Have you ever wondered about the events that surrounded the establishment of the On-The-Roof Gang (OTRG) award and the buildings at Corry Station the were dedicated to the OTRG members? If so, you may find this article from the “All Hands” magazine dated October 1983 interesting.
Keeping a secret might be considered tough these days, but there’s one group of Navy men who managed to keep a big secret for more than five decades. Perhaps the most exclusive group of men in the Navy’s history-only 176 in number-they were a highly skilled, extremely dedicated and motivated group of professionals. What’s more, they helped their country secure victory in the Pacific during World War II.
Known as the “On-the-Roof Gang,” they were secretly trained in techniques of Japanese radio communications, at a school located on the roof of the old Main Navy building on Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C. The organization they formed has since become today’s Naval Security Group.
Their story was one of the Navy’s best kept secrets until a few years ago, when the veil of secrecy about pre-World War II intelligence operations in the Pacific began to lift. Now that their story is being told, a memorial to the “On-the-Roof Gang” has been built and an annual award established to recognize those who “carry the torch” of naval communications security – the cryptologists (“CT” rating).
The “On-the-Roof Gang” Memorial was dedicated June 17, 1983, at the Naval Security Station on Nebraska Avenue in Washington by Rear Admiral Paul W. Dillingham Jr., commander of the Naval Security Group Command at the time, and Lieutenant James W. Pearson, the second senior surviving member of the OTRG. Thirty-five of the 90 living members of this special group were on hand for the dedication of their memorial and the establishment of the annual “On-the Roof Gang” Award.
Admiral Rondel J. Hays, Vice Chief of Naval Operations, spoke to the surviving members of the “gang” who, with nearly 400 relatives and friends, gathered in the Navy Chapel on Nebraska Avenue to witness the ceremony on closed-circuit television.
“As we dedicate this memorial, you who are active members of the cryptologic community and are fortunate to be able to attend this dedication can reflect with great pride on the deeds accomplished by members of the “On-the-Roof Gang’,” Admiral Hays said. “Not only will this memorial remind us of their accomplishments but the establishment of the OTRG Award for excellence in cryptology will also be a perpetual reminder of the forerunners of today’s cryptologic technician.”
The “On-the-Roof Gang” got its start in July 1928 when the U.S. government began to worry about a Japanese threat to the security of U.S. interests in the Pacific. Admiral Charles F Hughes, then Chief of Naval Operations, issued a memorandum establishing a school for senior enlisted radiomen to be trained in “radio intercept work” beginning in October of that year.
Main Navy was chosen as the site for the school. Chief Radioman Harry Kidder and other radiomen who had learned the Japanese telegraphic code on their own were designated as instructors. Under heavy secrecy, the search for volunteers was begun throughout the Navy.
As the word got out to the fleet, commanding officers began looking for senior, skilled radiomen for this special assignment. The only guidelines they had were that nominees must “… have excellent records and be qualified in every respect for important and responsible duty. They must be known to be of high moral character and must desire this duty.”
Among that they had agreed to participate by the time their orders arrived, and they really didn’t know what they were getting into.
Retired Lieutenant Rexford G. Parr recalled his beginnings in OTRG: “I was a radioman aboard USS Smith in San Diego. I was asked if I’d like some special duty, and I answered ‘Why not?’ Nine months later, when I’d nearly forgotten about it, orders showed up. I was on my way to Washington.”
For 13 years, Navy and Marine Corps radiomen reported to Main Navy for training in the interception and analysis of radio messages. Their classroom, for security reasons, was a steel-reinforced concrete blockhouse on the roof of the sixth wing of Main Navy. To get to class each day, the eight or so radiomen in each three-month course had to climb a ladder onto the roof. As a result, they began calling themselves “roofers” and “gumshoes.”
Twenty-five classes, totaling 150 sailors and 26 marines, were trained there before World War II, when classes were moved to meet increased demand for intercept specialists.
After graduation, they were sent to stations in the Pacific and Asia such as Shanghai, China; the Philippines; Guam; and Hawaii. A few operators were assigned duty aboard ships of the Navy and the merchant marine.
Secrecy was their life, war their job. Most OTRG members were in the thick of the Pacific war at one time or another. It was their job to intercept and pass on as much enemy information as they could. After the war broke out, many stayed with their radios until the last possible moment before they were evacuated as the Japanese advanced.
When operators at a particular station saw that evacuation was inevitable, they quickly destroyed all traces of their intercept work and moved out. One group of 70 operators, most of whom were “roofers,” was evacuated from the Philippines to Australia by submarine. They narrowly missed being captured by the invading Japanese and survived many depth-charge attacks by enemy destroyers.
Retired Chief Warrant Officer Charles G. Quinn remembers: “I was at an intercept station on Corregidor. When the country fell, I was on one of the last submarines out-after General Douglas MacArthur! ”
Others weren’t so lucky. On Guam, operators at the radio intercept station Libugon were captured shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. For 45 months, the eight men (seven of them OTRG members) were in a Japanese POW camp. Before being taken prisoner, they had time to destroy the intercept station. The Japanese never knew about their special mission, and they all returned home safe at war’s end.
Admiral Hays spoke about the special qualities in these men that kept them from disclosing their secret. The admiral suggested that the entire security check required for entry into the ”On-the-Roof Gang” could have consisted of a simple question: “Can you keep a secret?”
The admiral knew, however, that the integrity of these men had withstood the test of half a century; they really could keep a secret. Admiral Hays’ remark struck home for many of the wives and widows of the OTRG members, for it was only recently that most of them were permitted to learn the secret their husbands had harbored for so long.
“I knew my husband’s job was important, but I never knew just what it had been until 1981 – after we’d been married for 38 years!” exclaimed Quinn’s wife, Rachael. “And yet,” she continued, “being a Navy wife has been a very, very prideful thing. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.”
That pride runs in the Quinn family. Their son, Charles G . Quinn Jr., is a chief radioman aboard USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70).
The proud wives of the gang learned the big secret at a convention of the Naval Cryptologic Veterans Association in Pensacola, Fla., in 1981.
“Even at the convention we didn’t learn about everything our husbands did,” Mrs. Quinn said. “For security reasons, we just don’t need to know. But knowing how important their job was makes our fondness for the Navy ever more special.”
The secrets and hardships shared by members of the gang before and during World War II made for friendships that continue today. Captain Harold E. Joslin, who was one of the seven OTRG members captured on Guam and imprisoned by the Japanese, came to appreciate the value of a good friend while a prisoner of war.
“Being a POW gave me an opportunity to sort out my life under difficult circumstances. I found out that there weren’t many things in life that were very important after my family, my country and my belief,” Joslin said. “I learned the meaning of a good friend. There wasn’t much else.”
The “On-the Roof Gang” became a “family,” enjoying camaraderie comparable to that of a ship’s crew. Today, many of those friendships live on; it’s because of one of those friendships that the OTRG exists.
“Several of us retired OTRG members and our wives had been playing weekly bridge games for years and talking about getting together a list of the gang,” recalled Lieutenant Commander Pearly L. Phillips. “Then, I decided that we’d better stop talking about it and do something!” That was in the late 1960s.
By 1971, after enlisting the aid and wracking the brains of almost 50 OTRG members, Phillips published a roster of “on-the-roof” – trained special radio operators. A reunion was held the following year, where many more old friendships were rekindled and addresses exchanged.
On the 40th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, in December 1981, a second reunion was held in Washington. Twenty-one “roofers” attended that get together. It was then that the idea for a memorial and an award to today’s outstanding cryptologists surfaced.
“We wanted to leave some footprints in the sands of time,” said Chief Warrant Officer Norman V. Lewis, who retired from the Navy in 1947. “Admiral Pat March dedicated several buildings at the Naval Technical Training Center in Pensacola to some of our earliest and most accomplished cryptologists in 1976. That was the beginning of recognition of those of us who lived with these secrets for so long,” he said, recalling the dedication of five buildings at the cryptologic training command to deceased members by then Naval Security Group Commander Rear Admiral G.P. March.
The buildings are named for Rear Admiral Joseph Rice Dennis, Lieutenant Commander Charles E. Daniels, Lieutenant Max Gunn, Chief Radioman Walter McGregor and Chief Radioman Harry “Pappy” Kidder. Kidder is the best-known on-the-roof instructor, having trained himself in the Japanese code before leading six of the 25 classes held on the roof.
After the 1981 reunion, Phillips and Joslin approached Admiral Dillingham and the Naval Security Group, looking for a “home” for the “On-the-Roof Gang.” After 15 years of diligence, Phillips’ files on the OTRG nearly filled the basement of his home in Maryland.
Noting the historical significance of these pioneers of cryptology, Admiral Dillingham readily accepted custody of the OTRG historical files on behalf of the Rear Admiral Joseph N. Wenger Cryptologic Museum, which is housed in the security group’s Washington headquarters building. The admiral also heartily endorsed the idea of the award and the memorial. In 18 months, both became reality. In establishing the award, Admiral Dillingham challenged today’s enlisted cryptologists “to build on the tradition of excellence established by the ‘On-the-Roof Gang.’ The awards will be presented each November with the recipients’ names inscribed on brass plaques near the OTRG Memorial.
Lt. Pearson unveiled the memorial. Pearson was the senior living member of the OTRG at the dedication; he graduated from the fourth class, in August 1930. The senior living “roofer” is Lieutenant Commander Keith E. Goodwin, who was in the first class held atop Main Navy in 1928.
Pearson, speaking after the dedication, summed up the spirit of the memorial: “As I pulled the curtain aside and unveiled the beautiful bronze memorial, I realized that now, after so many years of living in secrecy, the gang has a place to call home, at the home of the organization which we helped establish. And when the bugler played taps, and I thought of the 86 of us who have died, I knew that the ‘On-the-Roof Gang’ would always have a place to muster.”
It’s appropriate that the memorial is at the home of the organization the “On-the- Roof Gang” started-the Naval Security Group. Today’s security group, however, is just a bit larger than it was when the OTRG laid the cornerstone.
The “gang’s” successors belong to an active force of approximately 1,100 Navy and Marine Corps cryptologic-designated officers and 11,000 Navy and Marine Corps enlisted people. That active force is backed up by a cryptologic reserve force of some 500 officers and 2,500 enlisted technicians. In Admiral Hays words, “Our cryptologic personnel have become interwoven as an integral part of our Navy and Marine Corps mission in the defense of our nation.”
Joslin recognizes that importance as well and is proud of those who make up the Naval Security Group today. “I think today’s technicians are a fine group of young men and women,” Joslin said. “They certainly have a lot more difficult problems to deal with these days, but they have a lot more sophisticated equipment available. Their training is excellent in the security group.”
Joslin pointed out the number of different specialties of today’s cryptologists, remembering “back when” the OTRG had to be jacks-of-all-trades. Today, “CTs” can specialize in administration (CT “A” branch); repairing and maintaining complex computerized systems (CT “M” – maintenance branch); analyzing components of the electromagnetic environment (CT “T” – technical branch); operating satellite communications systems (CT “0” – operations); learning foreign languages (CT “I” interpretive); and, in the tradition of the “On-the-Roof Gang,” learning Morse code (CT “R” collection).
Naval cryptologists today serve at 47 shore facilities, providing a variety of technical functions, at sea, in different types of combatant ships and aboard early warning aircraft. At sea, among other duties, they provide direct cryptologic support to on-scene tactical commanders.
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the thousands of people in the Naval Security Group today is keeping secrets as well as the 176 members of the “On-the-Roof Gang” did. Moreover, maintaining the impressive standards of pride and professionalism established by OTRG will be an on-going challenge among enlisted cryptologists vying for honorary membership in the gang. As long as there’s a Naval Security Group, the annual award for excellence in cryptology will inspire young men and women to preserve their proud heritage.
Of all the memories shared by members of the gang at the dedication ceremony and the get-together that followed, memories of Navy friendships and their early days at sea as enlisted radiomen seem to overshadow the rest.
Lieutenant Parr said it best, “There’s nothing like getting up early in the morning, with the sea beneath your feet, and going topside for your first cup of Navy coffee. That kind of sunrise is one of the most beautiful things in the world.
‘‘It’s a fine feeling, knowing that as long as we’ve got a Navy-and a Naval Security Group-the seas of the world will be free, and the sunrises all as beautiful. And despite daily advances in technology, it will always be men like the ‘On-the- Roof Gang’ who risk their lives in the name of freedom.”
By JO2 Thomas Leek, Naval Security Station, Washington, D.C.
A special thanks for CWO4 Kevin Schneider, USN for this article!