John Cooke, pictured, had studied collection techniques against imperial Japanese Navy communications as a U.S. Navy radioman.
He graduated from the course taught in a metal structure on top of the Navy Building in Washington, DC in September 1930. This made him a member of the pioneering group of intercept operators that later came to be known as the “On the Roof Gang.”
In 1988, Cooke wrote some reminiscences of his career in intercept in the 1930s. The following is a digest of that article.
After an initial assignment on Guam, Cooke and three colleagues did collection from Dollar Steamship Line passenger liners. Each operator was on a different ship, all of which were on a circuit to Tokyo, shanghai, Hong Kong, Manila, and Seattle. Over the next two years, each made seven circuits with one of them always being in the vicinity of Japan. Ostensibly, they were assisting in making a weather map of the North Pacific for future airliners use.
On one of these voyages on the President Jefferson, Cooke met a college girl and married her. Their marriage lasted a lifetime.
In 1935, Cooke learned that Pam American airways (PANAM) was about to begin flights from California to various locations in Asia that he was familiar with. PANAM hired him as a radio operator, and he got his discharge from the Navy. Cooke was on duty on November 22, 1935, when the first PANAM China Clipper took off. As he worked for PANAM, Cooke impressed his colleagues with his ability to copy Japanese weather broadcast – even when they switch from International Morse Code to a code of their own devising.
Cooke was assigned to Guam in the late 1930s by PANAM, and watched the American military buildup on the island. He and his family was transferred to Wake Island in early 1941 to join a few other civilians on Wake Island.
Many senior military officers visited Wake Island in those days, and were surprised to find a small civilian community, mostly construction contractors. In October 1941, the Navy ordered all civilian families to be evacuated. Cooke and one of the contractors protested, but were overruled. The families left.
PANAM’s Philippine Clipper arrived on Wake Island on December 6, 1941, one day behind schedule. Just as it left on the morning of the 7th for Guam, the islanders got the news about the Japanese attack on Hawaii. Cooke recalled the plane and the Navy commandeered it for a reconnaissance flight.
The Navy commander on the island, a Marine Corps major, the captain of the PANAM Clipper, and Cooke held a conference about their next steps. Driving back from the conference, Cooke was caught in a Japanese strafing attack on the island and narrowly escaped. The enemy hit every building on the island, but did not attack the fuel storage tanks.
The next step was to strip the Clipper of its cargo, seats, floorboards, and navigator’s table in order to cram every possible passenger aboard. The Clipper had been hit in the Japanese attack, but was still in flying condition. Cooke served as the Clipper’s radioman for the flight. The Clipper stayed at 500 feet altitude all day to avoid detection and then climbed to 10,000 feet after dark.
The airplane’s next stop was Midway Island, where it was to refuel. They had no difficulty finding Midway, since the island had been shelled by Japanese ships several hours earlier. Many of the building were on fire. The Clipper managed to refuel and flew on to Honolulu.
Cooke’s father, a Navy commander, met the Clipper as it came in. (Cooke’s uncle, by the way, was captain of the battle ship USS Pennsylvania.) Commander Cooke took his son and the skipper of the Clipper to meet Admiral Husband Kimmel, the commander-in-chief at Pearl Harbor, who wanted a first-hand report on the situation of the islands.
After the report, Kimmel turned to the younger Cooke and asked whether he was the person who had made a fuss when the order came to evacuate families from Wake Island. Cooke admitted he was. “That’s the trouble with you civilians,” Kimmel said, “You should realize we always know exactly what we are doing.”
Cooke made no response. He just looked through the admiral’s picture window at the remains of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, still smoldering from the Japanese attack.
22 March 2020 at 16:51
Interesting extract of John Cooke’s memoir, Mario. The real meat of the article is contained in its final two paragraphs. Captain Charles M. Cooke, known to his friends throughout his career by his nickname, “Savvy,” graduated second among the 131 graduating members of the Naval Academy’s class of 1910. I don’t know the precise date Captain Cooke took command of the Pacific Fleet’s flagship, Battleship Pennsylvania, but it was in early 1941. “Savvy” Cooke helped draft the then CNO’s PLAN DOG MEMORANDUM of 12 November 1940. Plan Dog established the policy of “Europe first” for fighting and winning the Second World War. At the time Plan Dog was drawn up, the Rainbow 3 and 5 war plans were also being developed.
In 1940 and early 1941, Captain Cooke was assigned to the war plans division, OP-12, in OPNAV. After his stint as commanding officer, USS Pennsylvania, Cooke returned to war plans where he relieved then Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner on or about 12 June 1942. (The orders that sent Turner to the Pacific were cut three times due to Admiral E.J. King’s desire to keep Turner in Washington, D.C. until after the Battle of Midway was fought. The source on this is VADM George C. Dyer’s The Amphibians Came to Conquer: The Story of Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner.)
A letter from Admiral Harold R. Stark to Admiral H.E. Kimmel of 13 January 1941 explains why Captain Cooke was sent to Pearl Harbor specifically to command the Pacific Fleet’s flagship: “I am sending you Savvy Cooke and I feel like I am losing one of my arms. That boy has one of the best brains I have ever run into. I put in his efficiency report that I would make him an Admiral immediately if I had the authority and believe me, if he were one, I would not consent to his going. I am sending him to sea to protect his promotion chances and am sending him to the Fleet Flagship because of his intimate knowledge and personal handiwork in all that we have done in War Plans and in all that we have been thinking. I feel that he should have a year in command, although were I going to sea myself I would be strongly inclined to take him on my staff. Where we put him he should be available to you in both capacities. His capacity for work is almost unlimited and in addition to all his other fine attributes, I have formed a very strong affection for him, as we all have. He is just as likable as he can be. Should his ship go to the Navy Yard and you would like to keep him with you during any such period, it could be arranged.”
Charles M. Cooke eventually reached four star rank as did Richmond Kelly Turner. Both of these men were known for their brilliance, ability and long work hours. (Pennsylvania was in dry dock at Pearl on 7 December 1941. As I recall, it had only minor damage due to being hit by a single 500 pound bomb. Captain Cooke was aboard his command at the time of the Japanese attack. On a personal note, I was born in Pennsylvania on 26 March 1948. I’ve had an interest in battleship Pennsylvania since early childhood. In late 1943 Pennsylvania served as Kelly Turner’s flagship for Operation Galvanic. Pennsylvania’s 14″ guns played hell with all radio activity aboard that ship during the invasions of Makin and Tarawa.)
I would dearly love to know the full name of John Cooke’s father.
Today’s Station HYPO article, The Story of John Cooke, On-the-Roof Gang Member, came as a wonderful early birthday present to me, Mario. Thank you very much!
Andy McKane, Maunaloa, Molokai, Hawaii.
22 March 2020 at 18:38
Again Andy, thank you for the great commentary – I really do appreciate them. Happy birthday. I hope you and Debbie enjoy many more together!
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22 March 2020 at 17:57
Love these historical posts, thank you.
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