Southern Illinois History Page

Bob Anderson and the Flood of 1937

Calling CQ: Adventures of Short Wave Radio Operators

    NEW YORK (1941) — Bob Anderson was born wise in the ways of the river. He was born at Wickliffe, Ky., five miles below Cairo, Ill., where the broad Ohio, itself swollen by the Wabash and the Tennessee, flows into the mighty Father of Waters.
    From childhood he learned to know the river. The Anderson family lived on a high bluff, well above any possible flood danger; but past their doorstep flowed the river, calm and placid when autumn leaves were falling, surging in turbulent unrest when the spring torrents run.
    Every major flood since 1913, when he was seven, was part of Bob Anderson's experience. He worked with the workers and listened to the river talk. He learned to know the spirit of the river by its sound and by the eternally changing expression on its face. He saw it in the spring when curling fingers of yellow water invaded the streets of the villages and filled the basements and the houses and the land. And then he saw the brown silt that the river left over the soil when it went away again, rich, brown food to make plants grow luxuriantly green and strong.
    But most of all he learned to know the danger in the river and the inexorable way its imponderable might discards the puny works of man.
    Bob Anderson learned to know radio too. At first it was his deep love for music that led to his interest in radio. For radio could bring a small-town boy the great music he could hear in no other way.
    In 1923 or thereabouts he built his first radio receiver. He had never heard or even seen a radio set before but he found out how to build one and then he built it and made it work. After that he built another, and still others each time finding out more about what made them work and why. Soon he was able to fix the neighbor's receiver when it failed, and before long the whole community brought its radio sets to him to repair.
    In 1926 Bob entered the University of Kentucky and majored in industrial chemistry. His father was a lawyer, and his mother had been a teacher, and they were determined to give him every opportunity within their means. Bob helped out by building and servicing radio receivers while he was at school. He sang in a choir and served as student assistant in the chemistry department. But at the end of two and one half years a throat ailment forced Bob to leave school.
    After that the depression came, and he never returned. Radio-service work had been more a hobby than anything else before but now it became a profession. In the course of time Bob married. With his new bride he moved to Paducah, Ky. There Robert, Jr, was born and there he worked as a serviceman until 1934. In that year a wholesale radio and refrigerator firm in Harrisburg, Ill., offered him the job of service manager, and he accepted.
    There in Harrisburg Bob Anderson made a home and played the piano and the organ and built and rebuilt the various pieces of equipment in his amateur station. There Elizabeth was born.
    And there he was when the river began to rise in the month of January 1937.
    Harrisburg, county seat of Saline County, is an inland town. It is well back from the Ohio River which is something like twenty-two miles away at the nearest point. But by January twenty-second the river, amplified by the inflow of the Wabash, had searched out low spots that led its muddy tentacles right up to the gates of the city. Large sections of southern Illinois were inundated. The region colloquially termed "Little Egypt" was rapidly becoming a vast lake--and inland sea, fifty miles wide, studded with islands as high spots occurred but shoreless farther by far than eye could see. Many of the smaller communities along the river were surrounded with water, isolated, cut off by road and by wire, accessible only by boat--and by radio.
    At Harrisburg particular concern was felt for the inhabitants of Shawneetown, a small community with a population of about fifteen hundred, located on the Ohio River not far below the junction of the Wabash and the Ohio. Twenty-three miles east of Harrisburg, Shawneetown is one of the oldest cities in the state of Illinois, historically interesting because at one time it refused the then struggling city of Chicago a loan from its bank. The city fathers said Chicago was too far from Shawneetown ever to amount to anything!
    Shawneetown was protected from flood by a levee system similar to those built by other river towns--a sixty foot flood wall surrounding the village on the river side. To the rear, however, it was unprotected, andit was this fact that made the plight of its people seem perilous. For its citizens, feeling secure behind their sturdy wall, would not be aware of the steady encroachment of the backwater. Soon they would be starnded in the midst of a turbulent sea. . . .
    Bob Anderson knew the river. As early as January twenty-first he foresaw the approaching emergency. When the rain began freezing he called on Curtis Small, editor of the Daily Register, and discussed the situation with him. Then he went to the local broadcasting station, WEBQ, where his friend Kes Schonert was on duty.
    "Hello, Bob!" Schonert greeted him. "Sit down and rest yourself."
    "Thanks, Kes."
    "How's the weather looking?"
    "Not so good, Kes," Bob said. "That's why I came over. Ice is forming on suspended objects. You know what that will do to the wire lines."
    "I'll say I do!"
    "I just talked to Curt Small. He's going to call on us to handle press if the tickers go out tommorow. Can we get on the air if the sleet gets our antennas?" Bob asked.
    "Sure we can," Kes replied decisively. "Did Curt have anything to say about the river?"
    "Yes. He's worried about Shawneetown. He sent a reporter down there but he isn't too sure he can get through. The telephone is out now, but he's expecting a reporter named Hill to get in from Centralia this afternoon. This guy Hill has a complete portable station and shouldn't have much trouble establishing communication. That'll help that situation."
    "Good enough. Say, Bob, how long will it take you to get on the air?"
    "Several hours, Kes, I guess. I am going to lay off this afternoon and work on the rig."
    "You haven't got a portable outfit, have you?"
    "No, but my exciter will work by itself as a transmitter, and I can borrow one of those new six-volt all-wave farm receivers from the store. I suppose I could get a portable outfit together if I had to."
    "That's the stuff, Bob. You know my rig isn't very portable--except maybe in a big truck!"
    "Yeah, I suppose that's true. But it would make a mighty fine base station, and you know that's gosh-awful important too."
    "Guess you're right. Well, Ive got to get my antenna back up. That sleetstorm the other day made an awful mess of it. What say we meet on 3920 as soon as I get off duty here?"
    Anderson and Schonert worked on their gear until midnight. When Bob told his wife what he was doing she looked at him for a moment, saying nothing. But as she left the room a few minutes later she turned back to remark: "If you think you're going into that flood, Bob, you're crazy."
    The next morning the Andersons' telephone rang. "Hello, Bob. Curt Small just called. He said the AP reporter was sent to Cairo instead of Shawneetown and wants to know if we can establish communication with Shawneetown."
    "Sure thing, Kes. Tell him I'll take my portable down."
    "How soon can you start?"
    "Oh--by noon, tell him."
    "Good. Curt is working for the Red Cross and he'll arrange transportation."
    "Fine. I'll see you before I leave."
    "O.K., Bob. So long."
    Bob went home and told his wife he was going to Shawneetown. She did not speak for a moment and then she said quietly, "All right, Bob. When do you start? I'll have a good hot meal ready for you just before you get ready to go. It may be a long time before you get a chance to eat again."
    She was right. It was eighteen months before Bob Anderson was able to eat a regular meal again.
    Bob gathered his improvised transmitter, the battery receiver, spare batteries and other parts and loaded it all in the small truck provided through Curt Small's aid. He stopped to arrange schedules and a working program with Kes Schonert. They shook hands, and he set out. it was one o'clock on the afternoon of the twenty-second.
    Following a roundabout route, Bob traveled northeast to Eldorado and thence to Equality. the temperature was twelve degrees above zero, and snow and sleet were falling heavily.
    Outside Equality he was halted by water over the road--a swirling current of water so dangerous that the two local rivermen he found there refused to take him across. "Why, a fish couldn't live in that there river the way it is now," one of them ridiculed his request. They told of having refused to take an Associated Press reporter across before even though he had offered them all the money he had with him.
    But when Bob explained that he had radio equipment for isolated Shawneetown the spokesman looked quickly at the other man and then said, "Why didn't you say so? Get in--let's go."
    They loaded Bob and his gear aboard and at length, by dint of skillful, strenuous rowing, they succeeded in crossing the treacherous stretch of water without mishap.
    The boatmen set him down on the edge of a lonely road. There was no one in sight. Anderson finally succeeded in locating a farmer who transported him three miles further. This put him at the water's edge near the Midcity coal mine.
    From the coal mine to Shawneetown one telephone wire remained intact, and Bob was able to talk to the isolated city.
    WPA officials were in charge at Shawneetown. It was learned that the city was out of bread, that conditions were bad and hourly growing worse. Anderson wanted to set up his radio gear to relay this information back to Harrisburg from the coal mine office, but the officials insisted that he continue. They promised to have a boat at the next gap, a mile and a half away, to meet him.
    This mile and one half of water was even worse than the stretch he had just crossed. It seemed impossible to go further. Bob was beginning to despair, but then about this time a bread salesman from Eldorado came along. There were two hundred and fifty loaves of bread in his truck. Informed of the food shortage at Shawneetown, he offered to contribute his stock. Together they loaded up a small boat and started out. So heavy was the cargo, however, that the boat nearly capsized. The two men had a close escape.

        Eventually a boat originally constructed for use with an outboard motor--but with the motor missing--was located, and Anderson and the breadman set out. They had one paddle between them. Fortunately, the wind was with them, and they succeeded in crossing to the next high spot without great difficulty.

        This high spot was a railroad crossing near Junction--the last community before Shawneetown. There they found a deserted house and eleven marooned people--including a just-married bride and groom--clinging together in the bitter cold on the B.& O. tracks. This was the point where the boat from Shawneetown was to meet Anderson, but there was no boat. Between the crossing and Shawneetown stretched six miles of open water--the main current of the Wabash, impassable in their unwieldy craft with only one paddle. Equally impassable was the crossing back to the mine, for the wind which had aided them coming out was too strong to be overcome returning.

        There was but one thing to do. Laboring in the bitter cold, with the aid of a flashlight, Anderson began to set up his equipment. It was 7:30 P.M. Sleet blowing down froze on his clothing as he worked. By eight-thirty the transmitting setup was assembled, with a short piece of dangling wire for an antenna.
    But the interference was strong, the power low, and the antenna ineffectual. Bob could not raise Schonert, patiently listening at W9HQD back in Harrisburg. Recognizing that the weakness of the system lay in the antenna, Anderson, with the aid of the other refugees, then strung up a longer and more efficient wire. By midnight they were on, the air.
    QRR! QRR! The urgent distress call of the amateur air lanes went forth on the air.
    But short waves are notable for their vagaries. "Skip" effect was so great that the tiny signal was inaudible at Harrisburg, twenty miles away. However, off in Louisville, itself disaster ridden, Bob LaVielle, W9ELL, was able to hear both stations. He offered to relay the traffic. At 1:30 A.M. the first clear message came through in steady code:
    "Shawneetown needs food bad. All medical supplies."
    "Go ahead, old timer, down there in the water," W9ELL answerd. Slowly, painfully, the information was pounded out. Harrisburg wanted details--wanted Anderson to send someone to find out just what was needed.
    "Send somebody, hell--you send somebody for us," came his desperate reply, and then for the first time they learned of the critical situation at Junction. In typical ham spirit. Anderson's first concern had been for the stricken community of Shawneetown rather than his own immediate danger.
    His next message told vividly of the plight of those on the crossing. It read: "We have bread and meat. They promised boat at crossing, but haven't seen it. Tell Lieutenant B. and XYL am O.K. and warm. Am using batteries. Thirteen people with me."
    Anderson's wife--his XYL--was given the glad news that he was still safe. The next message said that "the man from Eldorado" was safe and sound and requested that his family be notified.
    "What's his name?" Schonert wanted to know. "Just say the bread salesman from Eldorado." Anderson answered. That was all he knew. They had faced death together, but he had not thought to ask the man's name.
    Throughout the next hour the 6.2 watts from the midget emergency station poured out its vital traffic. Messages were scribbled on an old newspaper and read by flashlight. Anderson's fingers were so numbed with the bitter cold he could scarcely pound his key. But still the dots and dashes marched steadily along. . . .
    After a time W9ELL broke in to say he was forced to discontinue relaying. "I've got some Red Cross work to do myself," he said. The situation at Louisville was getting bad. . . .
    Bill Lamb, W8CXR, in Wheeling, West Va., took over as intermediary in his place. Now the messages were traveling close to a thousand miles to cover seventeen--but still they went through.
    The batteries attached to Anderson's transmitter grew steadily weaker however. The storage battery barely held out until the last of the messages was clear. At 3 A.M. it was dead.
    At 3:25 A.M. W8CXR reported: "He seems to have dropped out of the picture. His carrier is no longer there. Looks bad for the boys there. . . .
    But W9HQD had a solution. Besides being a skillful amateur he was chief engineer of the local broadcasting station at Harrisburg, WEBQ. Over this station--despite the hour--he broadcast a plea to the general public requesting that rescue boats and supplies be sent to Shawneetown and Junction. By dawn boats were on the way.
    In one of those boats was Jack Hatfield, also from Harrisburg. He had been trying to reach Shawneetown but had been forced to stop along the way and so he had heard the WEBQ broadcast. When Hatfield learned that his friend Bob Anderson was stranded on the ridge he set out in his small motorboat, bent on rescue. Before daybreak he arrived at the cold and lonely railroad crossing.
    The first job was to rescue the thirteen shivering refugees. Hatfield loaded the young bride and the radio equipment in his boat on the first trip back to the mine. In the darkness and confusion Anderson dropped his message file and some parts from his equipment; they were never found.
    Following in Hatfield's wake, Anderson and seven of the remaining men decided to attempt the trip back in the powerless powerboat. Two of the men had rubber boots. When the rest had boarded the boat they waded alongside, pushing it through the shallow water. Finally the icy water reached their boot tops.
    As the two men climbed into the boat one remarked slyly: "I think a snake bit me." He pulled a bottle out of an inside pocket and took a long pull on it. The other man laughed and replied: "Shouldn't wonder. The river is full of snakes tonight," and reached for his quota of the snake-bite cure.
    Such exchanges as these lightened the hazardous trip. They tried to follow the highway as closely as possible, since the water was not as deep there as elsewhere. This presented considerable difficulty, however, since the wind kept blowing the boat over into the deep water. Once they saw a lone road marker just showing above the swirling water: KEEP TO THE RIGHT ON HILLS AND CURVES.
    Someone in the boat yelled out: "Hey, look out! You're driving on the wrong side of the road!"
    Despite the relieving humor it was a ghastly trip. The men frantically bailed water from the leaky boat and rowed desperately against the powerful wind.
    At length they arrived. Back at the mine Anderson again set up his station. Equipped with a fresh storage battery, he was on the air again at 6:30 A.M. He operated until noon when telephone service was restored across the intervening distance to Harrisburg.
    By this time Jack Hatfield had beaten a three-mile lane through the heavy ice--an amazing performance in a boat with a 5/8-inch cypress hull--and he and Anderson dismantled the radio equipment then took it to Shawneetown. They reached the isolated city about 5 P.M., set up the gear and established communication immediately. No traffic was handled, however, because the telephone line to the Midcity mine was still open. Anderson went to bed on the operating table about midnight--his first rest in forty hours of strenuous activity and strain.
    Next morning the telephone line was gone completely, and W9MWC again was on the air, handling all the relief traffic for the city.
    The WPA officials in charge at Shawneetown provided Anderson with complete facilities. They supplied a table in a local bank building where he could work and a petite blond stenographer named Penelope Lewis to take incoming messages by shorthand.
    Miss Lewis was as efficient as she was attractive. She helped Anderson in many ways--brought his food, helped locate radio supplies and became an invaluable assistant. She even secured a badly needed pair of trousers. Leaving the Midcity mine, Bob fell on the ice and tore his trousers at the knee. By the time he landed at Shawneetown this rent was enlarged until it reached from his boot top to his belt, exposing a considerable expanse of heavy woollen underwear. No one seemed to notice it, and he disregarded the lapse until the station was on the air and the pressure somewhat relieved. Then he asked where he could get some pants. Penelope replied: "I've been wondering how long you were going to run around like that," and disappeared. A few minutes later she returned with replacements from the relief stores.
    The river continued to rise steadily, and it became obvious that Shawneetown could not be saved. Reports from up the river made it clear that the water would rise above the levee. Every citizen of the small community must be evacuated. But where? There was no place to which they could be taken in Illinois. Two thirds of Gallatin County was under water. The situation was growing desperate. Some five hundred refugees had been taken to the Shawneetown High School, situated on a high spot a mile and one half from the city. There each of the human beings, not counting dogs, had about nine square feet of floor space in which to exist for a period of four days--the last two days without food, water or medical supplies. Quite apart from the rest of the city, something must be done to relieve this intolerable situation. . . .
    Finally, in response to radio pleas, a large steamer, the SS Patricia Barrett, arrived, on the twenty-fourth. Early Monday morning everyone in Shawneetown was ordered to the boat. The refugees were all safely evacuated to points in Indiana and Kentucky; not a single life was lost.
    The emergency over in Shawneetown, Bob Anderson prepared to return home. It was about time. As the USS Vandenburg arrived at Harrisburg from Shawneetown on Tuesday morning after an all-night run with Anderson aboard he was completely exhausted. From Friday morning until Monday night he had slept less than ten hours--and that on a hard table with his clothing on.
    But when he arrived at Harrisburg he found Kes Schonert badly overloaded at W9HQD, which was a key station for the entire southern Illinois area. Bob returned to stand his "trick" on watch there ten hours a day for over a week. Then one morning he climbed one of Schonert's ice-covered seventy-foot steel towers to make an adjustment on the antenna. He climbed down again, drove his family to the hospital for typhoid inoculations and there conveniently collapsed.
    After being hospitalized for two days he was put to bed at home for another week. The terrific mental and physical strain had taken its toll. Anderson's sensitive, introverted nature--belying his husky physique--could withstand no more.
    It was eighteen months before he recovered fully from the ravages of that amazing odyssey in which his indomitable will drove him from danger to danger until there was nothing left to drive.
    To Bob the saddest part of all his illness was that he was still too sick to do full justice to the epicurean presentation luncheon at the Waldorf in New York City when he received the Paley Trophy. But this was partly compensated by the presentation citation in which William S. Paley summarized his performance when making the award:
    On behalf of the Board of Awards I present this to you ... for meritorious performance during the 1937 Ohio River flood from January 22 to January 25 ... for proceeding with your amateur shortwave equipment from Harrisburg to the relief of the isolated inhabitants of Shawneetown, twenty-three miles away ... for transporting this equipment in the height of a blizzard, in a small open boat, over great areas of water running at flood force ... for setting up your transmitter in a raging storm at twelve degrees above zero and establishing the first communication direct with relief agencies ... for the exercise of extraordinary perseverance and ingenuity at the risk of your own life in bringing relief to eleven marooned people near Junction, sending food and supplies to the fifteen hundred isolated inhabitants of Shawneetown and bringing about their eventual evacuation ... for cooperating unceasingly with the military and civil authorities through more than forty hours of intense activity without sleep and then again manning your station and again serving the entire southern Illinois area with the transmission of official communications throughout the duration of the emergency ... and, finally, because throughout these activities you exemplified the highest standards of amateur radio operation.

The above is Chapter 3 of Clinton B. DeSoto's 1941 book published by Doubleday, Doran, & Co., of New York. Shortwave radio operator and history buff Jeffrey L. Davis has transcribed the book and uploaded it at his CallingCQ website for those of you who would like to read the whole thing.
Created and Written July 9, 1999 by Jon Musgrave