Stephen Nichols, a crossing guard in Tisbury, shares what it was like to be a Morse code operator for the U.S. Army.
I was born in Fall River in 1935, and my whole family were Fall River people. And during the Depression, my father lost his job working with the phone company. But then he found a job on the Vineyard working with the phone company, and we moved here when I was only about 6 months old. We lived on Daggett Avenue in Vineyard Haven, and I went to school at the Tisbury School from kindergarten to 12th grade.
When I was a kid, the Korean War was going on.
Then after graduation, one of my best friends and I agreed that we would volunteer for the Army. We figured if we didn’t volunteer, as soon as we turned 18 we’d get drafted away. Plus I wanted to do it because I love my country so much. My father fought in WWI, my older brother flew P-47s in WWII. And I sort of figured it was in my blood to go into the service. So when I graduated, my friend and I went to the draft lady on the Island and signed up. And from there they sent us to Fort Dix in New Jersey for basic training, and somehow I got assigned to the Morse Code Radio School. Don’t ask me why, but I ended up liking it.
It was a 13-week course, and it was pretty intense. We’d spend eight hours a day listening to dits and dahs, and your mind would go into a trance. Some fellows would forget to salute the officers, and there’s no quicker way to get in trouble than to not salute officers. Out of a class of 89, only 38 of us graduated.
It wasn’t easy; you had to learn different codes for every letter, and you had to be able to do 18 words a minute to be able to graduate. They figured there were about five words per sentence, so that’s pretty fast. Plus on top of that, I was assigned to be in an artillery unit, so we had to learn all about what goes on in an artillery unit as well, so we’d be able to transfer orders.
Normally this might seem like a lot to do, but when you’re in the Army it’s not like you’re going to the movies or going out on dates — you’ve got nothing else to do, so that helps.
By the end of basic training, I was assigned to Dachau, Germany, and assigned to an artillery outfit. Our unit had 18 155-millimeter cannons. You know the cannon out in front of the Legion Hall in Tisbury? That’s the kind of cannon we had.
There were about 300 guys in our unit, and about six guys assigned to each of the cannons. And there were about 10 Morse code operators per unit, figuring you needed backup in case one of the operators was killed, since Morse code operators were responsible for all the orders being encoded for the unit.
While we were definitely at war with North Korea, there was a cold war heating up with Russia.
We would be responsible for patrolling the Russian-German border, and every once in a while you’d hear a lot of noise on the Russian side, and you’d see a ton of tanks and artillery on the Russian side, and they’d come charging at us and stop at the border, and it would scare the hell out of us because we just had 18 cannons, we didn’t have a full artillery, and they could blow right through us if they wanted to. But they would just stop at the border and laugh like hell, and then turn around and go back where they came from.
The other thing that was strange was that we were stationed at Dachau, located just eight miles south of Munich. Dachau was the site of the the largest Nazi concentration camp, and the largest crematorium in WWII. We all stayed in the same barracks that the Germans stayed in; it was right around the corner from the crematorium, which was very creepy in and of itself. Just to be close to so much death. We were about 18 or 19 years old at the time, it really thrust us into an adult situation, and it still astonishes me to think of the horrors people can inflict on one another.
After serving in the Army, I returned to the Vineyard and served as a cop on the Tisbury Police Department from 1958 until 2004. And after that I became a crossing guard at the Tisbury School, and I’m still doing that to this day. I love the job and I love the kids.
I’ll be 88 this year on the Fourth of July, which I love because the whole country gets to celebrate my birthday.