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Ham radio operator Jim Bradley of Watertown had a big heart

Few have heard the tale of Watertown patriot Jim Monroe Bradley, a man born with a birth defect that kept him from serving in the military, who aided his country during World War II using his powerful ham radio so that families could hear the voices of their loved ones — soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen — who were convalescing in hospitals overseas.

“He was born with a bad foot and walked with a limp and had a weak heart, but he had a radio so strong that it sometimes interfered with WSM Radio,” said Bradley’s daughter, Betty Edwards, who recently donated her father’s ham radio receiver to the Wilson County Veterans Museum.

“He always had a knack for that kind of thing,” she said of her father’s talent with anything electrical, especially wireless transmission. “He was a really smart man. When he was 5 or 6, he repaired his family’s crystal radio after it broke. He could do just about anything. He built his own equipment. He probably got into ham radio in the 1930s. He built a room for it off the back porch to keep the kids out.”

Bradley was born in Liberty in 1912 and grew up in Watertown. He married Lillie Wooden on Jan. 24, 1933, and made his living as an electrician from his radio repair and appliance shop upstairs in the Pioneer Building on the Watertown square.

Betty was born in 1947 and was nine months old when her father died, so she holds no memories of her dad. The stories were passed down by her mother and sister, Arah Bradley Preston, who was nine years older. Today, Betty lives in Watertown directly across the street from where her childhood home once stood, where her father operated his ham radio.

At some time during WWII, the Federal Communications Commission came to the Bradley residence to inspect Jim’s transmissions because it occasionally knocked WSM Radio, home of the “Grand Ole Opry,” off the air. They stayed a couple days and after checking things out allowed him to continue his hobby.

“He ordered the parts and put the radio together himself,” said Betty. “His radio was so powerful that I understand it was the only one that could go overseas in the U.S. at the time.”

In fact, Bradley was able to transmit and receive to and from the European and Pacific theaters of combat.

On the American home front, families received telegrams from the military alerting them that their husbands or sons had been injured. The messages shared what military hospital they were in but did not divulge details of their injuries.

Bradley wanted to help the families of the wounded soldiers.

“He put word out on the ham radio to these families that he could reach anywhere there was fighting overseas, and if they wanted to, they could come to his house,” recalled Edwards. “He mainly heard from these families by letters. He would locate the wounded soldier first. He would get the actual patient on the radio, but he had to go through others and sometimes it took several days to reach the patient, mostly hours late at night. He would stay up all hours of the night patching people through.”

Edwards believes there were well over a hundred families that came to their Watertown home, mainly from across the Southeast.

“Most of them would stay with us for two or three days and some came in campers. I know one couple that came down from Ohio, a man named Henry Hubbell Key and his wife, Clara, came down, and their son, Henry Hubbell Key Jr., was missing in action. Later I met the soldier’s wife, and she told me they came to Tennessee, and my dad was the first one to tell his parents that their son was still alive,” said Edwards.

“I don’t know that they talked to him but they found out he was alive. I don’t know if he was in the hospital or still in the prison camp. Most of the soldiers would have been recuperating in hospitals. He could go anywhere overseas with his ham radio, to all of Europe, the Philippines and in the Pacific.”

In the meantime, Bradley’s wife, Lillie, and mother-in-law, Dora, would make coffee and serve meals for their visitors as they waited. Lillie also taught Morse Code to those who wanted to operate their own ham radio so they could get their licenses.

Edwards said that her father built a 30-to-40-foot metal tower to support his antenna in the backyard, but he was not satisfied with it. There was a 68-foot water tower on higher ground behind the old Watertown High School, and he asked the city fathers for permission to put his antenna on top of it, and they refused.

“My dad often climbed up there and fixed the tank when it overflowed. Sometimes the water would run to the square. After they denied him putting his antenna up there, he told them, ‘Well, next time the tank overflows I’ll hold your coat while you fix it.’ Then they said, ‘OK, put your antenna on it.’ ”

Because Betty’s father died young when she was an infant, she had no recollection of his voice as a tot, but at the age of 7 or 8, she heard him speak.

“There was a man named Lavell Jackson from Guntersville, Alabama, who had heard my dad on his radio. He was 19 years old. He ended up owning Guntersville Broadcasting and two radio stations. He called my father one time and recorded their conversation and cut a record and sent it to my dad. We kept it all these years, and last year, after making a copy, I sent it to his son, Kerry,” said Edwards.

The voice of Jim Bradley, the man who touched many military families’ lives with his generous heart, was stilled in 1947 when he died at the age of 35.

“He got the flu and had a touch of pneumonia and a weak heart. They took him to the old Martha Gaston Hospital in Lebanon (the building still stands on South College Street and is known as Cedarcroft Home) and I think he died the next morning. The death certificate said he died from possible pneumonia and an enlarged heart,” said Edwards.

What compelled Bradley’s only living child to give what remained of his ham radio to the Wilson County Veterans Museum?

“The only piece of his equipment my mother kept was the receiver. It still works as far as I know,” said Edwards. “My husband, James, and I donated it because it was my dad, and I thought he deserved a little bit of recognition for what he did.”


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