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"Wavescan" is a weekly program for long distance radio hobbyists produced by Dr. Adrian M. Peterson, Coordinator of International Relations for Adventist World Radio. AWR carries the program over many of its stations (including shortwave). Adrian Peterson is a highly regarded DXer and radio historian, and often includes features on radio history in his program. We are reproducing those features below, with Dr. Peterson's permission and assistance.

Wavescan N351, November 15, 2015

The World's Smallest Radio Island: Another Tin Can Island

Back in the year 1861, the British government issued a decree in which the definition of an island was described. This government decree stated that any small dot projecting above the surface of the ocean may be described as an island, if there is an inhabitant living on it, or if there is sufficient pasturage for just one sheep. That means then, that Willis Island, off the eastern coast of Australia, is therefore officially classified as an island.

Willis Island lies in the Coral Sea some 300 miles off the eastern coast of Queensland and out beyond the furthest edges of the Great Barrier Reef. A little cluster of small islands and cays stretches for 7-1/2 miles running northwest-southeast, and Willis Island is the third and last island to the south.

Willis Island is aligned in the same northwest-southeast direction; it is an elliptical island around 1600 feet long and 500 feet wide, with the highest prominence at an elevation of just 30 feet. There is very little growing on the island, though it is described as a very noisy island with the cackles and the calls of numerous birds, day and night. The Booby Gannet can dive and catch and swallow flying fish, and the Frigate Bird can squabble with the Booby Gannet, thus making it disgorge its recently caught prey, which then becomes food for the aggressor.

This little island was discovered in 1853 by Captain Pearson aboard the ship "Cashmere," and it was named "Willis" in honor of the owner of the ship. Seven years later, the island was surveyed by Captain H. M. Denham aboard the royal navy vessel HMS "Herald," and in more recent times it was absorbed into the Australian Coral Seas Island Territory. Willis is Australia's (and the world's) smallest inhabited island, and you could take a leisurely walk around the entire island in 15 minutes.

During the year 1921, John King Davis installed a small wireless station on Willis Island, together with ancillary buildings and a residence for two personnel. This small habitation was established in order to furnish advance weather information to mainland Australia, and the entire project was under the auspices of the government Bureau of Meteorology. The term of duty back then for the two officers on this lonely and isolated island was 6 months.

The new wireless equipment consisted of a 1.5 kW spark transmitter and a crystal set receiver, together with a power generator and a wooden aerial mast. The transmitter operated on either 300 or 500 kHz for communication with the AWA maritime station VIC at Cooktown on the Queensland coast. In those days, 500 kHz was a main operating channel, simply because it was the natural resonant frequency of an untuned antenna on an average sized ocean going vessel.

The official opening day for the new wireless station with the irregular callsign CGI was November 7, 1921, and the event was celebrated by raising the Australian flag on the radio mast.

In 1928, Eric Riethmuller built a small shortwave transmitter at the York Street facility of AWA in Sydney, and he took this equipment to Willis Island for use during his term of service. Thus, voice communication in addition to messages in Morse Code was enabled by the operators at station CGI on Willis. This transmitter operated on 32 meters shortwave.

Three years later, AWA took over station CGI and they incorporated it into their widespread Coastal Radio Network which spanned the entire continent of Australia, and beyond throughout the islands in the South Pacific. At this stage, the callsign on Willis was regularized to VIQ, a callsign that was held previously on Macquarie Island; and at the same time, AWA extended the term of service to one year.

In 1934, Paddy Whelan began a year long stint as the radio operator on Willis Island, together with meteorologist R. MacKenzie. Whelan, whose home was apparently in country Queensland, was already an amateur radio operator with the call VK4KR. He took his own amateur radio equipment to the island, and also a bundle of gramophone records.

Soon after he arrived on the island, Whelan began a series of radio broadcasts over his own small transmitter in which he played records and made station announcements. These broadcasts were radiated with a power of 10 watts on 1185 kHz under his home callsign VK4KR. In those days, it was not only legal for an amateur radio operator to make out-of-hours program broadcasts on mediumwave, but they were encouraged to do so.

A listener in New Zealand, the well-known Merv Branks at Winton in the South Island, heard one of these low power radio broadcasts and he sent a reception report to the station. In due course, Branks received a QSL letter of confirmation, perhaps the only QSL ever issued for these special program broadcasts from lonely isolated Willis Island. This unique QSL letter is held in the archives of the Hocken Library in Dunedin in the South Island of New Zealand.

Beginning in 1933, the very new passenger/cargo ship Malaita 2, began a regular periodic voyage from Sydney, up to New Guinea and nearby islands, and then back again to Sydney, a six week double journey. As the ship passed Willis Island, sealed cans containing mail, newspapers and food packages, were tossed into the ocean, and the resident operators on the island would go out in a canoe to retrieve the floating tin cans.

It was subsequently estimated that the islanders were able to retrieve about 50% of these highly prized deliveries over the years. Even to this day, envelopes rubber stamped with the ship name, Malaita, and Willis Island delivery, are valuable collector's items. This delivery of mail by throwing a sealed Tin Can into the ocean was in vogue in earlier years at three other widely separated locations: Cape Race in Newfoundland, Cocos Island in the Indian Ocean, and Niu'afoou in the Tonga group in the South Pacific.

During World War 2, it was initially thought that the staff on Willis Island could be in danger due to an attack from an enemy submarine. However, it was subsequently discovered that the Japanese had deciphered the coded weather messages, and they used the information to their own advantage. Thus, Willis Island was safe.

The facilities on Willis Island were completely rebuilt in the early 1950s; and then in 1957 Cyclone Clara severely damaged the station with the onslaught of wind gusts rated at 125 mph.

While repairing the damaged facilities in the aftermath of Clara, shortwave voice equipment completely replaced the usage of Morse Code. Then eight years later again, the transmitter equipment was changed to SSB single side band operation.

Sometime during the year 2009, a passing cruise ship was in radio communication with Willis Island, and the radio operator on the island made a special radio broadcast to the ship, giving the long and interesting history of the island. This broadcast from the island was received aboard the ship, and the programming was fed into the ship's public address system for the benefit of all passengers.

Another cyclone, this time in 2011 and named Yasi, buffeted the island with wind gusts up to 115 mph and this time the impact of wind and wave modified the shape of the island. It took nearly a year to bring all of the island's radio and weather equipment back to par.

Over the years, among all of the 250 people who have served on Willis Island, only four women have been granted this opportunity, and these were: Denise Allen 1983 & 1984, V. G. Woolley 1984 & 1985, C. Spry 1989 & 1990, E. Foley 1991, 1992 & 1994.

We might add that Denise Allen subsequently joined an expedition to Antarctica in her role as a trained meteorologist. It would be interesting to learn as to whether E. Foley who served on Willis Island in the 1990s was in some way related to Eileen Foley who was the manager and announcer for the shipboard radio station VK9MI aboard the Kanimbla in the 1930s.

These days, the facilities on Willis Island are quite up-to-date and modern, with many of the same amenities you would find in the homes on the Australian mainland. You can take a picturesque two minute aerial tour of Willis Island on YouTube by clicking on Willis Island Aerial View.