DXpedition means more than “59 TU” to this ham radio operator

Mellish ReefMellish Reef in the Coral Sea

This week I was happy to add to my logbook three contacts with VK9MT.  The well-planned and excellently managed dxpedition was operating from a tiny sliver of coral and sand about 500 miles northeast of the Australian coast, a barely-there island called Mellish Reef.  It was a new one for me (number 306!), and when they had to suddenly cut their time out there short because of threatening weather, I was especially happy I had been able to log them.  Now, as I write this, the exhausted team faces several days of rough sailing, trying to steer clear of the tropical storm that chased them off the reef in the first place.  We wish them godspeed and offer our thanks for their time, effort, and considerable personal investment in placing Mellish on the air for us.

There’s another reason I was so pleased to get a few brief contacts with this particular group and QTH, though.  Mellish Reef is located in the Coral Sea.  In May, 1942, a key naval battle was fought in the immediate vicinity.  The Battle of the Coral Sea actually changed the course of warfare since throughout the battle neither fleet ever laid eyes on the other.  All fighting occurred between airplanes flying off the decks of carriers, something that had never happened before.  The battle also was a tactical victory for the Allies.  It not only stopped the Japanese march to the south toward Australia but it also left the Imperial Navy two carriers short.  They were damaged at the Coral Sea conflict and unavailable for the historic Battle of Midway, a key factor in the first clear-cut Allied victory of WWII.

USS_Neosho_Burning_from Japanese plane


The Allied tanker USS Neosho ablaze after coming under attack in May 1942 in the Coral Sea, near Mellish Reef

I am now writing a book about a little known side story to the Coral Sea battle.  It is the tale of the sinking of two ships, a destroyer and a tanker, which were mistaken by the Japanese as an aircraft carrier and escort, an error that helped the Allies prevail in the battle the next day.  Just over 100 men were left clinging to the listing deck of the hulk of the tanker, awaiting rescue that would not come for four days.  Another nearly 200 men abandoned the ships and ended up adrift on life rafts without food, water or shelter.  By the time the rafts were found nine days later, only four of the men were still alive and two of them soon died.  It is an amazing story of human perseverance and bravery, but also one about how what happens in war is so often determined by error, coincidence, and sheer luck.  How many of those men might have survived if they had somehow found their way to Mellish Reef?

As an author, I look for human stories everywhere.  For certain, when I work a fellow ham anywhere–around the corner or on the other side of the globe, engaging in a rag chew or in a quick “59 TU” contact–I am always interested in what Paul Harvey called “the rest of the story.”  What is it like there?  What else happened there?  What does the OM do for a living?  What stories is he willing to share?

Remember when brave and resourceful ops put South Sudan on the air before most in the USA even knew a country with that name had been hatched?  I was recently thrilled to work the dxpedition FT5ZM on Amsterdam Island.  Now that part of the world is at the top of the headlines with the Malaysian passenger jet search.

Tonight, as the guys who worked so hard to give us a QSO from remote Mellish Reef continue their rough ride to what we all hope will be a safe return home, I can’t help but think of the other stories that have played out down there in that roiling, dun-colored sea.


Don Keith N4KC
Don Keith, N4KC, is a regular contributor to AmateurRadio.com and writes from Alabama, USA. Contact him at [email protected].

3 Responses to “DXpedition means more than “59 TU” to this ham radio operator”

  • Dave, K4CTV:

    Every once and awhile we need to be reminded of the sacrifices made by those fellow navy veterans who preceded us. Your side story certainly brought drove that point home. Thank you also for reminding us that Freedom Is Not Free.

  • Richard KWØU:

    I found a detailed account of the ordeal undergone by the crews of the Neosho and Sims, which I linked on the Neosho Wikipedia site. It was written by the nephew of one of the two raft survivors. I guess like so much else of history it’s pretty well forgotten today, but as you said it’s a story of real heroism in the face of terrible conditions.

    Congratulations on Mellish. I never heard them on phone, and am sorry they had to leave early, but you can’t argue with weather. I join you in appreciating the team’s effort and expense in getting there.

  • Marc W4MPS:

    Great article Don. I feel the same way. I always try to learn more about the DX stations I work, especially expeditions. Understanding their history and geographical significance enhances the allure of our great hobby.

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