The date of the photograph showing the USS George Washington sailing into New York Harbor was taken after World War One and published in September 1, 1919 edition of the Omaha Bee Newspaper.
At that time the USS George lWashington was the largest ship in the United States navaL inventory. If was a captured North German Lloyd Ocean Liner. It was refitted and became the third USS George Washington. Days before the President’s departure, plans were laid to install a 40 kilowatt arc transmitter, a task normally requiring six weeks to complete. But Don Wallace (amateur radio call sign W6AM) had gathered a skilled crew of 35 wireless operators they were nearly finished when the ship sailed on 5 March 1919. Wilson remained in France while his ship brought 4,000 servicemen home to America.
However, the first half of the story is just as interesting.
During the year following the Great War was, 1919, the largest ship to sail the sea was President Wilson’s USS George Washington. Perhaps it was a bit of an overkill, using such a large vessel for the president and his staff and crew. But it may have served as a symbol, having been captured from the German Navy two years earlier during World War One.
Obviously, it served America well, except for communications.
While amateur radio operators were using a kilowatt to send a signal thirty miles, the USS George Washington was trying to communicate halfway across the Atlantic. The only available transmitter was an arc.
Don Wallace, a US Navy wireless operator happen, by chance, to meet a former commanding officer with whom he’d served during the war. The commander mentioned that his search for wireless operators to serve on the president’s ship, stating that of the 400 radio stations, nationwide, he was unable to find a single operator who knew anything about arc transmitters. Don had the necessary experience and accepted the challenge.
The transmitter in question was a 40 kilowatt arc. Not only was it yet to be installed, Don had locate a number of top-notch operators. After a time he chose 35 telegraphers and they began the task.
Normally, six weeks was allowed for the installation of a wireless system on a ship, but the president was taking part in the Versailles Peace Conference he was leaving for Paris in three days.
They were still fine tuning it when the USS George Washington set sail.
Operations were scheduled in hour-long segments – one hour sending, one hour receiving. During the receiving hour they were able to resume preparation for the higher power. As the distance increased they were able to increase the power and communications was established.
Because of the extreme voltage required, keying relays were required. This slowed the transmission rate to about 20-words-per-minute. This combined with the number of messages resulted in some being held over when hour was up.
Don approached the president’s chief-of-staff, asking if he would ask the president to shorten his messages. The Chief-of-staff was enraged that a 20-year-old-kid would make such a request.
Sometime during the voyage the president decided to speak personally to someone back in Washington, D.C.. Since the president didn’t do Morse code a microphone had to be installed in the antenna feed line, and the current was of such great the microphone required water cooling.
Only then did they discover that President Wilson suffered from mic-fright. They had to clear everyone from the room and camouflage the microphone before he would utter a word.
In spite of the many challenges the USS George Washington voyage was successful.