In 1930, OP-20-G planners selected the 13th Naval District, which included Oregon, Washington, and Alaska, as well as Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, as a prospective location for two new intercept sites: one, a large site to cover Japanese point-to-point traffic with Europe and China on low and high frequencies during wartime. The other was a small site in Alaska (“but not in the islands”) to cover Japanese ship-to-shore communications in both peace and war.
Because of budgetary restrictions, Admiral Pratt, CNO, was forced to wait until May 1932 before directing Rear Admiral E.H. Campbell, Commandant 13th Naval District to establish the first of these sites at Astoria, Fort Stevens, Oregon, where the Navy had a Direction Finding (DF) station providing navigation assistance to commercial vessels. Rather than build and equip a new site, OP-20-G planners were by then reduced to postponing delivery of the new equipment and asking Admiral Campbell to accept a plan which a communications intelligence (COMINT) mission against Japanese targets was to be conducted using idle communications equipment. The initial COMINT mission was to copy Japanese diplomatic traffic on a commercial RCA circuit between Salinas, California and Tokyo using idle DF receivers, which had been tuned to the commercial band.
In 1938, the U.S. Navy took over Fort Ward from the Army. The U.S. Navy found the fort to be attractive after tests had shown that it was an outstanding location to intercept radio communication transmitted from the Far East, mainly Japan. In August 1939, the U.S. Navy relocated the COMSUPACT Astoria OR intercept site (which had been established in May, 1932 at Fort Stevens, OR to Fort Ward. This was the beginning of the development of Fort Ward as a military listening post. Large acreages were made into antenna fields overnight as an international radio listening station was built. Radio communication and code schools were established that lasted through the Korean War. COMSUPACT Fort Ward, Bainbridge Island WA was commissioned as the U.S. Naval Security Activity (NSGA) Bainbridge Island, WA in September, 1939.
In August 1940, the U.S. Navy had six sites with diplomatic targets, which were all linked directly or indirectly through U.S. Army communication circuits, to Washington DC via radio and landline communications. Twelve netted sites (six Navy and six Army) were authorized to intercept Japanese diplomatic traffic.
The six Navy sites were:
- Winter Harbor, ME (Station W) (February, 1935 to February, 1944
- Amagansett, NY (station G) (November, 1939 to 1956)
- Cheltenham, MD (Station M) (September, 1939 to August 1953)
- Jupiter, FL (Station J) (September, 1939 to July, 1945)
- Heeia, HI (Station H) (June, 1934 to December, 1941
- Fort Ward, Bainbridge Island, WA (Station S) (August, 1939 to March, 1953)
The six Army sites were:
- Fort Monmouth, NJ (Station 1)
- Presidio, CA (Station 2)
- Fort Sam Houston, TX (Station 3)
- Corozal, CA (Station 4)
- Fort Shafter, HI (Station 5)
- Fort Hunt, VA (Station 7)
- An Army Station #6 was proposed, but never activated.
Rhombic antennas were installed on the Fort Ward Parade Ground, and the old post exchange/gymnasium building was converted into a listening post, code-named Station S. Men and women worked 24 hours a day, listening in on Japanese naval communications, which were transmitted in the Japanese Morse Code. It was said that the listening post activities were so sensitive that personnel on the base were instructed not to look at the building when they walked by it. An article in the Seattle Times on January 11, 1941, showed pictures of Sailors copying Morse code in a classroom and setting up a Morse code sending machine.
In March 1941, seeking to improve the interception efforts of the HFDF stations, a direct commercial teletype service link was authorized, procured and inaugurated between the installations at Winter Harbor, ME (Station W), Amagansett, NY (Station G), Fort Ward, Bainbridge Island, WA (Station S) radio intercept facilities, and the Net Control Station at Cheltenham, MD (Station M). This development allowed the stations to forward intercepts immediately to Washington upon receipt. While the primary emphasis was on Japanese diplomatic traffic, other messages of unusual nature were also forwarded. The result was improved coverage of radio circuits and minimized delays in getting the intercepts to the cryptanalysts.
Communications between Washington, DC and its resources in the Pacific continued to be primitive. Messages and intercept logs, reports and professional correspondence, if classified, were painstakingly enciphered by the Radio Intelligence Officer himself using special equipment and instructions. If transmitted as messages on manual Morse code circuits or landlines, they were delivered to the communications center where they were again enciphered. The Fort Ward command also oversaw the construction of the Navy’s largest radio transmitter at Battle Point, with a tower 300-foot taller than the Space Needle. This was used to send messages to Navy Command at Pier 91 in Seattle.
The Fort Ward, Bainbridge Island Radio Intelligence Unit intercepted the communication from Tokyo to the Japanese Ambassador in the U.S. that instructed him to break off negotiations with the U.S., just before the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7,
In November 1942, Fort Ward also assumed control of Naval intelligence assignments previously tasked to the Royal Canadian Navy.
World War II
During World War II, the U.S. Navy Radio Station operations at Bainbridge Island, Port Blakely, Washington were comprised of Supplementary Station (School, D/F and Intercept), Naval Radio Transmitting Station (located at Battle Point), U.S. Naval Radio Direction Finder Station, Naval Training School (Radio-Special), Naval Radio Activities, and a Supplementary Radio Station. After World War II, personnel on the base (which was transferred back to the U.S. Army in 1956) continued to listen in on radio transmissions, first Korean and then Soviet.
With the attack on Pearl Harbor and the beginning of the World War II in the Pacific, the Island was hit hard. In March, 1942, Bainbridge Island became one of the first communities required to respond to Executive Order 9066 which uprooted those of Japanese ancestry, most of who were U.S. citizens, and forced them to move inland. 220 Japanese-Americans were sent to Manzanar on the edge of the Mojave Desert, and then to Minidoka in Idaho. Editors of the Bainbridge Review, the Woodwards, kept Islanders informed on the activities of displaced residents during the war, and regular columns appeared from the internment camps. Editorials pointed out violations of the Bill of Rights inherent in the Executive Order. Many Islanders were appalled at this treatment of their friends and neighbors. They supported the Japanese-Americans, and welcomed them home at the end of the war.
U.S. Naval School, Communications Technician (Supplementary Training) was established at Bainbridge Island, WA in October, 1951 and was closed in December, 1953, shortly after NSGA Bainbridge Island was decommissioned. Communications Technician training “A” school commenced in U.S. Naval School, Imperial Beach, CA, on October 1, 1949. When the school closed at Bainbridge Island only the Imperial Beach Communications Technician School remained open. On July 1, 1957, the Communications Technician school at Imperial Beach was redesignated Navy Communication Training Center (NCTC) Imperial Beach, CA. In March, 1960, Communications Technician training moved from NCTC Imperial Beach and became NCTC Corry Field, Pensacola.
The town of Winslow (incorporated on August 9, 1947), around 1.5 square miles; developed water and sewer utilities, and became the Island’s urban center. The Agate Pass Bridge was built in 1950 and with it the Island’s first state highway. The U.S. Army returned in 1956 to install a Nike missile base and radar station. The Washington State Ferries took over the old shipyard and Winslow became a busy connection to the Kitsap and Olympic peninsulas.
The U.S. Army abandoned all operations in 1958. Upon this second deactivation, the Washington State Park System negotiated for acquisition of part of the fort in 1960, which became Fort Ward State Park. The Naval radio transmitting station located at Battle Point was deactivated on March 31, 1959, and the equipment was removed in 1971.
Over the years, some of the buildings have been converted into homes. The parade ground of the community of Fort Ward has been designated a National Historic Site, the only one of its kind on Bainbridge Island. Many of the homes are also listed on the City of Bainbridge Island’s Historic Register.
Since the 1960s, Bainbridge Island has become a bedroom community of Seattle, Bainbridge Island is connected to the Kitsap Peninsula by a bridge carrying WA-305 over Agate Passage, and to Colman Dock in downtown Seattle by Washington State Ferries service from Bainbridge Island in Eagle Harbor.
Edited by Mario Vulcano