ad: Alphaant-1
ad: L-HROutlet
ad: l-rl
ad: abrind-2
ad: Left-2
ad: Left-3
ad: L-MFJ
Latest Awards
United States Awards Issued
United States Awards Issued
United States Awards Issued
United States Awards Issued
United States Awards Issued
United States Awards Issued
United States Awards Issued
United States Awards Issued
United States Awards Issued
United States Awards Issued
United States Awards Issued
United States Awards Issued
United States Awards Issued
United States Awards Issued
United States Awards Issued

Trials and Errors Issue #29: More Hero Hams -- the 1937 Ohio River Valley Flood

By Dave Jensen, W7DGJ

I know many amateur operators who first picked up an interest in radio when they began to worry about the "you-know-what" hitting the fan. It's true that in any emergency situation -- large or small -- ham radio could play a very important role in aiding communication between stricken communities. For example, if the Internet goes down -- or perhaps cell phone service and GPS -- then the role of our Amateur Radio Services would be to ensure the safety and security of the population. (Our collective thanks at QRZ goes out to readers who participate and understand the protocols of our emergency communication channels!).

When writing about ham radio and emergency communication, it's not a bad idea to look to the past and see how hams have managed similar scenarios, and that's what I've done for this issue of Trials and Errors. As in my last issueI'll tell you more about hero ham radio operators. In this case, they showed their stuff during the worst US tragedy in loss of life and property since WWI. While it was before our time, there will be many readers here who had relatives who lived through the Ohio River Valley Flood of 1937.

Put your warm clothes on and imagine yourself in the frozen tundra of an exceptionally cold winter in the heartland of America during the depression, from mid-to-late January, 1937. 

In January, frigid air collided with moist southern tropical air masses and an abnormal barometric pressure to dump 165 Billion tons of water on the Ohio and Mississippi River basins. That is more than enough to cover 200,000 square miles of land with water 11" deep. More than an inch or two of daily rain hit most communities in the several states which were affected, all of it moving downstream to join the Ohio River valley. At the same time, huge blocks of ice floated along the Ohio, a river that had gone from one mile wide to a twenty-mile wide "lake" with unprecedented crests. Nearly 400 people were killed over the three weeks of the event, and over a million people in the region were left without homes.

After researching this and watching videos like the one at this link, I am most impressed by the resilience of the American people during the Great Depression, and how little griping there was. It's difficult to imagine how this might go today, because in 1937 our families and communities took it on themselves to dig their way out of the mud and debris to rebuild towns and cities along the Ohio, Tennessee, and Mississippi river basins. In today's society, when so many count on the government to provide services, I doubt that we'd see such a rapid turn-around after this kind of tragedy. But, I'm positive there would be a lot of bitter complaining from both sides of the discourse!

What I am most frustrated about after my research is the short shrift that Amateur Radio got in the media after the floodwaters receeded and analysis published of how many lives were saved during the rescue efforts. Amateur operators were the ground-level source of information for local rescue operations, for coordination of resources and supplies, and for emergency medical attention. In many cases, hams passed information picked up on a local level to the Coast Guard, the Army, and to the public broadcast stations who then put the word out so that action could be taken. It really was an amazing team effort, and the stories below of several amateur heros are just the tip of the iceberg. Unfortunately, these successes were lumped into the category of "radio," which to most of the population at the time simply meant AM broadcast stations. In one example, a movie theater newsreel shows the effects of the rescue efforts, and credits "Broadcast stations and the hundreds of others working downstream to provide them with needed community information."  Of course, those hundreds of others were ham radio stations operating out of towns and cities along the path of destruction. Those broadcast stations wouldn't have had a clue without the input coming in non-stop from Amateurs.

Aaron Duesing PhotoClinton DeSoto, a ham and at the time an Assistant Editor at the ARRL, wrote a wonderful QST article on the flood and the participation of amateurs for the April 1937 issue (with a terrific editorial by his boss shown in full at the close of my article). In it, DeSoto states that "...certainly the hundreds dead would have been thousands if it weren't for the efforts of radio amateurs. But, it was also the work of all radio -- military, broadcasting, police, Coast Guard, and amateur, commingled into one surprisingly unified whole." All types of stations worked each other on those tragic days of mid-to-late January and early February of 1937, and emerged as Clinton said, as "Brothers in the democracy of common need." Here are some examples of that true Amateur radio heroism in action:

Ham Heroes

Wheelersburg, West Virginia: One of the first cities to be completely cut off and isolated, and only one Amateur station operated there. Russell Banks, W8PGL, and his colleague W8PFT, ran Banks' station continuously as that community's only contact with the outside world (see these two in photo below). Operating on 75-meter phone in 12 hour shifts, the two brought messages out of the stricken area (where power and phone lines had been completely washed out) using a 32-volt converter powered by banks of automobile batteries that neighbors freely donated to keep the station operational.

One of the warnings that W8PGL passed along downriver was the fact that tens of thousands of gallons of gasoline had burst out of tanks and into the Ohio River. (Despite the warning, that gasoline caught fire about 100 miles downstream).

Cincinnati, Ohio: This city took it on the chin, especially on a day that is remembered now as "Black Sunday." It was the 24th of January, when everything that could go wrong, went wrong. That gasoline which covered the surface of the raging water ignited when a trolley car power line fell into the river. Dozens of buildings throughout the city, completed surrounded by flood waters, caught on fire and burned to the water line. It must have been quite a sight to see homes and factories surrounded by this burning "lake" despite the furious efforts of hundreds of firemen.

At the same time, six inches of snow came down upon their paralyzed city. Temperatures dropped to far below freezing, and as many homes had no heat at all (gas pipes had burst) the residents were in deep trouble. The power grid was stressed, and for those who had power, they were allowed only a refrigerator, one light bulb and a radio. It was that radio which was so critical to their survival . . . Station WLW was the major source of broadcast news, fed by dozens of ham radio operators selected for a new emergency net by the ARRL just a few days earlier. These hams, located across the Southern Ohio and Northern Kentucky region, brought community needs and supply requirements to the attention of WLW, which -- along with WHAS in Louisville, Kentucky -- put out that coordination with 50KW signals on clear channels. That is, until the river fire of Black Sunday took out the WLW connection to the transmitter and the station had to quickly move to a much lower-output and antiquated setup in another location. But all the while, radio amateurs kept gathering the community news and requirements, passing it along to the Coast Guard, the Army, and these broadcast stations.

The most reknowned Amateur station out of Cincinnati during the flood was the radio club at the University of Cincinnati, W8YX, manned by Professor O.C. Osterbrook and his leadership team, Carl Grinstead (W8LNK) and Richard Walker (W8BRQ). These operators ran continuously in shifts with 15 club members using radio gear hooked up to two tractor-powered alternators. For 15 days and nights, W8YX operated as the clearinghouse for all emergency operations during and after Black Sunday.

Evansville, Indiana:  One of the hardest hit areas during this tragic period was Evansville, as a direct result of the way the city had developed since its founding by river traders a couple of hundred years earlier. Evansville is built in a crescent shape, around a particular bend in the Ohio River. The Ohio Valley flood caused Evansville to look more like a few tiny islands scattered in a lake. But Evansville emerged as the perfect example of how emergency radio communication can and should work when all parties are doing their jobs. 

It's interesting to note that even while some of the major radio players were military or police stations, those were manned and operated by hams. For example, Ben Biederwolf (N9VAI) operated both as an amateur but also as a member of the military, coordinating stations and their collaboration/integration with ham radio. Roy McConnell (W9XEH) was the Chief Radio Engineer of the Evansville Police station. Together, Biederwolf and McConnell coordinated the use of Amateur Radio operators as well as the military, Coast Guard, and all emergency services, even including several General Electric mobile stations. These sedans, loaded with state-of-the-art ham radio equipment and staffed by members of the Schenectady (NY) ham community, proved to be immensely handy as they were high-powered but completely mobile, and could move from location-to-location to escape the rising flood waters.

Other locations facing the worst of the flooding included Cairo, Illinois and Paducah, Kentucky. Unfortunately, Cairo had no hams or broadcast stations, and they were in serious trouble. Two mobile operators came to their aid . . . Bob Riseling (W9BJE) and Pete Sawyer (W9UWL) brought their gear and set up shop for 11 days until the Coast Guard could get one of their stations set up in the area. They put out the needs and emergency requirements of the Cairo area and handled close to 400 pieces of official traffic during their efforts.

The ARRL Editorial

I would like to close this issue of Trials and Errors by providing to you one of the single best editorials I've ever read from the ARRL, which was published right after the great 1937 Ohio River Valley flood.  Read it over yourself and see if you -- like me -- find yourself agreeing and wanting to pat on the back the amateur operator who wrote this for the ARRL. It is indeed empowering, and just another piece of evidence that we are better together with the support of one national organization like the one we have, than we would be as separate entities in a world that would love nothing more than to limit our frequencies and operating freedoms:

“As one result of the great floods earlier this year, the Federal Communications Commission has sent two investigators into the area to study emergency communication requirements and is now to receive a report from them which, rumor says, will recommend a complete national disaster communication system involving both wire and radio. What aids or what dangers such a program may offer to amateur radio? It is too early to say, but in any event the subject is important.


We hope that all concerned will bear in mind that amateur radio’s important contributions to emergency communication are not susceptible to regimentation. In the first place, the very participation of an amateur is voluntary. In the second place, our unique ability to serve derives primarily from our vast numbers and the fact that there will always be some of us in a position to help.


An emergency is, by nature, an unpredictable thing, and it will never be devoid of confusion. Improvements can be made, of course, and we believe in broad-gauge advance planning, but any attempt to detail specifications of what stations will handle what classes of traffic for whom is doomed to failure and would choke off our performance ability in a tangle of red tape. Better confusion and duplication than that precious relief be endangered by paper rules.


The amateur’s aid in the recent emergency was a mighty one. We are proud of our fellows. We find pride, too, in the weight of this demonstration of the wisdom of the national policy of encouraging amateur radio. We do not propose to lose those advantages by having amateur radio subordinated to any other agency in time of emergency. We can do the job better alone and that is how we want to do it. The very greatness of our performance early this year now attracts many agencies who would like to commandeer, direct us, and so on. Let them understand that this service comes from us, of our own volition as free agents. We shall want to help them all as much as we can, but of our own accord and not by direction. There are important improvements that need to be made in our planning and coordinating but they are interior problems of amateur radio, and the job is to be done only by us amateurs within our own structure.” - Kenneth B. Warner, ARRL, W1EH


Powerful words, eh?


73 for now,




Have a comment? See what others are saying now in our Forum discussion!


Dave Jensen, W7DGJ

Dave Jensen, W7DGJ, was first licensed in 1966. Originally WN7VDY (and later WA7VDY), Dave operated on 40 and 80 meter CW with a shack that consisted primarily of Heathkit equipment. Dave loved radio so much he went off to college to study broadcasting and came out with a BS in Communications from Ohio University (Athens, OH). He worked his way through a number of audio electronics companies after graduation, including the professional microphone business for Audio-Technica.  He was later licensed as W7DGJ out of Scottsdale, Arizona, where he ran an executive recruitment practice (CareerTrax Inc.) for several decades. Jensen has published articles in magazines dealing with science and engineering. His column “Tooling Up” ran for 20 years in the website of the leading science journal, SCIENCE, and his column called “Managing Your Career” continues to be a popular read each month for the Pharmaceutical and Household Products industries in two journals published by Rodman Publishing.

Articles Written by Dave Jensen, W7DGJ

This page was last updated October 12, 2023 15:49