By Clark Fair
In 1964, when amateur Ham radio operator Zilla Maile wanted a new, state-of-the-art radio, she knew the man to contact: Al Hershberger, owner of Hershberger’s Radio and TV store in Soldotna.
What Maile didn’t know was the important role that synchronicity and her new radio would play during one of the most memorable events in Alaska history.
Maile owned and operated The Yarn Shop, a storefront that had been built onto her home just across the playground from Soldotna Elementary School. (Her home, which she shared with her husband, Justin, and their son, Larry, also partly consisted of Soldotna’s original post office.) In one section of the house were three small rooms — Larry’s bedroom, a guest room and Zilla’s radio room.
Larry called his mother “sort of a hobbyist” in the radio world. “When we were kids, she used to spend evenings in her radio room talking to people across the country,” he said. “She also made contacts in Europe, but usually those only worked given specific weather conditions that allowed the signal to skip.”
In Zilla’s radio room was a 2-meter Heathkit used strictly for local communication, and an older radio that could communicate only through Morse code and was used when Maile had her Novice Class license. After she moved to the Advanced Class license, she desired a more sophisticated radio — thus the visit to Hershberger, a licensed dealer for Hallicrafters electronics.
One of the best Ham radios commercially available at that time was the Hallicrafters SR-150 Ham transceiver, a radio combining a transmitter and a receiver in a single unit. Maile put in an order with Hershberger and waited for her new radio to arrive.
Although she didn’t know it — in the pre-digital age in which package tracking was lacking — her new
radio was destined to arrive on March 27, 1964. In fact, it did arrive that day, but nobody — not even Maile herself — paid it any mind. All of the residents of Alaska had more important things to consider.
At 5:36 p.m. on March 27, Southcentral Alaska was wracked by the largest earthquake ever recorded in U.S. and North American history. The Good Friday quake devastated several coastal towns, including Seward, Whittier and Valdez, and caused (directly and indirectly through tsunamis) more than a hundred deaths in the state.
In Southcentral Alaska, the phone system crashed, and power failures knocked out the lights. And with communication in and out of the state hampered, residents of the Lower 48 (many of whom had relatives in Alaska) could not find reliable information about the natural disaster that some feared had wiped out the entire Kenai Peninsula.
In Soldotna, the city’s civil defense director, George Denison, went into action. Among his first moves was contacting Hershberger and large-appliance dealer, Ed Back, and asking them to bring their Ham radio equipment down to the Sky Bowl, the local bowling alley and coffee shop (already a popular local gathering place, and where owner, Burton Carver, had a generator). Denison wanted Hershberger and Back to set up their equipment and attempt to re-establish communication with the outside world.
Hershberger, whose home then was about where the midpoint of the Central Peninsula Mall parking
lot is now, had been trying to figure out how bad and how widespread the damage was. Hauling a portable radio outdoors, he had attempted to locate Anchorage radio stations and found them all off the air. Then, on his Ham radio, he heard a mayday signal from Valdez, and he realized that the destruction had been significant.
Back, who lived just a little farther away, arrived at the Sky Bowl shortly after Hershberger. They set up Hershberger’s equipment first in a small room and strung his 120-foot-long antenna outside, affixing the end of it to the rearview mirror of a conveniently parked school bus. For that first evening, Hershberger said, they used his radio to establish communications.
Thus began a round-the-clock vigil for the two men. They sent hundreds of messages to people all over the country, assuring them that the peninsula still existed and that most of its residents were a little shaken up but otherwise doing fine.
While their public service continued, serendipity stepped in.
“As more and more people kept coming there (to the Sky Bowl),” Hershberger said, “I spotted Chet Wilhelm, who was a driver for Tachick Freight Lines. He had just come from Seward and was on the flats the other side of Sterling when the quake hit. Had he been on the other side of Cooper Landing he would not have been able to get here.”
The Cooper Landing bridge over the Kenai River had been destroyed by the action of the earthquake, severing traffic flow until the military later erected a temporary bridge.
Hershberger asked Wilhelm if he had any freight for his electronics store, and Wilhelm said he did. “I asked him it was from Hallicrafters. He thought it was. ‘Can you get it for me?’ ‘I’ll try.’ It was in the middle of the truck full of freight, but he did get it, and we set it up the next morning in the bowling alley.”
The new radio was Maile’s SR-150, and since it was a big improvement over his own equipment, Back used the SR-150 to make contacts throughout Alaska for several days.
Then, once area electrical power had been restored, Hershberger hauled his own equipment back to his home, where he had a larger antenna and a more powerful amplifier for his transmitter.
For their service to Alaska, Hershberger, Back and other Ham radio operators around the state were later honored with a commemorative U.S. Postal Service stamp. Altogether, tens of thousands of messages were handled by operators in the days after the quake.
Back, Hershberger and Maile — along with other area residents, such as John Richards and Glenn and Clarice Kipp — were members of the Moose Horn Amateur Radio Club. According to Hershberger, the club started at the Wildwood Army Station sometime in the 1950s and was known originally as the Wildwood Station Amateur Radio Club.
Since Wildwood was involved in communications, many Ham operators were stationed there. The Wildwood club was originally all military, but it was opened later to civilians. After the Army, and later the Air Force, departed Wildwood, only civilians were left in the club, and Kenai resident Clarice Kipp suggested the new name.
Annually, the club participated in field day activities, designed to promote disaster preparedness by erecting a series of mobile towers, generators and other equipment, and then spending 24 hours on the air attempting to establish as many worldwide contacts as possible during that time period.
The club, which still includes Hershberger and Back, continues to participate annually in a field day, usually setting up equipment and broadcasting from the campus of Skyview High School each summer.
Sometimes, disaster preparedness pays off.