First Marine Intercept Operators

In 1931, to improve security, the intercept site was moved to another location near the U.S. Naval Attaché’s residence.

09.22.1893 RIP-5 Underwood Code Machine
Underwood RIP-5

Although the site’s installed equipment undoubtedly changed with the passage of time, all positions were equipped with RIP-5 typewriters.  Initially, receivers included one Model RE LF receiver; one Model RF IF receiver, one Model RT and one Model RG HF receiver.  Due to reception limitations most intercept was accomplished on HF receivers while LF and IF receivers were used to search for new transmissions.  It is theorized the rationale for using Marines for COMINT operations at Peking was to maintain a low profile of navy personnel at the predominantly Marine Corps staffed facility.

Radio Security Station Peiping’s initial Marine complement consisted of Corporal (Cpl) Paul N. Kugler, Private First Class (PFC) William L. Thomson, and Privates (Pvt) William L. Kiser, Ogden E. Wilson and Winnett W. Robinson from the 4th Marine Regiment; all general service communicators who had been cross trained in KANA Morse code intercept.  These five operators appear to have been the first Marine intercept operators.  Six additional Marines, Stephen Lesko, Thomas V. Delva, Georg f. Knight, William R. White, Paul L. Wasson and Constantino Tatt, were trained for COMINT duties in China between 1928-1932.

Stephen Lesko’s account of his assignment and training illustrates at least one way of becoming an intercept operator.  In 1927, then Pvt Lesko, was reassigned to the Marine Detachment, American Legation, Peiping.  Shortly after being assigned to the 38th Company for duty, he saw a bulletin board notice soliciting volunteers for training as radio operators.  Soon after volunteering he was told to report to CRM Chauncey for an interview and, subsequently, a radio aptitude test.  Of those volunteering, only Pvt Lesko and Cpl Delva were selected.  They then reported to CRM Chauncey at the Headquarters, Marine Detachment to be trained in Japanese KANA Morse code.  The three men sat around a small table where Chauncey, using a U.S. Army Signal Corps telegrapher’s buzzer as a teaching aid, taught Lesko and Delva to copy KANA by hand.  On May 1, 1929, Lesko and Delva were transferred to Headquarters Company, Marine Detachment for duty with the radio station.

First Marines Go To Washington for Training

All Marines replacement personnel, other than those trained on-site, were graduates of the Navy Department based KANA Operator’s Course.  From available information, it appears CNO (OP-20-G) and CMC made arrangements to train replacements before their transfer to the Asiatic Station for intercept duties, rather than training them on-site.  Three Marines were nominated for the first Washington class (No. 3; Nov 1929-Feb 1930) but only PFC Charles A. Cameron completed the course.  However, upon graduation Pvt Cameron was transferred to Quantico, Virginia and never assigned to intercept duties.  Between December 1930 and April 1934, five more classes were conducted in which 18 Marines were trained as replacements for those already on board the Asiatic Station.  Class No. 5 (Dec 1930-Apr 1931) was unique in two respects.  First, it was an all Marine class, with six students, Cpl William a. Wilder, Pvt Charles J. Smith, Cpl Hubert N. Thomas, Jr., Pvt Phillip R. Miller and Pvt Maurice M. Overstreet.  Second, the instructor was CRM Chauncey, who had been transferred to Washington.  He undoubtedly provided his students with both technical knowledge and proficiency, as well as first-and information on their future assignment at Peiping.

OTRG class number 5
OTRG class number 5
l-to-r: William A. Wilder, Charles J. Smith, Dorman, A. Chauncey (instructor),
Hubert N. Thomas, Jr., Phillip M. Miller & Maurice M. Overstreet.

Working Out of Hide

After Class No. 5’s graduation, CMC established an allowance of eight Marine Corps personnel for intercept duty.  At the same time, the Navy had only two authorized billets for intercept duty indicating that 24 of the 26 Navy personnel performing intercept duties were carried in excess of allowance.  Radio Security Station, Peiping, personnel identified in a 1932 photograph were CRM Clarence M. Reynolds (AOIC), Cpl Stephen Lesko, Cpl Hubert N. Thomas, Jr., Cpl William A. Wilder, Pfc George F. Knight, Pvt  Phillip M. Miller, PFC Walter B. Robertson, Pvt Maurice M. Overstreet and Pvt Charles J. Smith.  Rosters of Marines Corps personnel assigned to Peiping as of the month of December for the years 1932 through 1934 are as follows: December 1932: Cpls C. H. Gustaveson, J. H. Easter, and J. Hibbard, and Pvt M. M. Overstreet, C. J. Smith, W. B. Robertson, R. M. White, C. M. Smith, and P. L. Wasson

December 1933: Sgt F. L. (probably R. A) Hardisty, Cpl J. H. Easter, C. H. Gustaveson, and S. C. Southerland, Pfc C. J. Smith, and Pvts V. W. Morgan, C. Tattoo, P. l. Wasson, and R. M. White.

Getting Into the Swing

December 1934: Sgt J. H. Easter, Sgt C. S.  Southerland, Pfc H. V. Jones, Pfc C. F. Gentlicore, and Pvts H. L. Butler, J. A. Petroskyh and N. F. Robertson.

Peiping’s primary intercept target was the Japanese Government’s diplomatic communications systems Asiatic net connecting all embassies and consulates on the continent with the Japanese Foreign Office.  The Peiping station’s marine intercept operators copied and forwarded an average of 4500 words per day to OP-20-G, providing excellent and current material for cryptanalysis.  In this era of manual transmissions, intercepting the traffic was very similar to sitting at a standard telegrapher’s position. However, as one contemporary navy intercept operator noted concerning the Japanese Asiatic Net: “You had to get the swing, and, they [the Japanese telegraphers] moved a lot of traffic fast.  They were good operators.  It didn’t make much sense until you got the swing.  I’ve seen good [intercept] operators come in and sit down – they always came in to break in on a watch with a man that was already there – [and] just sit and look.  But when you got the rhythm, and the way they switched schedules, you could do it.”   There was no plain language traffic on the circuits.  Even operator chatter relating to such matters as schedule changes utilized simple codes and ciphers.  However, the experienced marine intercept operators quickly identified the circuits, operating schedules, callsigns and procedure signals.

By James McIntire and R. D. Howell, Sr. (NCVA)
Edited by Mario Vulcano