April, 1997

Published on the Boatanchors Reflector on the Internet.


The St. Julien's Creek R-390A Massacre

The sale of the R-390As has been a real experience. The sale took place Thursday morning, April 11. Since I received so many responses from my first posting describing the condition of the receivers, I thought some of you might be interested in the results of the auction. Rather than sending a couple of dozen personal responses, with your permission, I will recap the entire R-390A saga at the St. Julien's Creek Annex in Portsmouth, VA. Though what has transpired is insignificant in the overall scheme of things, it is a worthy and well-earned tribute to our military establishment and to government efficiency itself.

The story begins, from my point of view, with a gigantic pile of more than 1000 R-390A receivers (by my estimate). There they were, stacked under the bright Virginia sun on a cold Virginia winter day. You have to imagine what it must have looked like. The pile was perhaps a fifty foot square and more than 6 feet high. It was an incredible sight. In that one spot was the answer to the dreams of hundreds of enthusiasts who hold the R-390A in the highest esteem but are unable to have one of their own. To many of us, here stood, row upon row, perhaps the finest receiver ever engineered. In the eyes of anyone who loves the R-390A, it is a masterpiece of enduring beauty. Of course, that was before the ravages of a year or more sitting in the rain, snow, sleet and hail took their inevitable toll. At least the weather is a natural consequence of neglect. Unforgivable as the neglect is, these agents of mistreatment had defaced each of the noble R-390As by marking them with a crooked stripe of cheap yellow paint across their face. There the 390As stood piled for months.

I admit to being hopelessly spellbound by high performance receivers and even receivers less worthy but endowed with pretty faces. Being a true enthusiast, I kept my eye on the R-390A situation, hoping to rescue a few when they became available, again.

During this time I made an appointment with a manager at DRMO and tried to explain that the receivers needed to be disposed of promptly before they were completely ruined. I tried to convince the DRMO powers that be, or at least the powers that I could talk to, that it would be in the public interest to sell the receivers in small quantities so that those of us who restore such things could afford to do. After all, the R-390A has historical value. Actually, the officials I talked to were quite polite. On the other hand, in DRMO's view, a pile of R-390As is pretty insignificant when you're trying to dump a junk yard full of airplane parts, boats, and other military castoffs. Finally, there was a sale. My vigilance was unrewarded, as several hundred receivers were sold in one lot. The selling price was $37.50 per receiver. By the way, I was not the only one who tried to intervene with on the R-390's behalf. At least one other individual tried other approaches to save the 390As. I can't go into details because I haven't sought his permission to do so.

After another conversation with the DRMO management, I again asked for a smaller lot size, something that was manageable by an individual. It should be understood that I don't claim to have accomplished anything important in this entire endeavor. There may have been others making the same plea with the DRMO folks. However, being unaware of others' efforts, I'll continue with my own observations.

A second sale, and probably more, took place, but by this time, my efforts were focused in other directions - like running a business. Unfortunately, I can't report the selling price nor the number of receivers sold.

This brings us to the posting on Boatanchors week before last. After seeing the interest in the sale, I decided to visit the pile again and report to my fellow boat anchorites.

Well, it was far worse than I had expected. Most of the of the R-390As were gone. I suppose that's good. The horror of seeing our beloved mechanical-digital super receivers slowly being reduced to rust was finally coming to an end. I do hope that some receivers escaped without permanent injury during earlier sales, because I think that the poor 390As sold in the April 11 auction would be considered a prize by only the most ardent restorer. Just to set the scene, the following is my impression of the 12 receivers on a typical pallet. Of the 12, perhaps four where candidates for restoration by a pro with lots of time on his hands. Of the remaining eight receivers in a pallet load, perhaps five would make GOOD parts radios. The last three of the 12 had already been attacked by military technicians who obviously had no respect for these receivers. Still, even these could provide some useful parts and assemblies. Obviously, some pallet-loads were better than others. But, in general, the PTO tuned and so did the Veeder-root counters on about half the receivers. As someone commented, most of the tuning knobs felt like they had sand for a lubricant. Some tuning knobs wouldn't turn at all, frozen eternally to their last operating frequency. The screws in the tuning racks where rusting as was anything else that was capable of rusting. The meters were gone, except for two pallets of receivers which slipped though on this sale (interesting). The good news is that the receivers had sat in the rain so long that the cheap paint used to deface the 390As had faded. On the other hand, maybe that's not good news ......

I have to admit that I went to the April 11th, auction hoping for a bargain. With two excellent R-390As in my receiver collection, it would be nice to have some spares and be able to share my abundance with others. Well, forget the philanthropy. I wasn't even in the ball game at this auction. It fact, I wasn't even in the ball park. When the first lot of 24 receivers came up, the bidding started at $100. I couldn't really tell, but it seemed like there were five or six of us bidding. Within about 10 seconds the bidding was at the $1000 level and climbing fast. I was finished at $1000. The bidding stopped at $1800. The next lot started at $1000 and ended at over $1600. The third lot went for just under $2000 and the final double lot of 48 receivers (some with the meters) was bid in at $4000!

The entire auction process was interesting. I learned a lot. All the bidding after the first few seconds was between two people. I do not know who they were or who they represent. I do know they were at the auction to take home those receivers. If I am not mistaken, one person bid in all four lots. The whole deal was done in less than two minutes, so I didn't have time to check the winners.

So here ends this saga of the R-390A receivers. They were born into glory and served honorably in the defense our country from hateful enemies. They achieved the highest respect as the epitome of practical electromechanical design, only to be relegated to a junk yard and sold as scrap. I'm sure whoever purchased the R-390As plans to rip them apart and sell the parts. I suppose, in a way they are heroes. They saved what was left of our beloved R-390s. Let's just hope that the profit motive doesn't overwhelm honesty so that when the scraps of these receivers are sold, the sellers will differentiate between the parts which still operate and those that don't.

It's just too bad that the R-390s couldn't have been spared their junk yard fate and set free with their dignity intact by moving them out quickly. Or, if not that, do I dare suggest the obvious? No, the logic of it couldn't have escaped the guardians of the tax payer's property. I must have missed that compelling reason why the R-390's were denied shelter from the weather until new owners could be located.

Again, it's hats off to our ever efficient, always frugal, all wise government and especially our public servants who don't know a gravy boat from a tug boat.

I hope you enjoyed this whimsical version of the sad saga of the R-390A massacre at St. Julien's Creek Annex, Portsmouth, Virginia.

Jim Thompson, W4THU

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