.

Sleepless for two nights previously, Stiles nevertheless stayed at the key throughout that day and night and the next day. At length he was relieved by two operators from State College. When they arrived he was in a state of nervous collapse bordering on absolute breakdown.

But the job he had set out to do had been done. During the most critical period he had been the sole link for the stricken city of Renovo with the outer world. And the food and first-aid supplies brought by the expedition had averted acute suffering until further help could arrive.

There were many who echoed the President of the United States when he sent Walter Stiles this letter:

Dear Mr. Stiles:
I have learned of the splendid services you performed as an amateur radio operator during the flood emergency . . . and desire to congratulate you upon the fine work which you have accomplished. What you were able to do in aid of the flood sufferers emphasizes how important the continued development of amateur radio activity is to the best interest of the nation.

Very sincerely yours,
Franklin D. Roosevelt.