Personnel and Perception Problems

During the late 1930’s, fundamental issues arose which ultimately resulted in the withdrawal, until World War II, of enlisted marine intercept operators for COMINT operations.
The similarly of background of both marine intercept operators and general service communications personnel at Shanghai and Peiping gave rise to certain perception among the intercept operators as described in a CinCAF inspection report of  Shanghai, probably written in late 1935, which stated:

  • There was no incentive to remain in intercept duties since assignment was on a temporary basis, vice the permanent basis of Navy personnel,
  • There was a general dissatisfaction among Marine operators who observed that Navy intercept operators had more time to work in intercept duties, with less general military training and additional duty requirements,
  • Promotion opportunities for Marine intercept operators, as compared to Marine general service communicators, were poor since intercept operators were considered to be working “out of rate,” and
  • Marine superiors had little understanding, or appreciation, of either the intercept operators’ assigned duties, or their performance of those duties.

Nearly two years earlier, in February 1933, CNO had offered CMC the opportunity to use Bar Harbor Marine, as a site where Marine Corps intercept operators, having completed overseas duty, could be assigned to continue their intercept work.  At the same time these men would be available to the Marine Corps as “a mobile unit for Expeditionary Force or other special duty.”  The navy had determined Bar Harbor was uniquely positioned to intercept Japanese diplomatic traffic between Japan and Europe and wanted to exploit these communications further.  Since adequate manpower resources were not available, the Navy turned to the Marine Corps for assistance.  USMC intercept operators experienced on the Japanese diplomatic communications were, upon returning stateside, being assigned to general service communications billets since there were no USMC intercept billets within the U.S.  For example, seven USMC intercept operators who returned from Asiatic duty were assigned to the Marine Barracks, Quantico, Virginia.  It’s not known what reply, if any, was made to the Navy’s proposal.  At the time, the proposal looked good on paper but, through expiration of enlistments and reassignments, only one operator, Cpl William L. Kiser, was available.  Cpl Kiser was sent to Bar Harbor on temporary additional duty for an unspecified period in 1933, but there is no mention of any other Marine Corps personnel being sent there in either 1933 or later.  It is apparent the small numbers of Marines involved duties made it impractical to staff Bar Harbor on a permanent basis.

Establishment of Permanent Marines Billets for Intercept Operators?

CNO (OP-20-GX) endorsed the CinCAF Shanghai inspection report in a February 12, 1936 letter to CMC.  It was concluded the only viable solution to the problems mentioned was the establishment of a permanent Marine Corps billet structure for intercept personnel.  This would result in Marine intercept operators attaining the same standards of loyalty to COMINT duties as their Navy counterparts, and reduce the danger of compromising the Navy’s COMINT effort against Japan by assigning only these personnel to COMINT duties rather than rotating general service communications personnel in and out of duty in cryptology.

CMC to CNO – Billets not Feasible

In his March 9, response, CMC stated he appreciated the need for security relative to intercept duties but considered maintenance of a permanent cadre of 20 KANA intercept operators was not feasible due to force structure limitations.  The Marine Corps general service communications billets had been established in 1931 to meet Fleet Marine Force (FMF) requirements but at the time of CMC’s response, the enlisted general service communications personnel situation was such that FMF requirements were barely being met.  Therefore, CMC concluded it was neither feasible to realign the billet structure to establish a permanent cadre of COMINT personnel nor into intercept duties beyond the numbers previously agreed upon by the Marine Corps for the Asiatic COMINT effort.  However, efforts would be made to reduce personnel turnover at Shanghai, improve promotion opportunities, and to assign trained, or at least carefully screened, communications personnel to COMINT duties.

Shanghai Closing?

OP-20-G considered the Marine Corps response to be unsatisfactory, as evidenced by its March 25, 1936 letter to CNO, which stated, in part; “… it is believed that the performance, and especially the security [awareness], of Marine Crops intercept operators will not achieve the necessary standards.  Therefore, it is regretfully recommended that the Commander in Chief, Asiatic Fleet, be authored to discontinue the [Shanghai] station at such time and in such manner as best serves his convenience with the necessary security, unless there is immediately apparent to him an improvement in the stability of the personnel and security of the activity.  At such time it would be unnecessary to replace the existing Marine Corps intercept operator.”  This recommendation was approved by CNO.  March 27, 1936 CinCAF was informed of the decision and was authorized to close the Shanghai station, “…at such time and in such manner as best serves his convenience with the necessary security.”

However, it was not until August 21, 1936 that CinCAF informed the Commanding Officer, 4th Marine Regiment, that CinCAF had discretionary authority to close the Shanghai station.  Evidently, CinCAF did not view the Marine Corps operations” shortcomings in the same light as the Navy Department since he stated, “… the station was operating effectively and collecting valuable information.  Therefore, unless the Commanding Officer, 4th Marines recommended otherwise, the matter of closing  the station was to be held in abeyance until, and reconsidered when, the Marines then assigned to it had reached the end of their tour.” CinCAF went on to state, however, that “…only operators who have had previous training and duty in intercept work, and whose records are clear, will be assigned to this station.  Such assignment will be made only with the approval of the CNO or the Commander in Chief, Asiatic Fleet.”  Nevertheless, CinCAF made plans for the eventual replacement of the Marines Corps operators since it was readily apparent that their employment in the Asiatic Fleet COMINT organization was limited due to the Marine Corps’ decision to maintain an allowance of general service communications billets only and not establish a permanent cadre of intercept operator billets and personnel.

Shanghai will be Manned by Navy Operators!

Although undoubtedly long expected, it was not until September 23, 1937 that CinCAF officially informed the Commanding Officer, 4th Marines that the Shanghai Marines intercept operators would be replaced by Navy personnel.  They would be phased in until a complement of one Chief Radioman eight intercept operators and one cryptographic clerk was achieved.  The exact chronology of the phase out is not known, but it appears Sgt Jesse L. Randle, transferred in August 1938, was the last enlisted Marine to leave the station thus ending pre-World War II Marine Corps COMINT intercept operations.  While Shanghai was to be manned by navy personnel, the station’s OIC was to continue to be a Marine Corps officer as long as a trained officer was available.  On October 13, 1937, Capt Kenneth H. Cornell, USMC, a Japanese language officer, was ordered to Shanghai for duty as OIC.  Capt Cornell was subsequently relieved as OIC by Capt Alva B. Lasswell, USMC.

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