History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
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A Submarine Cable War Tale: 1917
by Frank R. Crowther

Introduction: Hugh Crowther sends a fictionalized tale of cable work in the First World War, written by his grandfather, Frank Russell Crowther. Some background to the story is given in this introduction, together with details of Crowther’s subsequent career. The information and photographs below were provided by Hugh Crowther (as noted), with additional material from the Atlantic Cable website All America Cables archive.

Frank Crowther was born in Australia at Brighton, a suburb of Melbourne, in November 1886, and worked in the cable industry for many years. He began his career with the Pacific Cable Board, which laid the “All Red Line” in 1902. The route of the cable was Bamfield, Vancouver Island, Canada - Fanning Island - Fiji - Norfolk Island. From Norfolk Island, two cables were laid. One went to Southport, Queensland, Australia, with a landline to Sydney, while the other landed at Doubtless Bay, Auckland, New Zealand. After two years of training Crowther worked at Suva and Fanning Island, and then at Southport.

While working for the company in Fiji he met his future wife Mabel (known as Abby), another Australian, born in Sydney. In August 1908 he sailed on the SS Marama from Sydney, Australia, to Honolulu, Hawaii, travelling alone, with his final destination listed at Fanning Island, one of the Pacific Cable’s way stations. The passage was paid by the company. His most recent place of residence at that time was listed as Suva, Fiji, and his occupation as Cable Operator. Presumably he had taken a furlough in Australia in between postings at Fiji and Fanning Island.

He continued to work for the Pacific Cable Board for a number of years; his name is listed as a member of the cable company tennis team in a 1911 news report from Beenleigh, Queensland, situated about 25 miles from the cable landing point at Southport. He left in 1911 and joined the Central and South American Telegraph Company, as a Station Electrician. The C&SA became part of the New York based All America Cables, for which Crowther was later Station Manager at locations in South America and the Caribbean.

Frank Crowther and Staff, Panama 1914
Crowther is second from left in the middle row
Photograph courtesy of Hugh Crowther

His first posting after joining the company was at Valparaiso, where he remained for three years. In 1914, at the beginning of the war, he was supervisor in Panama. While there, W.S. Buchanan recommended Crowther for the post of Traveling Technical Expert, which he held until 1918, when he returned to Valparaiso as Assistant Manager and Station Electrician. He was transferred to Barranco in 1919, his first appointment as Station Manager.

Staff listings in the company’s house magazine, the All America Review (published from 1920 to 1929), give an overview of Crowther’s career during that period. In October 1920 he was manager at Barranco, Peru; in December of that year he was at Valparaiso in Chile, but by April 1921 he was back at Barranco. In May 1922 he was on furlough in Australia, and on the 10th of that month he sailed on SS Sonora from Sydney via San Francisco to the Salina Cruz station at the southern tip of Mexico, where he relieved the acting manager.

AAC Office, Fisherman’s Point, Cuba (1924)

September 1923 found him at Fisherman’s Point (FP), Cuba. In the August 1924 issue of the All America Review, which featured a number of articles on the Fisherman’s Point station and other cable operations in Cuba, Crowther wrote an account of his career in the cable industry up until that date, which is reproduced in full at the end of this page.

A 1926 news report also lists him at FP, and 1927 found him still there and still playing tennis. This photograph, published in the May 1927 magazine, shows Frank and Mabel Crowther with members of the tennis group.

May 1927: Manager Crowther standing, at right.
Mrs. Crowther seated, second from left.

Fisherman’s Point, the cable office serving the US Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, seems to have been a long-term posting for Frank Crowther, as he is mentioned in a news report from the station in September 1928 as flying his Sports Chandler Monoplane and sailing his yacht “Number 9”. In October 1928 he left with his family for a furlough in Australia, returning to FP in February 1929 via San Francisco. And in the last issue of the house magazine, published in May 1929, he was noted as still managing the station.

Hugh Crowther notes that his grandfather visited the All America headquarters in Manhattan in 1929, where he was photographed with the President of the company and other high officials.

The photograph below, taken in 1934, shows Frank Crowther (standing at center, with jacket) at Guantanamo, Cuba, where he was then station manager. Frank’s son Jack is the boy with the dog.

All America Cables Guantanamo Station, 1934
Photograph courtesy of Hugh Crowther

Crowther retired from Fisherman’s Point to Australia in 1937, and although he was too old to serve in World War II, he insisted on enlisting and was taken on as a Corporal. His son Jimmy was a Wireless Air Gunner with the Royal Australian Air Force.

Frank Crowther died in Australia in October 1942.

Melbourne, Australia, 1941
Clockwise from bottom left: Frank, Mollie, Jimmie, Abby (Mabel)
Photograph courtesy of Hugh Crowther

From his 1924 article we know that Crowther joined All America’s predecessor company in 1911, and at the end of 1916 he was appointed Traveling Technical Expert. As noted at the beginning of this page, Hugh Crowther has the original typescript of a fictionalized tale of the cable industry written by Frank Crowther in 1917. Hugh notes that the 15-page typescript was with Frank’s papers, so it must have had considerable significance for him. The story is about cable operations during WWI, and is written in the third person about a character called “F.R. Credwor” working for the fictitious “New World Cable Co.” as a traveling troubleshooter.

“Credwor” is obviously a thinly disguised version of “Crowther,” and similarly, the cable company is All America, as the story mentions cable stations in South and Central America and Cuba. Credwor’s colleague “Norman/Nelson Perrim” (both names are used in the typescript) is almost certainly Nelson J. Perryman, who joined All America in 1915 after several years with a British cable consulting firm. Perryman rose to become Superintendent of Apparatus and Equipment by 1921, and eventually Assistant Vice President of the company before his retirement in 1950. He was stationed in Peru in 1917, so this is quite possibly the setting for the opening scene of Crowther’s story.

It seems likely that the other names used in the story were also pseudonyms for actual employees of the company at the time, but the real names have not yet been traced.

The story is reproduced in full below, with only minor editing for punctuation and spelling.

—Bill Burns



A Submarine Cable War Tale: 1917

“Hullo, F.R., when did you get back?”

First page of
the typescript

“Yesterday—glad to see you looking so fit, old man, hope your wife and son are the same— How’s the chief?”

“Everything’s OK, thank you—but old Mac is rather worried. It is just as we expected, not being able to obtain any new apparatus since the war started. Every cable is kept fully occupied day and night, operators are working as long hours as they can stand, and at the worst tropical stations some are breaking under the continued strain, but you know all that better than any of us.”

“Yes, Norman, I think I do and my job is to try and keep speeds up, while at the same time giving the men the best reading signals possible—SOME JOB with the old junk we have at most stations.”

F.R. Credwor, travelling engineer for the New World Cable Co., had just returned from a tour around various Cable Stations in South and Central America. Such was his greeting from Nelson Perrim when he returned to his desk in the chief engineer’s office. Nelson Perrim was first assistant to old Sandy MacDavid, commonly called “The chief”.

Nelson and F.R. were good friends, the former an Englishman and the latter Australian—“Dinkum Aussie” he justly claimed. The chief, as his name advertised to the world at large, was certainly nothing but a dour Scot.

There was a short pause in the conversation while the two men looked solemnly at each other, and then F.R. said—“Well, I hope the supreme muddlers of man’s destinies will allow me a few days at home this time. Two good days work should bring my reports up to date. Then sweet wifie and I shall proceed to get as much fun as possible out of the time at our disposal before ‘Yours truly’ has to amble along the long trail again.”

“Sorry to disappoint you, F.R.—look!”

“Dammit, don’t grin at me like that!”

From behind F.R. a voice spoke in Spanish—“Good morning Señor Credwor, the Chief wishes to speak to you.”

“All right, Jose. How are you and how is the family?”

“Very well thank you, Señor, and the family has grown.”

“Oh! congratulations, Jose, you mean there are—er—let me see—er—seven now.”

“No, Señor, no. My wife, she does not like odd numbers.”

“I do not understand, Jose.”

“But it is quite simple, Señor; you understand there came two boys, and six and two make eight.”

“HM! HM!”

“The chief, Señor, he waits.”

“Buzz off, F.R.,” laughed Nelson, “and that is probably what Mac will tell you to do.”

“Oh, dry up”—Credwor hastened to don his coat and left the room.

“Good morning, Mr Credwor, sit down.”

“Good morning, sir.”

“I am glad to see you looking so fit, young man. How soon can you let me have your reports?”

“I thought by tomorrow evening, sir.”

“Dinna mind what you thought.”

“Well, you could understand my rough notes with a little explanation.”

“I am sorry, laddie, there is a steamer leaving Callao the day after tomorrow for Panama. I need your help, laddie, in Cuba. Can you bring your notes and be ready with your “Little explanation”—shall we say in half at hour. Then you may have this afternoon and tomorrow off duty.”

“Yes, sir.”

Credwor felt keenly disappointed and old Sandy knew it, but neither man showed his feelings as Credwor slowly rose and left the room. Without a word he returned to his desk and sat down. Perrim glanced at him and promptly lowered his eyes to his own work. Within the prescribed half hour, Credwor pushed back his chair with an almost inaudible sigh.

“Hard luck, F.R.,” said Perrim. “Sandy has told me. There will be some apparatus to prepare for you to take with you, about ten small cases. I shall see them all packed for you if you will look the old stuff over after talking to Sandy.”

“Thanks, Norman.”

Entering the Chief’s room again, Credwor handed a neat bundle of papers to his superior officer.

“Come and look over my shoulder, laddie, and speak when you are spoken to”.

MacDavid and Perrim were both senior to Credwor, to whom they showed every consideration possible during his periodically uncertain and somewhat erratic visits to engineering headquarters for South and Central America. This department of the Cable Service had struggled hard against the great difficulties which followed the outbreak of war in 1914. Credwor had been able to see his wife and two small children only for a few days two or three times during the past two years.

 The volume of “Traffic” (a term used to indicate as a whole all telegraphic communications which had to be transmitted over the Cables) had increased almost overnight to ten times the normal amount. Then young patriotic and venturesome men began to resign, or even desert their posts, in such numbers that the staff all over the great system was seriously depleted.

In Panama, for example, it was impossible to keep all lines working 24 hours daily, for the simple reason that trained men capable of doing the necessary expert work could not be obtained. Automatic relay methods of retransmission from one cable in a chain of cables had not been perfected up to anything like modern efficiency as it is known today. The automatic telegraph methods developed for use on submarine cables were so unsatisfactory that a great deal of hand operating was necessary in conjunction with them. Operators for this purpose required special training and long experience before they could be trusted to handle efficiently and accurately such important work as that exacted for international cable communications service. The engineering staff was presented with the difficulty of obtaining for these men the best readable cable signals at the highest workable speed. In those days cable signals had to be read from what, to the layman, appears to be an extraordinary meaningless wavy line marked in ink on a strip of white paper tape. Panama was a very busy and important center.

Credwor had been station engineer at Panama. He knew. He had seen men sweltering, tired, physically and mentally exhausted struggling to finish their eight hours consecutive operating. The heartbreaking time was from 7 to 8am for the man who had been at it since midnight. In places where conditions permitted, the customary uniform was on such occasions one pair of cotton underpants.

As new telegraph apparatus, and even renewal parts for mechanical or electrical purposes, were extremely scarce, many things, wanted badly, were unobtainable, so whatever was available, however old, had to be “fixed up” and adapted to carry on the work.

Sandy MacDavid glanced over his shoulder at his travelling assistant, smiled and took up his red pencil which he poised over the younger man’s notes. After making a red mark here and there he said—“Just what are these marginal notes?”

“Only my ideas of what I think should be supplied to provide for efficient operation of cables by the Stations I have visited.”

“I see—yes—I follow your abbreviations.”

“Yes,” continued the Chief, “Mr Perrim can put these in order for me and I shall send you a copy of his resume when returning your notes.”

“Thank you, Sir”

“Oh! I know you don’t feel like thanking anybody—now listen.”

“Since this absurd war started—Hm!” (Sandy forgot himself at times) “I have not had any peace. Those men in Panama are fighting—f i g h t i n g! I said—Yes F.R.—er—I mean Mr Credwor—er—yes—You will have delivered aboard the steamer ‘Quillota’ of the Pacific Steam Navigation Company a certain number of cases, which you will take with you on your voyage to our Eastern Cuban station. Mr Perrim will attend to all details and give you any information that he can regarding the peculiarities of this somewhat worn material, and will see that the necessary papers are handed to you—in your—er—state room. You must find time, whilst you are in Panama, to call on Mr Buck (manager at Panama) and discuss with him what he thinks his practical requirements may be— er—etcetera. You will be met there by Robin—er—do you know him?”

Credwor smiled. “He must be larger than Robin Rood—I worked with him when he was accompanying the general manager during some Cable work in Panama Bay in 1914.”

“Modern stories make the King much larger in stature than Robin Hood, but—er—Mr Robin is to make some minor cable repair in Eastern Cuba, and Cuba, to say nothing of everywhere on land and sea, is at present in a state of unrest. In fact you know that there is a very nasty revolution there at present. Also, that old material which is in your care may be considered ‘Contraband’. You must also remember that the export of Telegraph material is prohibited from most countries now. On your arrival at Eastern Cuba please cooperate with Manager O’Reilly. Is everything clear to you Mr Credwor?”

“The same private code to you in case of necessity, Sir?”

“Yes”

“Thank you, Sir, I understand.”

“God bless you, my lad, I hope you do understand.”

The young man turned to depart, but was intercepted by the Chief to shake hands. An ordinary British war service card was handed to Credwor, who glanced at it and raised his eyes in an enquiring glance.

“Cable communication public service is international, laddie.”

Credwor returned home to his family quarters where his wife, small son and daughter awaited him, anxiously wondering what was about to happen next.

The children’s excitement kept father fully occupied and ridiculously happy for some time. As soon as she found an opportunity his wife asked, “Frank, how long this time?”

“Short, sweetheart, but let’s make it sweet—I wish to goodness—Oh!. What’s the use—it can’t be helped. We have only this afternoon and tomorrow and I have orders for a rather nasty journey and a job in Panama and Cuba on the main line between New York and the West Coast of South America. Forget it for the present, darling, and then we shall both carry on.”

The tall, beautiful, typically Australian girl was momentarily overcome with disappointment. They had both hoped for one of the months of long overdue holidays, but she looked up with a sad smile, which quickly brightened, said nothing, threw her arms around his broad shoulders and clung to him, trembling with an abandonment of long pent-up emotion.

Such were the homecomings, followed closely by heartbreaking farewells, for how long a time nobody knew. But they were young, with that vague hope for the future, without which little would be accomplished in this world. One might almost say—nothing would be accomplished.

S.S. “Quillota” was about to sail when Perrim ran up the gangway, found Credwor, and handed him a large bulging envelope.

“Everything is in there, Old Man. I asked the Purser and chief officer to stow our cases as usual and to show you as soon as possible where they are. One or two things which I do not remember speaking with you about this morning are mentioned in a note which I scribbled for you just before leaving the office. Good luck! F.R.— have a Cheerio! for me, see, I am at last to go ashore.”

Credwor spent much of his time during the sea voyage of ten days studying various blueprints and making rough pencil diagrams and calculations in preparation for his visit to the Panama Station. On arrival at Panama he was met by a representative of his Company with sundry cable messages, which informed him that Robin would not meet him until he arrived in Kingston, Jamaica. He was to proceed there on the same Steamer and make the best arrangements he could for transportation to Cuba. All regular steamers to the Eastern end of the island had ceased to call there on account of the revolution. The “Quillota” would be delayed two or three days on account of a “Slide” in the canal at the famous “Culebra Cut.”

During this time he was to make a special trial with an emergency circuit between Colon and Panama, which could be used in case of accidents interrupting the new cables laid in ducts near the canal. Mr Buck had made arrangements to work all night, and hoped he could hurry ashore, because there was no opportunity to do technical work during the day.

Credwor spoke to the purser, said he would rejoin the ship at Colon, made the necessary arrangements, hastily packed a suitcase, and went ashore.

They worked all night.

One of the senior operators, commonly known as Freddy, was in another part of the office performing his Midnight to 8am shift. Credwor had known him when working at Panama previously. Both finished work at 8am.

Credwor walked up and pretended to assist Freddy to get up from his chair.

“Go easy, F.R. My legs will not straighten out in one flop. Glad to see you again.”

“Get dressed, Freddy, and come and have coffee—where are your shoes?”

F.R. proceeded to look under the table.

“Don’t be an ass you know the uniform for this shift as well as I.”

“Yes, but the regulations do not call for unnecessary ventilation astern. Here’s a bit sticking to the chair. The other piece which you have on needs wringing out & hanging out to dry.”

“I am too tired to talk,” said Freddy, and, leaning heavily on F.R., limped to the dressing room.

A wash and dressing in clean whites was a distinct effort for the weary man. “Coffee” he said “is far too mild and too hot under the circumstances.”

“Anything you like,” replied F.R.

They chatted and joked amicably while they had coffee and rolls followed by a whiskey and soda.

“How is the art?” said F.R.

Freddy had a natural talent for “Kareekat” drawings, as he called them, in pencil or crayon.

“I have no energy nor ambition now-a-days—but perhaps you will be my inspiration.”

They parted, each to try and sleep for a few hours.

At about 5pm Credwor heard a whispering outside his door, followed by a very soft knock. “Come in,” he groaned sleepily.

The Hotel boy entered.

“Who was there” asked Credwor.

“The Señor was listening and looking at your door, so I told him you must not be disturbed.”

“What did he look like”

“Big wide man, like that,” the boy illustrated with his hands, “with hair very fair and clipped short all over”

At that moment Freddy sauntered casually through the door.

“Hullo! Why look at me like that—I’m not a ghost— yet”

Credwor told him what had just happened.

“I saw the blighter” said Freddy “Have you any valuables or important papers?”

“NO! but someone might think that I have”

“Have you anything showing your movements and when and where you are going, with details regarding transhipment?”

“O.K. I shall destroy those messages etc.”

“Mister Credwor, you are invited to partake of cocktails and dinner at the batchelors’ mess as soon as you may so desire. Do not feel alarmed, there will be other married men present.
         
“I have to catch the night train to Colon, Freddy, and tomorrow being Sunday your proposed emergency circuit has to be adjusted and tried.”

“Oh we shall see you off— The invitation is most pressing.”

“All right, Freddy.”

As they arrived at the batchelors’ quarters Freddy stood imposingly to attention, and in a loud voice proclaimed—“Gentlemen, the most dishonourable wife deserter, his lowness Frank R. Credwor.”

Nine men were gathered, mostly old friends who had worked together. They drank a toast welcoming F.R. and one of them—Jimmy—said “We have a presentation, a work of art, for our old pal.”

It was Freddy’s latest drawing, which portrayed the artist himself seated at his operating desk with dishevelled hair, a small piece of his scanty clothing hanging over the side of the chair, and perspiration falling from his body in large drops. On his knees with a rag was F.R. (Large of head and small of body) mopping up the pool of moisture around the chair.

After dinner the whole party, excepting two who had to go to work, strolled along to the railway station and saw F.R. off for Colon.

The visit to Colon passed as arranged, except for one incident. The station manager there told Credwor that a man had been enquiring for him. “A big fair haired fellow,” who asked when he was expected and where he was going.

“I told him,” said the manager, “that you were expected some time soon but that as far as I knew you were simply going to adjust some cable circuit here.”

“Probably the same man who was hanging around in Panama,” returned Credwor. “Seems like one of these beastly war agents who thinks I have something of importance with me. What I have is not important to anyone except ourselves, but damage to the apparatus in some cases on board the ‘Quillota’ would considerably upset the plans of the engineering staff.”

“Well, F.R., they are getting very thorough, probably cable communication over here is not only important to our side.”

“Can you look around and see if that fellow is watching me or the wharves, and get me aboard the ‘Quillota’ without him knowing?”

The manager thought a moment and then said he could probably arrange at the Strangers Club for F.R. to be invited aboard a United States destroyer lying in the bay, and taken to the “Quillota” from there after dark. The ship would not be through the canal before dark.

This was arranged and carried out without difficulty.

Arriving on board his ship, Credwor immediately sought the Captain and told him the story.

The Quillota’s manifest says ‘Telegraph apparatus,’ said the Captain. “I hope that man does not know you are on board. From here to Jamaica is now considered a submarine area, so we have to keep our time of departure secret, if possible. We shall travel with all lights out, and remember, no smoking on deck after dark. You and a young commercial traveller are the only passengers.”

The trip was dull and monotonous. It was not made any more pleasant by the uncomfortable atmosphere of quiet watchfulness. Being shut up inside at night with every door and port closed tight kept everyone on deck in the dark until they turned in. Fretful sleep was not refreshing in stuffy cabins. Credwor wrote some reports during the day. The whole ship heaved an inaudible sigh when on the third the “Quillota” entered Kingston harbour.

The captain and commercial traveller walked up to Credwor and invited him to accompany them to dinner on shore, which he did.

The telegraph apparatus was promptly taken under customs guard, and Credwor told he could not do anything with it until he obtained a special order from the Military commander, so he left it for attention on the following morning. It was quite safe.

The three men dined, and paid a pleasant jolly visit to a cabaret. The young traveller said, “We are going to paint this town red, come along.”

“Thank you,” said Credwor, “I think I had better get a good sleep. I do not know how correct and proper I may have to be in the morning.”

“Come and see us off then,” said the captain “We have fourteen more days at least going through the real submarine zone. We cannot be ready to sail before 8 o’clock.”

“I’ll be there to wish you good luck.”

“Good night.”—“Good night.”

In the morning, after saying goodbye on board, Credwor called on the manager of the Direct Cable Co. and was introduced by him to Major X, commanding officer at Kingston.

When the situation had been explained to him the Major said—“The customs officials are acting correctly. The export of telegraph apparatus from the island is prohibited, but I can give you a special permit. The cases will have to remain under armed guard all the time they are in Jamaica. How do you propose to go to Cuba, Mr Credwor?”

“I really do not know. The United Fruit Company’s steamer on which my passage was booked is missing out the usual call at Santiago on account of the revolutionary troubles, and I must go there, unless I can go direct to Guantanamo Bay.”

“If it is of any use to you, I shall be glad to arrange for any of two or three sugar ports on the northern side of Cuba. We have cargo steamers going for sugar, but I am sorry I cannot send them to Guantanamo Bay. The only way that I know for you to go there in the near future is by one of the local schooners. Would you like me to help you manage that?”

“Do you think my instruments and condensers would be liable to be damaged?”

“Not if you watch the handling of them, unless you have very bad weather, which I hardly think likely at this time of year.”

“Very well, Major, I shall be thankful if you will help me make arrangements to go in a schooner.”

“Oh!” exclaimed Credwor. “I am to meet a man from New York named Robin and he is to accompany me; is that all right, Major?”

“Yes, certainly. I remember his arrival was reported to me two days ago.”

Returning to the hotel, Credwor found Mr Robin waiting there.

“Hullo! Hullo! etcetera” greeted a huge man with a huge voice. “Meet your bodyguard, Credwor.”

“Fine, Robin,” said Credwor. “How about an eye-opener, three openers, then as you know this place well, help me fix things up with the aid of this.”

Robin glanced at the note which the Major had given them and said—“Plain sailing—come this way, gentlemen, it is restful and refreshing in here.”

Passages were eventually booked on the so-called schooner “Carmen,” which was like a large fishing boat, about fifty feet long, clumsy looking, with a single mast, main sail and jib. There was a small cabin astern with four built-in bunks. The captain was a half-caste Negro with three others of the same ilk, plus a little black cook to complete the crew. A customs officer arrived with the precious cases on a truck, accompanied by an imposing guard of black policemen in brilliant uniforms, armed with rifles. The cargo was duly stowed away with great care and the officer departed, leaving two guards to remain until the boat sailed.

Robin, who had sailed on Cable repair ships and under various conditions, bribed the captain for the use of his bed. The trip was only supposed to take 20 hours under favourable conditions, so Credwor did not bother about a bunk, especially after ten passengers came on board. All were negroes, men, women and children. They all immediately went below so that the little cabin became stuffy and unbearable. The weather was very hot with only a light breeze.

The “Carmen” was becalmed, with the result that the trip took 3 days. The two cable men had a small supply of biscuits, sandwiches, fruit and ale. The cook made the most extraordinary soup and stew, in addition to which he had some very poor potatoes. It was difficult to tell the difference between coffee, tea and soup. In the blazing Sun, on a calm sea, with only the shadow of the sails and mast, one longed for sunset. Robin was able to get his nose alongside the porthole, and slept in a bunk in the cabin, but Credwor could not put his nose inside the cabin so se slept when he could with his head on a coil of rope. There were absolutely no sanitary conveniences. Each negro family, however carried the necessary utensil.

On the third day the captain commenced climbing the mast about every half hour. About 9am he called, “Land in sight.” What a relief!

The wind was so light that the boat did not get into Santiago harbour until afternoon, and dropped anchor among a swarm of small boats, each with a man clamoring for passengers to engage him and displaying his number on a card. These unfortunate boatmen had been unable to make a living for some weeks, because when ships ceased calling they had no work to do. Hence, they bore down on the “Carmen” like a lot of hungry wolves.

After some delay a launch arrived bearing three men in uniform—Port, Customs and Immigration officials. They talked at length about the cases of telegraph material, enquired of Credwor exactly what was in them, and quite an exciting argument was carried on in Spanish with the captain.

“Did you hear any of that, F.R.?” said Robin.

“Yes, if the Captain has no paper and cannot write, which seems to be the trouble, though I doubt his veracity,” said F.R., “perhaps I can do it for him with my portable typewriter.”

The trouble was, that before allowing anyone to land, as the “Carmen” had to be treated as a passenger ship, a complete list of passengers and personal luggage was required, and the captain only had documents for his cargo.

Finally it was arranged that Credwor should sit with his typewriter at the little table in the cabin, take each passenger in turn, and make out the lists in triplicate. Except for the odours and heat the incident gave Robin and F.R. considerable amusement. In fact the former appeared to enjoy it immensely. Here is a sample of one item on the list.

“Absolom McIntosh—Married man—British from Mandeville, Jamaica—luggage—One trunk, one basket, one bundle clothing, one chamber, two pots, one kettle, one umbrella, two chairs. Mrs. Matilda McIntosh—married woman—and child aged 2 years.”

Arriving on shore, Credwor asked to see the chief of Customs privately and informed that gentleman, a very courteous little Spanish Cuban, that these cases were going to the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, and that cable communications were of vital interest to the Allies. Any advice and assistance to help get them there would be very much appreciated.

“But certainly, señor,” said the official. “You know that Cuba declared war on the side of the Allies yesterday and it shall be my very pleasant duty to help you. The rebels are all running away now, but they have burned many bridges and sugar-cane fields, as well as destroying railway lines in places. You will have to take one train, then go by bullock cart over the fields for a few miles to get on the other train, where there is no railway station, but, my friend, a guard shall be arranged to accompany you and watch your valuable cases.”

Feeling tired, dirty, and hungry, the two men proceeded to a hotel, but first Credwor hastened to a chemist. His face was most painful, being badly blistered with sunburn.

All went well. A train took them from Santiago to a small country railway station. The boxes were deposited on the platform, with the Cuban guard (one man armed with a rifle) alongside. Four shabby looking men with cartridge belts, but apparently unarmed, walked up and commenced talking to the guard, whereupon Robin said, “Come on, F.R.,” sauntered up the platform carrying his suitcase, sat on one of the cases, and said “Good morning, señores, have a cigarette.” Each man, including the guard, accepted a cigarette, asked for matches, remarked about the weather, or said thank you, and then the four departed.

The guard requested Robin to watch the cases for a few moments. He then hurried around a corner away from the four, who, being joined by a fifth, were standing about fifty yards away. They walked to the back of the small station building in front of which Robin and Credwor were sitting on the boxes.

Robin stood up. “Put your hand in your coat pocket, F.R.,” he said.

“The beggars are coming around both sides of the building, Robin.”

“All right, F.R. I do not think they will do anything in a hurry.”

They stood, one watching each corner for a few moments. Then they heard a scuffle behind the building and immediately afterwards saw the five men walking towards the far end of the platform, endeavouring to appear quite unconcerned. Looking the other way, F.R. beheld their guard returning with six soldiers—“Thank the Lord,” he said.

“Say! F.R. you are some fixer, boy!” laughed Robin “We can thank your customs house pal for that.

Feeling very much relieved, the two watched their cases loaded on to an unsprung bullock cart.

There was one other passenger, who had been quietly watching close by. He now came up and spoke in broken English with a French accent. As all three spoke Spanish they soon became acquainted. The newcomer said he was a fellow passenger, and, judging by the cart, they were to continue travelling together. He was going to Guantanamo, might he have the pleasure of their company?

They had to walk about five miles across fields which were clear of bush, but rather rocky. There was no road. They passed through one gate and a few broken-down fences, and arrived at another railway line, but there was no train in sight.

The Frenchman, who was evidently very thoroughly acquainted with the country, said that the railway line from the point where they were waiting to Guantanamo was in such a bad state that the train could only travel very slowly. The distance was only about 20 miles, but in all probability the journey would take three to four hours.

“You will see,” he said. “It is like a ship in a rough sea.

“Would you care to walk along the line?” he continued. “We could perhaps arrive before the train. In any case we meet it and easily jump on board.”

Robin glanced at F.R. and shook his head. “We had better keep an eye on our boxes,” he said.

After a dreary wait of about an hour in the steamy heat, along came the train. It was an old country train, with an old Baltimore steam engine and an old American driver. Robin recognised the man—he had met him before in Cuba—so he spoke to him, asked about the trip to Guantanamo, was informed that they had to await some more passengers from some sugar plantation that had been burned by the rebels.

There was no hurry, and after a few moments conversation the engine driver told them, “This line has been so neglected, it is a wonder the rebels did not steal the rails. The road bed is mud, sleepers mostly rotten, and we have had rain recently. Even driving dead slow, I can not be sure of keeping her on the rails. With ordinary luck we should be Guantanamo between four and five this afternoon. It is necessary to make an early start to cover 60 miles in a day around here at present.”

“Why not build a station here?” said Robin.

“There is, or rather was, one a couple of miles along, but the rebels burned it. They also burned two bridges, one on this line and another on the Santiago line on which you came this morning. The common belief is that the so-called ‘rebels’ were paid to destroy sugar cane by burning, in order to curtail the supplies to England. The harm done to poor hard-working country Cuban families is pitiful, apart from the general destruction, which has little effect on the sugar supply as a whole but ruins a number of struggling small sugar companies and private planters.”

“Have you any idea just where the revolution was fomented?” asked the Frenchman.

The driver looked steadily at the Frenchman for a moment and then replied, “Lots of people would like to know that.”

“Have you any idea?” repeated the Frenchman.

“NO—not one that it is safe to mention.”

“I see,” continued the driver, “you have an armed guard—or is it an escort?”

“I really do not know,” replied F.R., “except that they were evidently arranged for by the chief of customs in Santiago.”

“Well, we have a number of them on the train, so you will not need yours. I shall ask our “Conductor” and their Sergeant.”

In a few minutes a young Cuban officer walked up to Credwor and told him that the line between that point and Guantanamo was entirely free from rebels, and that he would not need his escort. Credwor therefore spoke to the man who had accompanied them with his five solders, and thanked him for his help.

The train ride for that twenty miles was wonderful. Every few minutes either you fell against your next-door neighbour, or he fell against you, so they each took a separate seat. In this way they arrived at Guantanamo, which you will see if you consult a map is near the Eastern end of Cuba.

Credwor and Robin were now within reach of their Eastern Cuban Station, and manager O’Reilly had made arrangements for them so that the two men and telegraph apparatus arrived safely.

Credwor had to use his private code to his chief before he could start work. Mr O’Reilly was a fine old-time cable pioneer, but did not like a young man telling him anything. However, results obtained after three weeks, working per opportunity, were very satisfactory to both the engineering and operation staff.

“Here, young fellow” said O’Reilly one morning. “Congratulations and best wishes.” He handed Credwor a congratulatory message from New York headquarters, and an order from his chief to return to Panama. Credwor wasted no time and managed to catch a direct steamer from Havana to Panama.

Credwor was on his way home to South American headquarters. His cable to his wife reached her before the last of the letters which he had written from time to time.

Freddy greeted him with, “Good boy, F.R., everything’s fine—reading signals are better, and we have one more good man operating here.”

A special trial, with officials attending, was arranged on the chain of relays working automatically from New York, through five intermediate stations, to Valparaiso, Chile. It was reported quite satisfactory. Credwor immediately received orders from “Good old Sandy” as he thought, because the “orders” contained only one word—“Return.”

Both Sandy and Norman met F.R. before he left his ship. F.R. thought they both seemed relieved, but very thoughtful.

The old chief engineer, sensing his assistant’s unspoken enquiry, replied to it. “Perrim and I have had many talks recently. The lines are working better. A number of men have been ordered away from the front in Europe and elsewhere, and sent back to their work in Cable Companies. We have our share of them. This enables circuits to be kept working continuously, and we have been able to persuade the Traffic department not to force us to attempt working speeds that are really too high for our actual operating equipment. You do not know yet, but I shall tell you now, that the adjustments which you made were entirely good for just two weeks. Then one station had a minor breakage, necessitating a perfectly simple repair and readjustment, but, although better than previously, results are not what you showed should be obtained.

“Now the conclusion that Perrim and I have come to in our discussions is that administrative controlling authorities have failed in the past, and still are failing, to realize the essential importance of trained and experienced men. They also fail to realize that long continuous preparation is necessary to provide such men when, where, and for whatever they may be required. This does not only apply to our little organization. It is obvious in our army, navy and political institutions.

“Well,” continued Sandy, “I cannot promise, but I think you may have about two weeks’ unofficial holiday. I am sure you will require that long to complete your reports. Give Mr. Perrim anything you need sent to the office, and old Jose will take your private luggage direct to your house. I see your wife waiting on the dock, laddie. I did not bring her out in the launch because I wanted a word with you and then leave you free.”

“Cheerio, Frank!” said Norman Perrim, “See you anon—look, there she is.”

Frank and his wife will never forget those reunions after long-continued absences.


“A Submarine Cable War Tale” is copyright © 2014 by Hugh Crowther


From the All America Review, August 1924

F.R. Crowther
Manager, Fisherman’s Point

Frank Crowther in 1924

In 1902 a firm of accountants in Melbourne, Australia, suffered from my first attempts in their office until an old family friend suggested that perhaps the Pacific Cable School at Southport, Queensland, would interest me. At that time, never having been outside of my home state, the thought of a little travel certainly did excite my imagination (Southport, Queensland, is a long way from Melbourne, Victoria) and this brought me into the cable world.

After two years in the school, I was sent to Suva and Fanning Island, and afterwards back to Southport. There I finished my first term of service (six years) and in 1911 accepted an opportunity to try my luck with the Central and South American Telegraph Company.

Having put in a considerable amount of time in the Pacific Cable Station workshops and at prescribed technical studies, I came to Valparaiso armed with qualifications for Station Electrician’s work, as well as a special telegraphy diploma from the London Electrical Engineering Institute of Correspondence Instruction and I have certainly never regretted my spare time that was put into this work.

Mr. Charles Turner, Superintendent of the Southern Division, received me most kindly, and the welcome from Mr., Mrs. and Miss Turner was a great help to myself and my wife during our first experiences in foreign lands.

Mr. Turner almost at once utilized me for maintenance of working apparatus; and I gained some very useful practical experience of our system in the days when GWR working was in its infancy. In Valparaiso I relieved Mr. Armand, who was transferred to Buenos Aires, where he still is, and I have not had the pleasure of meeting my "Paisano" since.

After three years in Valparaiso, 1914 found me as a supervisor, rather green at traffic control, in Panama, when the great war burst upon us, bringing a flood of messages to our lines. The hard, continuous hand-perforating work done in those days by our operators there was splendid. I remember J. Milne, J. Booth, F. Wright, G. Linsley, C. Thomas, M. Serra, L. Moreira and others slogging at it steadily from midnight until 8 a.m., almost without a pause or a relief. One needs some training at the game to do that in such a climate!

Mr. W.S. Buchanan gained my most sincere respect and admiration during that time in Panama. It was a treat to work under him, and he was instrumental in putting forward my name so that at the end of 1916 I was appointed Traveling Technical Expert, entailing a class of work which is always a pleasure to me.

During 1917 and 1918 I visited Fisherman’s Point, San Juan del Sur, Panama, Colon, Santa Elena, Barranco, Iquique and Antofagasta, working on Duplex balances, office changes, installations of Interpolators, Heurtley Magnifiers, etc., and it was a keen disappointment to me when private matters obliged me to make desperate efforts to get settled work which, would not necessitate constant traveling.

Headquarters was displeased, but very considerate, with the result that I was sent to Valparaiso again in 1918 as Assistant Manager and Station Electrician, with a slight reduction of salary. We installed Heurtley Magnifiers at Iquique and Valparaiso during that period; which was interesting work, and I also had a good inning of cashier’s and accounting work, which I did not enjoy.

In 1919 the Company sent me to Barranco as Station Manager, and I shall always have pleasant memories of the many fine boys who came to join us at Barranco for their first experience in cable work. We did something towards developing the practical usefulness of the AP.

After furlough in 1921 I was sent to Salina Cruz, which was busy with installations and changes.

This, my first visit to Mexico, was made pleasant by sympathetic local friends, whose acquaintance taught me to speak more Spanish, as well as to play carambolas and dominoes. I must say, however, that I sadly missed the tennis court, which does not exist in the town of Salina Cruz.

The Editor asks for anecdotes. I can recall many instances of friendly cooperation at technical work and always feel keenly interested in the advancement of operators whom I have known and who have branched out as technical men. Recent years have been full of such pleasant passing friendships and when a chance occurs it gives me great pleasure to "yarn" over innumerable incidents, but I am sorry to disappoint our energetic editor by failing to include an anecdote just now.

F.R. CROWTHER.

Operating Room, Fisherman’s Point, 1924

Staff at Fisherman’s Point, 1924
Standing: Janitor, Batteryman, Katz, Alcock, F. Russell, Ernst, Quinn, Hennigar, Ingraham, Mackenzie.
Sitting: Trewick, Proudfoot, Manager Crowther, W. Russell, O'Donnell.


Notes on the history of the Fisherman’s Point Cable Station

On 25 March 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt agreed “that the Central and South American Cable Company may lay, construct, land, maintain, and operate telegraph lines of cables which having started at or near the city of New York shall land near Windward Point in the Government Reservation near Guantanamo in the Island of Cuba (such landing point to be connected by a heavy bay cable with Fisherman’s Point, where the company is granted permission to erect and maintain station buildings, the tracts for same to be selected by the Secretary of War) and at a point on the Isthmus of Panama within the jurisdiction of the United States.” This quotation is part of a document that was later implemented by a definitive license to the company, dated 6 February 1908, and signed by the Assistant Secretary of War. Copies of both documents have been obtained and are on file.

Pursuant to the above authority (and probably in advance of it) the Central and South American Cable Company laid the first cable from New York to Guantanamo Bay, and from there to Panama, reputedly in 1907. It appears that this company took over from the French company their cable facilities near Fisherman’s Point and over the years built up the Cable Station to its present status.

Fear of Cuban revolutions, and the possible cutting off of normal communications between the Naval Station and the outside world, was a factor in bringing about the license to the cable company. Both government and cable company stood to gain. In the unsettled years ahead in Cuba, the decision paid off many times.

An interesting allusion to the status of the Cable Station is found in an Opinion of the Solicitor of the Navy Department approved by the Secretary of the Navy 13 November 1915:

“…that where a private cable company had established a Station on the government reservation at Guantanamo under license from the Government and was operating not only for the profit of the Company, but also for the convenience and benefit of the Government, its position was analogous to that of an instrumentality of the Government and therefore sales of Government provisions to employees of this company might legally be authorized.”

The question naturally arises as to how a commercial enterprise like the Cable Station can legally exist on the Naval Reservation in view of the terms of the US-Cuban lease agreement. The answer is found in the preceding quotation and in the further fact that the Cable Station is a relay station between New York, Panama and other points, and does not of itself operate for profit on the Reservation.

The Central and South American Cable Company changed its name to All America Cables, Incorporated, on 15 February 1920. On 22 August 1938, it was changed to its present name: All America Cables and Radio, Incorporated.


For additional personal stories of life with All America Cables, see Captain Frederick Hack and CS All America, George S. Watson’s Remembrances of a Cable Operator, and John S. Whaley - Santa Elena Station, Ecuador

Last revised: 25 November, 2014

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