Alaska Pirates (Radio in Sitka)

In August 1982 Raven Radio had been on the air for 6 months, broadcasting from the Historic Cable House, the old Army Communications Service (ACS) center built in 1906.  I was manager of Raven Radio when two older men climbed the staircase and found themselves in my office.  They were Charles “Gil” Gilliam and Robert Horsley.  Gil had been an enlisted man and Bob an officer.  Both had been in Sitka 40 years earlier and both were an important part of Sitka radio history, in fact they were an important of American Radio History. 

Gill was a ham radio operator who had started a pirate radio station in Sitka to entertain the troops.  It was one of two pirate stations.  GAB stood for either “the gift of gab” or Gil and Bob.  Neither Suzi nor I can remember which Bob, but it wasn’t Bob Horsley because he was the officer who raided the station.  Instead of going to the brig Gil and the ringleaders of a second pirate station KRB were “merged” to form another pirate station KRAY, which was sort of official.  At least it was official as far as Fort Ray was concerned, the FCC had a different idea. 

Ultimately KRAY was brought to heel by the FCC and licensed as WVCX and was one of the first stations of the Armed Forces Radio Network.  It was honored in 1944 with a special broadcast, recorded by Bing Crosby and Eddie Cantor in Hollywood, sent to Sitka on a disc and run on the station’s birthday.  The station also had a visit from Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.

Joe Venutti, the noted jazz violinist was in the station house band when he was stationed in Sitka.  At least that’s what the Rands Sisters, a local singing group, said when I interviewed them.  There is a J Venutti on the station’s roster.

I recorded a documentary with my interviews and actual off the air recordings.  I wish I could find the tape now and digitize it.  However, Suzi took the interviews that she did, some that I did and some recorded interviews that others had done and wrote a paper for the Alaska historical Society. 

Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy at WVCX


The Story of Military Broadcasting in Alaska

and the Advent of the Armed Forces Radio Service

© Susan McClear, 1984

In 1941 Sitka and Kodiak were very small towns—isolated from the worsening world situation and the activities of what many Americans considered to be “normal” social events. Both towns were undergoing changes as the Army and the Navy began to build major installations. As an increasing number of men were assigned to these installations with the military service, the problem of boredom increased. Three different groups of GIs built unlicensed or “pirate” radio stations as their answer to boredom.

Charles Gilliam

Very little has been written about these “pirates” except for an occasional newspaper account. Fortunately, many of these men are still alive and Charles Gilliam, one of the founders of Sitka station GAB, has both saved transcriptions of several of the original programs and has traveled across the country conducting videotaped interviews with early station participants and Sitkans who remember the station. Other interviews were conducted by Dr. Larry Suid, an historian for the Department of Defense working on the history of the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service; Rich McClear, manager of KCAW in Sitka Alaska; and myself. On a grant from the Alaska Historical Commission I have been able to transcribe these interviews and they provide the main source material for this paper. [1]

Early in 1941 the services of the Alaska Communications Service (ACS) were beefed up to handle the increased communications traffic. Radio amateurs or “hams” (people who enjoy using two-way radio as their hobby) were recruited and sent north without the “benefit” of normal boot camp training and installed in Alaskan communities. Ervin Greene reports that within 21 days of enlistment he was on duty in Sitka. The men of the ACS were housed in Sitka rather than on one of the islands that were incorporated into the base and they were allowed to bring personal possessions when they came north.

Technician Fifth Class Greene had a background in broadcast radio as well as being a “ham.” He had worked for a station in northern Utah and had run a small pirate station of his own where he’d play records on a phono-oscillator. Having his equipment, Greene and a fellow “ham,” roommate Jeff Boyce, both fully aware of the potential penalties for doing so, put an unauthorized radio station on the air for something to do both for themselves and their friends. Off the air recordings were made from time to time on a portable disc recorder, the earliest of these currently available was made March 18, 1941. These give us an accurate record of what the station sounded like.

For some now forgotten reason this station was called KRB, though generally they used the term “public service radio” as an audio signature. For the most part the men played records, either purchased in Sitka or recorded off of the air from a shortwave station “in the States.” As radio drama was very popular at that time, they also aired a number of locally produced skits. Because one of the main activities of the ACS was transcribing the news for the newspaper, they also had regular newscasts. KRB was not run with a very ambitious or regular schedule, but it was well received by its Sitka audience.

Greene also reports that they set up the ham station and maintained regular two-way communications in off-hours with other Alaska duty stations until they were closed down due to the outbreak of the war. He remembers several conversations with other posts about how little there was to do, and how little radio there was, particularly in Kodiak where the nearest station was a low power one in Anchorage. [2]

The second pirate station to develop was in Kodiak. Faced with the same problems of boredom, a group of men met in the office of the finance officer, Capt. W. H. Adams, and decided to get pieces of equipment together to build a cable radio station. Their first broadcast was in September of 1941, from the day room of the officer’s quarters to the officer’s mess next door. This was “received rather enthusiastically but the so-called [radio] club.” [3]

About the same time Adams went into the ACS office in downtown Kodiak, and talked with a sergeant about the project. The sergeant suggested Adams and his group “scrounge up some material and build yourself a little broadcast station.” [4] Sergeant Bill Merritt as manager and Rule Bright with the soldering iron proceeded to do just that. They had some connections with broadcasters “in the States” who sent acetate transcriptions of programs north—complete with the original commercials. As station KODK developed, a new studio facility was built and dedicated on January 1, 1942. Possibly because it was started by officers who could help the fledgling station over the initial rough spots, radio developed a little faster in Kodiak than in Sitka. The pattern of development was, however, quite similar, moving from very small and technically very inferior to larger with some semi-official recognition. Eventually both stations received legal approval. KODK was later licensed by the Federal Communications Commission as WVCQ. After attaining full official acceptance, the station went on to larger studios that more closely rivaled commercial stations of the day. [5]

The third pirate station grew out of a second group of servicemen who were assigned to Sitka. These men were responsible for the communications system between harbor defense headquarters and the various outposts around Sitka Sound. Several of these GIs were also “hams” and a couple of the others had electronics experience. Privates Charles Gilliam and Charles D “Dowie” Green and Staff Sergeant Chet Iverson were all shipped north together. They actually smuggled radio equipment to Alaska. Since they were leaving “the States,” no personal gear would be shipped. However, a Sergeant Powell at Camp McQuade arranged for a box of electronic materials to be shipped with the military supplies. In that box was an estimated 400 pounds of radio equipment, including an amateur radio transmitter, a short-wave receiver and various other “parts and junk.” Knowing that they were going somewhere where there was not likely to be a radio store, they packed everything they could think of that might possibly be useful. Probably no one other than Sergeant Powell and the men who owned the equipment ever realized that the box contained anything other than military equipment.

These men arrived August 30, 1941, before the housing was complete. They spent the first winter in tents and, like their predecessors, were faced with severe boredom. It wasn’t long before a shack was acquired and the hams had set up an amateur radio station which they maintained until Pearl Harbor. [6]

Shortly before Christmas they were moved into permanent housing on an island about a mile from Sitka that was a part of the island chain and causeway system developed to create the base. The new communications shack became the hub of a strung-wire communications network. The men tried hooking up a turntable “after hours” for entertainment, but the authorities disapproved of this use of the system. [7] They then turned to a 6 tube wireless record player, a record player with a built in low-powered transmitter that “broadcast” the record a limited distance. The men took turns putting records on the changer in their spare time. There was no microphone input to this system, so any announcement to be made must first be made into a cardboard record that could then be played. This was initially given the name “GIN—the Breath of Fort Ray” and soon shortened to GAB.

This served to entertain the men in the communications barracks only, and they began a long series of activities designed to improve coverage. Some of these, like the wire hung out the window, were of marginal utility. [8]Others, like attaching a heavy piece of copper cable to a bronze plate off of a wrecked boat and throwing it into the ocean, were too effective. The length was exactly right and tuned the antenna to the otherwise not very powerful transmitter so that it could be heard in Fairbanks. It became necessary to take the system down. [9]

Because of inadequate facilities and time for the men to work on the station, initially GAB developed slowly. At some point fairly well after the inception of “programming” a microphone had been added. There is a recording of the Easter Sunday church service April 5, 1942, so we know that the station served the entire base and much of Sitka by that time.

In December, 1941 or early 1942, Ervin Greene raised the power on KRB, Sitka’s first “pirate,” and the station could be received in Juneau. The signal was heard by a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) field officer. There were a number of meetings between the FCC and Sitka Mayor E. M. Goddard, Cliff Fellows (Officer-in-Charge of the ACS), Col. Walter R. Shoaff (Commander of the Coast Artilliary) and other people who Greene terms “dignitaries.” They discussed both GAB and KRB, recognized the positive contributions of both, but were also forced to acknowledge that they were unauthorized and illegal– and KRB was becoming popular in Juneau.[10]

KRB voluntarily went off the air in early 1942, as Greene put it, 

Perhaps the most significant event in the spring of 1942 was the visit of the War Department staff from Washington, from the offices now called “the Pentagon.” They visited the stations in Sitka and Kodiak and liked what they saw. [12]  They went back and May, 26, 1942 started the Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS) which provided a great many services for the men. [13]  The Armed Forces Radio Network (AFRN), based in Hollywood, provided program assistance through acetate discs of programs and scripts. Other technical and financial assistance slowly became available. All of the stations eventually built, except for Sitka, used AFRS provided transmitters. [14]

GAB was closed during the final construction of KRAY, now that the military had authorized a station. Still legally a “pirate,” KRAY was built by the Army construction crew on Kirushkin Island, part of the Ft. Ray Army Base, in a building that was designed for the purpose. The facilities included a control room and a studio capable of holding an audience of 100 people. [15]  There was also a record storage area. The newsroom was in a building across the street. A dedicatory program was held August 16, 1942. Fortunately, this was recorded. Erv Greene (of KRB) also became active as a KRAY programmer. Generally, there was a relatively steady pattern of development from the glorified turntable to a fairly professional, regional station with 18 hours a day service and a staff of 10 or 12 people most of the time, assisted by about 25 civilians on a regular volunteer basis. [16]

Virtually all of the men involved in starting the two Sitka stations were enlisted men. Fortunately, they served under a very understanding commander who had the best interests of the troops and the potential value of a radio station in a solution to the morale problem in mind. Col. Shoaff described the birth of the station for the KRAY dedication.

Official recognition did not end all problems. They were assigned an officer to be in charge of the project, but there was no readily available system for staffing the station. There was no table of allocations for the provisioning of radio stations. Many of the interviews conducted with early participants in the station include stories about what they called “procurement.” Lt. Robert Horsley worked as the Adjutant. He was also the second of three main Officers-in-Charge. 

Before Armed Forces Radio, this was nothing, strictly non-regulation. There was nothing in the Army regulations that set up this type of an operation so that, and if it is non-reg, well, you can’t do it of course. But these fellows had to do these things on their own. There was nothing in the table of organization that said ‘plywood for radio stations,’ and ‘Armed Forces Radio Stations.’

However, there was also in the service that feeling, well, as long as you are using it for the service, then you are not stealing it or you are not misappropriating it. . . You are not misappropriating because you are using it for the good of all, and that’s not entirely a bad theory. [18]

Charles Gilliam, one of the founders of GAB, describes one incident.

And the same thing similar happened with the Hammond organ also, we didn’t have a requisition for that. . . . There was to be a chapel to be built. Walt [Welch] found out that there was a Hammond organ in one of the main warehouses. He says, ‘will you come with me?’ ‘Sure.’ We get one of the men from the motor pool to get a truck for us and we go down there. Of course Walt was a real talker, he could talk anybody out of anything. And we got the Hammond organ outside of the warehouse building and ready to load it on the truck before the warehouseman, who was a civilian, I believe, and all of a sudden he realized that we had no paperwork, no authorization to pick that organ up. And of course we didn’t get it that trip but it wasn’t long before Col. Shoaff arranged and we went and got the organ legally. [sic] [19]

Col. Shoaff did do as much red tape cutting for the men as he could manage. A staff was assigned to the station both to “do radio” and to provide music. The four-piece combo that was regularly assigned proved to be the hub for most of the music on the base. The station was licensed by the FCC November 19, 1942 as WVCX, ending “pirate” days. [20]  KODK became WVCQ on December 5. [21]

Legalization didn’t meet with universal enthusiasm. The Ketchikan Alaska Chronicle of September 22, 1942 quotes Major Bill Adams as saying about the impending licensing of KODK that he was “getting such a thrill out of helping run a strictly illegal, illegitimate and off-the-record army station that the fun is all gone now that the thing is approved.” An unidentified GI responded, “Bill, as long as we continue to steal all the better programs from NBC and CBS, issue personal messages at outposts, and generally conduct ourselves in an unlawful manner, it will still be a buccaneer set up.” [22]

Early in 1944 WVCX moved onto the main portion of the base, making much easier access for attendance at the many live broadcast functions. These new facilities were far larger with small studios for news or two or three person skits and a large studio which held 30 to 40 rows of seats and had enough stage space for a band of upwards of 20 performers [23] for weekly live music programs. There was additional space for record storage and even living accommodations. As WVCX, the men of Ft. Ray maintained a program schedule that would amaze most modern broadcasters. They had an incredible twenty programs a week of local-live programming plus an hour and a half of news each day. [24]   (For comparison purposes, I might mention here that the present day Alaska Public Broadcasting Commission considers 10 hours a week to be an admirable goal for such programs and many stations do not regularly meet it. [25]) When discussing the programming, many of the men use the word “professional,” and clearly the goal was to emulate commercial broadcasting in the U.S., to almost mimic what the men would have heard at home.

A great many donations of both time and money were received from Sitkans. With money donated by the men of the Rotary Club, an NAB-Langworth Library of 3500 discs of recorded music was purchased. [26] Charles Gilliam, jokingly called the “official builder” by some of his contemporaries, provided a remote broadcast “suitcase,” which allowed for remote broadcasts not only on the base but in Sitka as well, thanks to a cable laid under the channel. [27]

Early 1944 was the high water mark of WVCX. Station manager Boyd Wood was doing listener surveys to determine success of the programming. He discovered that the most popular entertainment program was “Bing Crosby” [28] and AFRN arranged for Bing to do a special birthday tribute for the second birthday on August 16th.

September 1, 1944 most of the men of Ft. Ray were shipped out, back to “the States” for reassignment. Fewer than 150 men were left to close the Army base and maintain such services as could be maintained. T/5 Walter Welch was left in charge of the station. He wVCX held down most of the day shifts. She was a civilian who was paid to work at the station by the community. Sitkans voluntarily assessed themselves fifty cents per month on each utility bill. [29]

With the closing of the base, arrangements were made for the Village of Sitka to purchase the station, largely through the efforts of Welch and James Brightman who served on the City Council. It appears that it was actually given to the City of Sitka, however, as no funds were paid out. Sitka employed the now civilian Walt Welch to run it.

About a year later it was sold to Edgecumbe Electronics [30] (Walt Welch and James Brightman) who ran it for a little over a year on a commercial basis. Brightman, who used the station to poke fun at his political adversaries, attributes the demise of the station to the very trait that made it possible in the first place, Walt’s inability to do things “strictly by the book.” Once again the Sitka station was listened to in Juneau and the FCC moved in and ticketed the station for over use of power. They were also not able to make enough money from the commercials to pay the bills, [31] but they set the groundwork so that KIFW came on the air in 1949 and survives to this day.

With these “pirate” radio stations, for the first time Sitkans, and Alaskans in other communities, knew what they were missing in their isolation. KRAY created a demand for entertainment and current news of the world outside.

The “pirate” stations were also important in that they showed what can be done with a little GI initiative even without officer’s support and how much more can be done once the system could be changed to accommodate the new idea. The men of the Alaska Communications System began talking about the idea, and it spread like wildfire—to the point that the Armed Forces Radio (and Television) Service grew into a major information and entertainment entity that had approximately 300 stations in 1945 and continues today. [32]

The Armed Forces Radio Service recognized the contribution of the Sitka station. In its 1944 birthday salute, Eddie Cantor said, “men, it’s a great job you’re doing up there in Sitka and all show business is proud of you.” [33]

Yankee Doodle went to Sitka

Riding on a halftrack.

First there was no radio

And boy was he a sad sack.

Lots of pockets full of dough,

Playing cards with marked decks,

But now he does his listening

To WVCX. [34]

Cartoon for the anniversary celebration and Bing Crosby’s transcription.


1. Past publications of the Armed Forces Radio Service have credited Lt. Dan House with the inspiration for Armed ForcesCar Radio and for building both the Kodiak and Sitka stations. My interviews, and those of Charles Gilliam, have failed to verify this. My discussions with Dr. Larry Suid who is writing an officially authorized book on the history of the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service also fail to show any evidence of this. House was in Kodiak August 1941 until he was transferred to Sitka sometime before May 1942. He had command of the engineers (carpenters) who refurbished the old CCC building for KRAY. He also served as Officer-in-Charge for KRAY from approximately August to December of 1942, but this was well after GI radio was established. 

2. Greene, Ervin, interview with Charles Gilliam, Salt Lake City, Utah, September 7, 1982.   

3. Adams, William, interview with Charles Gilliam, La Mirada, California, April 8, 1977.  


5. Ibid: also Adams, William, a monolog audiotape produced in San Jose, California in May 1977 and mailed to Charles Gilliam. 

6. Greene, Charles, D. “Dowie”, interview with Charles Gilliam, Oakland, California, June 20, 1980.  

7. Easterly, Jack, interview with Charles Gilliam, La Mirada, California, June 30, 1979.  

8. Greer, Earl, interview with Charles Gilliam, August 18, 1982. 

9. Gilliam, Charles, interview with Susan McClear, Sitka, Alaska, August 5, 1982: Bright, Murland “Shorty”, interview with Charles Gilliam, La Mirada, California, May 24, 1980.  

10. Greene, op.cit.  

11. Greene

12. See note 2 above. 

 13. AFRTS Fact Sheet, 1974, page 3.  

14. Gilliam, Charles, interview with Earle Greer, August 18, 1982.  

15. Confidential memo (radiogram) sent on Headquarters Coast Artillery Battalion paper, dated August 14, 1943.  

16. Wood, Boyd, interview with Charles Gilliam, La Mirada, California, June 24, 1979.  

17. Shoaff, Col. Walter M., speech recorded August 16, 1942 off the air, KRAY dedication, Sitka, Alaska. 

18. Horsley, Robert M., interview with Charles Gilliam, Seattle, Washington, August 2, 1982.  

19. Gilliam, Charles, interview with Richard McClear, Sitka, Alaska, August 6, 1982.  

20. See note 15 above.  

 21. Suid, Lawrence, AFRS Antecedents chapter of forthcoming book, 1984. 

22. Ketchikan Alaska Chronicle, “Kodiak Army Post’s Radio Legalized,” September 22, 1942. Broadcast of personal messages is still in violation of FCC rules, but is common throughout Alaska. On a recent visit to Alaska, FCC Commissioner Henry Rivera noted this and offered to try to have the rules changed. A number of managers suggested that this would cause undue red tape, according to KCAW manager Richard McClear.  

23. Shoaff, Col. Walter R., speech given Sitka, Alaska, August 16, 1943.  

24. “Request for Revision in Radio Service in Southeastern Alaska,” Confidential memo to Commanding General, Alaska Defense Command, Signed by Lt. Col. Walter R. Shoaff, August, 23, 1943. 

25. Alaska Public Broadcasting Commission, “Public Broadcasting in Alaska: A Long-Range Plan,” 1983 edition, page 62.  

26. See note 15 above. 

27. Pittinger, Lois Peterson, interview with Charles Gilliam, Seattle, Washington, August 1, 1982. 

28. WVCX Radio Survey, undated.  

29. “The Army’s ‘Homemade Radio Station’” article from the St. Louis Globe Democrat, July 14, 1945.  

30. Minutes of the Common Council of the Town of Sitka [Alaska] various dates, April 17, 1945 to March 26, 1946. Survey of the financial reports of the town of Sitka for the same period.  

31. Brightman, James, interview with Roberta Gilliam, Sitka, Alaska, August 5, 1984. 

32. See note 13 above.  

33. Armed Forces Radio Network, producer, “Salute to WVCX” for airing August 16, 1944 in Sitka, Alaska. 

34. Ibid. 

2 thoughts on “Alaska Pirates (Radio in Sitka)

  1. Very interesting, nice to see that memories of the past are being recorded for all to read. Thank you.❤️

  2. This is a welcome correction of the record re GAB/KRAY. I’m working on a history AFRTS and was glad to find it. Do you, by any chance, have the full citation for Susan McClear’s essay? Where was it published?

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