Another Reason to Learn Morse Code: Kidnapping

Morse code — that series of dots and dashes — can be useful in the strangest situations. As a kid I remember an original Star Trek episode where an injured [Christopher Pike] could only blink a light once for yes and twice for no. Even as a kid, I remember thinking, “Too bad they didn’t think to teach him Morse code.” Of course odd uses of Morse aren’t just for TV and Movies. Perhaps the strangest real-life use was the case of the Colombian government hiding code in pop music to send messages to hostages.

In 2010, [Jose Espejo] was close to retirement from the Colombian army. But he was bothered by the fact that some of his comrades were hostages of FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia; the anti-government guerrillas), some for as many as ten years. There was a massive effort to free hostages underway, and they wanted them to know both to boost morale and so they’d be ready to escape. But how do you send a message to people in captivity without alerting their captors?

[Espejo] enlisted an expatriate advertising executive, [Juan Carlos Ortiz], to devise a way to deliver the message. [Oritz] had left Colombia because his anti-drug advertising led to death threats from FARC. Living in the United States, he was no fan of FARC and was happy to lend a hand to his native country.

PsyOps Mad Men Style

This would not be the first time [Ortiz] had used his advertising skills against FARC. Using everything from air-dropped pacifiers to floating soccer balls, [Ortiz] had been behind efforts to encourage FARC soldiers to desert before. But those messages were meant to be read by the FARC soldiers. This new message had to be covert.

The hidden message delivered via pop music.

It was well-known that hostages usually had access to radio. In fact, there was a radio program that allowed families of hostages to leave 30-second messages for their loved ones. That seemed like an obvious way to send the message, but how to conceal it? The answer was Morse code.

This seemed logical because many soldiers knew the code but the FARC rebels were not likely to be trained. Of course, there was still the question of how to conceal the code. Obviously, if the captors heard it as code, they could find someone to decode it even if they didn’t understand it themselves. They needed some form of steganography to hide the code in plain sight — well, perhaps earshot is a better word.

Got a Beat

The answer was to embed the code in a song. The government controlled the local radio stations, so getting air time would not be a problem. The song — Mejores Dias or Better Days, in English — is in the video below. With some experimentation, they found they could fit about 20 words in the chorus without being obvious. That also allowed the code to repeat making it easier to copy.

The message reads:

19 LIBERADOS. SIGUEN USTEDES. ANIMO

(19 people rescued. You are next. Cheer up)

The song, itself, has lyrics as though it is about someone being held hostage and even has a line before the code starts, “Escucha este mensaje, hermano ” which is “Listen to this message, brother.” If you are curious and your high school Spanish isn’t up to snuff, Google Translate can show you the lyrics in Spanish and English.

The song became a hit in rural areas where FARC operated. Apparently, some hostages did decode the message. I’ll be honest, I don’t think I would have. Perhaps my ears are too old.

Morse Everywhere

Morse code in songs isn’t a new idea. Rush had YYZ (which is the airport code for Toronto). There’s messages in Radioactivity by Kraftwerk. It has a pretty obvious appearance in Glitter Freeze.

Come to think of it, Morse code isn’t a stranger to hostage situations, either. [Admiral Jerimiah Denton] blinked out TORTURE with his eyelids during his televised confession while he was a prisoner of war. Tales of prisoners from Alcatraz to Iran using Morse code to communicate is common, as well.

You never know what you are missing if you can’t read Morse code. Did you know the famous Capitol Records building has an aircraft beacon that spells out HOLLYWOOD in Morse code? They occasionally change the message like they did in 2013 to promote Katy Perry’s new album release. Apparently, virtually no one noticed.

What’s the oddest use of Morse code you’ve seen? Can you hear the code in Better Days? Let us know in the comments.

70 thoughts on “Another Reason to Learn Morse Code: Kidnapping

  1. So I should learn Morse code because I might be taken hostage/held as a prisoner, or to fully appreciate electronic dance music from the last century.

    (I assume the rush song YZZ had Morse code samples in it, the article isn’t clear)

        1. The 5×5 code arises spontaneously wherever people are imprisoned but wish to communicate with others (typically political prisoners and POWs). Apparently just hearing a 5×5 message gets people thinking and more likely than not they work out the code (assuming it’s the standard 25 characters, no J, set out in alphabetical order in a 5×5 grid).

          1. http://faroutliers.blogspot.com/2005/04/russian-prison-tapping-code.html

            …Those who knew it would sometimes tap out the alphabet, over and over again, together with one or two simple questions, in the hope that the unseen person on the other side of the wall would catch on. That was how Alexander Dolgun learned the code in Lefortovo, memorizing it with the help of matches. When he was finally able to “talk” to the man in the next cell, and understood that the man was asking him “Who are you?” he felt “a rush of pure love for a man who has been asking me for three months who I am.” …

    1. Officially it’s a dead language. By all means, learn it out of curiosity, especially if you’re a ham radio operator. But the likelihood of needing to use it is vanishingly slim. Nobody’s going to use it to broadcast to hostages anymore, because it’s not in any common usage unless all the hostages just happen to be very zealous hams.

      1. I just became a Ham here in Canada. If I want anything more than basic privileges, I I have to copy 5 wpm at 100% accuracy. I know dozens of people who know code. It’s not as dead as you think. Your ignorance of it isn’t surprising though. Even Basic hams know SOME code. Repeaters use it to ID because it’s less disruptive than a voice butting in periodically to identify the repeater. There’s a humidity sensor that uses a version of it for it’s communication to and from Arduinos. It’s used much more than you might think.

        1. What?
          You might want to study a little harder. You qualify for HF privileges if you pass the basic exam with honours as well. Most people pass with at least an 80% these days.

          The morse code requirement is completely optional and largely about bragging rights.

        2. Around her amateur radio us both Morse, and voice to ID. A Voice ID is no more disruptive than a Morse ID. ID are never sent when the receiver is receiving a signal except of course knuckle head lids that pounce on the PTT of their radio to quick will force the repeater to ID over and input signal. I don’t know why both IDs are used, I don’t, and wouldn’t, My guess to appease the old farts

      2. Dead language? Not a chance. Amateur radio operators might be the most prominent users of Morse Code these days, but doesn’t mean that it is dead. In fact, here in the US it has made a large resurgence since the requirement for knowing code was dropped from amateur radio licensing. I guess people enjoy it more when they aren’t required to know it.

      3. Sorry not dead, all the VOR-DME’s still use Morse code as an ID method. It was mandatory to understand this in flight school. The code for each site is still printed on aviation sectional charts.

        1. True, but you don’t need to be able to understand Morse to confirm that the few dots and dashes transmitted by a navaid correspond to what’s shown on the chart. I’ve been flying for for more than ten years and have never met a pilot who could tell you what letter any particular pattern represents. I’m sure they’re out there; it’s just an unnecessary skill.

  2. “What’s the oddest use of Morse code you’ve seen?”

    It wasn’t Morse, and it wasn’t real life, but this article reminded me of the ST:TNG episode where someone was kidnapped by Romulans. They signaled the Enterprise by encoding the beat of some irritating alien wedding song on a subspace channel or something like that…

    1. Of course, the TV show Inspector Morse had M-O-R-S-E in its opening sequence.

      Or the documentary “Empire of the Air” ended with “Baseball next” in Morse code,
      (signaling the next Ken Burns project for PBS).

    2. Odd as in a combination of coincidences.
      During WWII the Winston Churchill made the V sign famous as a combination of the older, aggressive and insulting form of the sign (back of hand outwards), and the V for Victory sign and it was very effective image for when you were picking up the pieces after being bombed. A Belgian programme maker at the BBC encouraged the Belgian resistance to paint V signs everywhere to annoy the Germans and to signify the French word for victory and the Dutch word for freedom (French and Dutch are the two main languages in Belgium). The Belgian V campaign was a success and led to a Morse Code V character ‘dot dot dot dah’ being used as a station ident for the BBC broadcasts to occupied Europe, but the morse letter V was not produced by a tone generator, it was the opening notes of Beethoven’s Vth Symphony, played on tympani. Very upsetting for Hitler.

      1. There’s a Perry Rhodan novel when someone uses a gravitational generator to send SOS. I don’t remember any details (I’ve read it 30 years ago) but only the use of SOS. The characters were born in 20th century but they find a way to become immortals, so they learnt morse code.

    3. Late last century, doing device driver work, I had a little Morse Code engine I could plug in for debugging. Not practical for production code but was convenient and somewhat amusing to be able to bring text messages out from the depths of the system.

  3. So… did they get the message? Was it confirmed that they understood? It’s kind of like you just told a long story but forgot to include the story’s climax!

    I’ve been trying to learn morse code for years now but I think my brain just isn’t wired for that particular use. I struggle to keep up with ‘clean’ morse code but to be able to tease all the dots and dashes out from the music… AND keep up with interpreting it as letters… I am very impressed with anyone who can do that!

    1. From the blog

      “The song became a hit in rural areas where FARC operated. Apparently, some hostages did decode the message. I’ll be honest, I don’t think I would have. Perhaps my ears are too old.”

    2. The trick, apparently, is to learn to recognize the sound directly, just like you recognize the symbols. Don’t translate, that takes too much time. Having said that… I’ve re-learned CW about 5 times now. Every time, I get stuck doing it the wrong way. My brain habitually visualizes what I hear, and then tries to “look it up” or translate it. By then, the next character is well underway or over. B-( — …. .– . .-.. .-..

  4. I had a ham radio buddy who could hold a perfect conversation with a group of guys while simultaneously copy ing, in his head, 20+ WPM Morse off the radio. He was (sadly, he’s now deceased) a radio operator in the Merchant Marine during WWII.

    He also had the distinction of having passed his ham radio licensing test before the war, but his license was issued after the war (ham radio was suspended for the duration). Unlucky in that respect, but to have lived through the convoys in the North Atlantic was luck enough.

    RIP Ed Weiss, W1NXC

    1. “I thought of that Adm Denton POW video when Sinclair Broadcasting’s “Fake News” spot was recorded by all their new anchors as a must run.”

      What a stupid thing to say. Comparing highly-paid news anchors reading a scripted corporate statement is nothing like a prisoner of war giving a coerced confession at gunpoint.

      Your partisan political opinion is clouding your judgement – news anchors read 90%+ of everything they say off a TelePrompTer, this statement was no different except other employees at other stations found the same words on their TelePrompTer.

      If it was instead a voiceover would it still be offensive?

      Were there any words or ideas expressed by the stations in that message you take exception to?

      I don’t understand how you can equate earning a six-figure salary in a job that involves little more than basic high school literacy with being a soldier captured in battle…

      1. If I had to guess (Since I never saw it) I’d say he meant that, they all had that same pained look on their face, as someone being forced to say something that they don’t agree with. It’s odd, because in my experience, most news readers don’t have a clue about what they are reading. To see a genuine reaction from one would have been refreshing.

    2. Indeed. It would have been wild to see some anchors spelling out “this is not genuine” in morse code with their blinks.

      But I don’t think many of them were aware of how widely the message was being disseminated. It was more than likely a case of “ok, more copy to read while staring in the camera and looking serious.”

  5. I’ve listened to the tune and I can’t pick up where the Morse message is. Is it the bassline, the drum beat or the rhythm of the lyrics?

    The message, in Spanish, is “19 liberados, siguen ustedes. Ánimo.” but I’m just not hearing it.
    I think I can hear the “1” and “9” in the rhythm of the chorus ( .—- —-. ) but it’s really hard to pick up on even if I know to be listening for it – and I know Morse. How anyone listening could casually discover it is beyond me.

  6. Any on/off code is still useful for any situation where your only method of encryption is to turn something on and off, such as lights or horns. Morse is not only the standard method of doing that, it’s designed to be efficient, with more common used letters using the shortest combinations (e=dot, t=dash).

    You can see an interesting illustration of where Morse code should have been used but wasn’t in this excellent documentary about the crucial air raid in the Falklands War. They couldn’t use radio, but they could have used a flashlight to signal the reason why the tanker plane had to break off refueling the bomber. That happens about 32:45 into this video. This link should take you there.

    —–
    Will you need it yourself? Probably not like you need a spare tire in your car. But it could come in handy, particularly if we’re invaded by space aliens who know nothing about our older technologies.

    There’s some interesting psychology about trust in that scene. Create a bad enough foe, and enemies become friends.
    —-
    The one exception to using Morse is that 5×5 tap code used by Vietnam POWs. It is less efficient, since letters may require up to ten taps, but it works with brief taps rather than long and short signals and it can be explained in just a few seconds.

    If you’re interested, there are apps for iOS and Android that can teach Morse.

  7. IEE100 by Delia Derbyshire (of Dr Who theme fame, Radiophonic workshop) has this. Delia explained in a documentary that she started the composition with Morse and then embedded the letters also in the music, I became B, E was E and 100 became the roman numeral C. It was composed for the 100th anniversary of the IEE in 1971.

  8. I was once awakened to a pounding sound while staying in a motel in Florida. It was S-O-S in Morse Code. I, of course, had no idea who might be in trouble, so I called the front desk. In the morning, I inquired at checkout about what had happened. Turns out that the occupant had stepped out onto the terrace for a smoke at 3 AM, and the sliding door latched on its own, leaving him outside, naked, in cold weather. The fire department had to rescue him from the second floor because he had used the safety door latch. He was ex-military and knew Morse Code. Fortunately, so did I due to my ham radio training 55 years before.

  9. What I like with Morse is when in TV shows they use it and the character ‘live’ translates it but the Morse being so slow only had time to sound out maybe 3 letters and the ‘translation’ is always entire pages of text.
    It’s amusing because TV just doesn’t have the time and the viewer the patience to wait for actual Morse.

    Morse ‘beeeep beeeep beep beep beep beeep’
    Translator ‘the terrorist… have hidden … the schematics in the old factory .. on Smithfield road … act quick’

    1. Once the ham radio group on USENET told the story of a high school performing the play “South Pacific”. At a point where Morse code comes over the radio, the band director told the clarinet player to just make some tones that sounded “like Morse Code”. But the clarinetist actually knew Morse and sounded out cuss words.
      The first 2 nights went by without incident.
      The 3rd night some man in the audience broke out laughing…

    2. thats a bit like the TV show for the 70’s “Skippy” the kangaroo would make a few “clicks” and Sonny would reply “whats that skip? the poachers have Clancy tied up in the cave by the river”

  10. I can remember reading a story (on the internet) maybe 15+ years ago … somebody driving a truck picked up a hitch-hiker. After driving many miles the hiker turned violent and pulled a handgun on the driver to get him to take him somewhere well outside his route. The driver complied, but started tapping out ‘S O S’ on his brake pedal so that his brake-lights flashed the same in morse.
    It just so happened that one of the following vehicles was being driven by an old Navy radioman. The driver was initially annoyed by the constant flashing brake-lights, but soon recognised the pattern. He followed the truck for many miles until he came across a Highway Patrol who he alerted to the problem. The HP pulled over the truck, and arrested the hitch-hiker who turned out to be a prisoner on parole.

  11. Later in his life, Thomas Edison was nearly deaf. When he and his wife hosted dinner parties at their house, he would have a hard time keeping up with the conversation. He and his wife would tap morse code on each other’s legs to communicate under the table. I always thought that was pretty neat, though I have yet to convince my girlfriend to join me in learning morse code.

  12. Nobody mentioned the (original) Wolfenstein 3D message? Man I must be getting old.

    http://www.eeggs.com/items/31712.html

    (This is slightly incorrect. It wasn’t the least bit hidden, the beeps are quite obvious.)
    A morse code message is hidden in one of the songs played in the third episode.
    And just for the people who don’t know morse code the message reads:
    “To Big Bad Wolf. De Little Red Riding Hood. Eliminate Hitler. Imperative. Complete mission within 24 hours. Out.”

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