Signs, Signals, and Code in Action in Oregon


A new generation of code-breakers and communications experts was launched at Oregon’s Sunset Trail District Camporee in May, 2018. About 100 scouts learned the crafts that had once been vital for communications and survival: semaphore (flag) signals, Morse Code, and code cyphers.

“Cool!” “Where can I get the flags?” “Let’s use Morse Code at school!” (not recommended during class time!) were some of the scouts’ comments at the popular Camporee station. Run by Troop 592 of Portland, Oregon and devised by Russ Mickiewicz, who also ran the Camporee ham radio station, the station was designed so that the scouts would have experience with signs, signals, and codes while being scored for speed and accuracy.

When the scouts first arrived at the station, one of the adults at the station would explain how the codes and signals worked using charts. Scouts also had a chance to practice their new skills using authentic naval semaphore flags and military flashlights for Morse Code.

After being trained, each patrol was split into semaphore and Morse Code teams, spaced about 100 feet apart to avoid the temptation to yell answers to each other. According to Mickiewicz’s plan, adults gave the scouts on the semaphore team a coded message, but they did not know what the message meant. To send the message, one scout took the role of semaphore signaler. Holding a flag in each hand, the signaler had to match the position shown on the chart for each coded letter. For example, the letter “R” is made with both arms held straight out from shoulders.

“It was surprisingly difficult. I didn’t know there was such a thing as flag signals.” says Pavlos Blankenstein, Life Scout with Troop 592.

Haydn Bach, Tenderfoot rank Patrol Leader also with Troop 592, explains the challenge at the semaphore station, “The signaler has to hold his arms straight. Signals can be misread. They need to try to be exact.”

Although semaphore is rarely used today, from ancient times until the 19th century, it was the main way for rulers and their militaries to communicate over long distances. (Imagine sailors in Napoleon’s navy communicating battle plans from ship to ship using semaphore signals.) In the 1840’s, semaphore began to be replaced by a newer technology, Morse Code. Because Morse Code can be transmitted over wires or radio waves, it did not have to be visible to work. That fixed two big weaknesses of semaphore flags, namely that they could not be seen in the dark, and, when they were easy to see, semaphore signals could be intercepted by enemies. However, at the 2018 Camporee, both signaling systems were used.

In fact, each team had to understand both semaphore and Morse Code for the station to work. After each letter was signaled by the semaphore team, the Morse Code team responded with one quick flash from a flashlight for message received, or three flashes to have the message resent. Once the semaphore team finished sending the message, the Morse Code team used a 13-letter rotation cypher to decode it (see diagram). For example, the semaphore team might have transmitted the letters “NQIRAGHER.” Using the cypher wheel, the Morse Code team would decode this as “ADVENTURE.”

Next, the Morse Code team’s signaler used a flashlight to send the decoded message. If the semaphore team understood, then the semaphore signaler held his arms straight out to each side for the letter “R,” meaning received. If the Morse Code message wasn’t understood, the semaphore signaler would flap his arms like a large bird trying to take flight, meaning resend the message.

“Using the flashlights to signal in Morse Code proved to be the biggest challenge, because the scouts weren’t always pointing the flashlight down the road [directly at the semaphore team]. They weren’t aiming it. So, I told them to aim it like a pistol,” says Marlan Bright, one of the adults at the station.

Finally, the semaphore team wrote down the message and handed it to an adult, who scored the patrol’s performance based on timing and accuracy.

“It was fun. We had to learn teamwork. We had to trust and know the other person in a way we hadn’t before,” says Isaak Sandstrom, First Class with Troop 592. He adds, “I had taken the Signaling merit badge and learned about signals, but with this we got to actually use them, like in a real-life situation.”

— by Patricia Griffiths (posted with permission)