BATTLE OF MIDWAY
U.S.S. YORKTOWN INTERCEPT UNIT
INTERCEPT UNIT ROSTER:
LCDR FULLENWIDER – Language Officer
WESLEY WALVOORD – RM1C
M. G. ALBERTSON – RM2C
R. A. RUNDLE – RM2C
In late May 1942 there was an urgent call for volunteers to form an intercept unit for duty aboard the U.S.S. Yorktown. The three enlisted operators above were designated and ordered to prepare to depart Wahiawa when ready and report to the ship in Pearl Harbor. Very little information was available as to the nature of the operation but most operators at Wahiawa had been aware for some time that fleet action was imminent in the Midway Island area.
The three operators reported to the ship in Pearl Harbor, finding her still at the dock still undergoing repairs to battle damage sustained in the Coral Sea battle from which she had just returned. Only RIP-5s, callsign/frequency information and message blanks were transported to the ship by the operators.
The intercept unit was assigned to the Flag Radio Room, immediately abaft the Flag Bridge. Here there were radio receivers, antenna distribution panels and little else. The operators were also assigned to berthing spaces but after noting the patched up battle damage below decks all three decided then and there to sleep in the radio room.
LCDR Fullenwider contacted the intercept unit in due course and briefed the operators as to the forthcoming operation. Briefly, that many units of the Japanese Fleet were headed for the Hawaiian Islands with the initial objective of attacking and securing Midway Island. Further, that the Pacific Fleet intended to position itself near Midway Island and intercept the Japanese Fleet. LCDR Fullenwider also advised that the U.S.S. Yorktown would probably not become involved initially. Due to her extensive battle damage she was to be held in a reserve or backup status. The intercept unit task: search, locate and intercept enemy tactical frequencies, ship and aircraft, in the Midway area with the intent that the information derived be provided to Admiral Fletcher. Admiral Spruance on the U.S.S. Enterprise was also supported by an intercept unit but there were no communication channels between the two units.
The U.S.S. Yorktown put to sea with escort and the intercept unit set the watch immediately. Initial efforts consisted of search procedures in the low, middle and high frequency bands. The Yorktown force eventually joined with the Hornet and Enterprise in the Midway area but it was noted that the two forces remained a considerable distance apart. In fact, it was often not possible to visually sight the other taskforce from the Flag Bridge. The intercept watch continued up to the early morning hours of June 4th without logging a single tactical type message. The operators concluded that the Japanese Fleet, if it was in the vicinity, maintained strict radio silence (as it did preceding the strike on Pearl Harbor). LCDR Fullenwider maintained close contact with the intercept unit and the Flag Bridge. At one point, after the Yorktown had launched search aircraft, Admiral Fletcher visited the intercept unit for approximately 30 minutes indicating his desire to be close at hand when sighting reports were received.
The exact time is not recalled but sometime during the morning hours the intercept unit (all three operators on watch) suddenly located many active tactical circuits on which numerous short encoded messages were intercepted. Unfortunately, callsign identification was not possible nor did we have the means to decode the messages. However, the intercepts did confirm that the enemy fleet was in the area and, moreover, that enemy recce units had more than likely sighted elements of the Pacific Fleet. One enemy voice circuit was also located and this seemed to provide some information to LCDR Fullenwider. The operators could also identify transmissions which emanated from enemy aircraft, thanks to the peculiar characteristics of aircraft transmitters. Aircraft operators in flight were also distinguishable from shipboard operators.
Once radio silence was broken by the enemy the unit intercepted a literal deluge of enemy traffic from many different frequencies. LCDR Fullenwider had little time to brief the operators because he was extremely busy moving between the radio room and Flag Bridge, attempting to read and analyze intercept traffic on the run. We did finally learn that Midway Island had been attacked early that same morning and that units of the enemy fleet had been sighted and attacked by U.S. aircraft. We could expect retaliation and it was not long in coming.
At approximately noon, same date, the intercept unit was advised that attack by enemy aircraft was imminent and that the Flag Radio room was to be battened down accordingly. Actually, this amounted to closing and dogging a steel porthole cover over the one porthole in the space. The operators were reluctant to do this because air circulation in Flag Radio was very poor even under normal conditions. Looking out the porthole one last time I saw a U.S. Marine sergeant on the catwalk loading a 20mm and buckling himself to the mount. I wished him luck. All operators remained on watch and continued to intercept enemy transmissions although all hands were now apprehensive about the predicted attack. In a few minutes all intercept came to a halt when the ship commenced firing all, anti-aircraft batteries and heeling over from side to side as she engaged in violent evasive maneuvers. The din was absolutely mind-boggling and radio signals could not be heard even by clamping the earphones to the ears with both hands.
After a few minutes the firing and evasive maneuvering ceased and the operators sensed that the ship was slowing. Eventually it came to a complete stop. The operators resumed the watch although we became concerned as to the whereabouts of LCDR Fullenwider whom we had not seen since before the attack. After a few more minutes the operators noticed that a black greasy film had invaded the radio room and coated everything including our faces, hands and clothing. About this time LCDR Fullenwider entered Flag Radio and seemed surprised that we were still there inasmuch as all other personnel had evacuated the Flag Bridge and other adjacent spaces several minutes earlier. He also informed us the Ship had been hit by bombs several times and that we might have to abandon ship. The operators donned life jackets, picked up two RIP-5s and moved out of Flag Radio onto a catwalk. There we noted that the stack was on fire, also a big hole in the flight deck aft. There were several ship’s company sailors on the catwalk and I worried about carrying a RIP-5 without a cover. I needn’t have been concerned, however, because curiosity about a typewriter was the least of their worries. As I stepped by one young sailor I saw a bullet hole high on his left shoulder; noting his glassy-eyed expression I asked him if he knew he had been wounded. He stated that he was not exactly sure as to that had happened to him but he promised, at my suggestion, to report to the nearest hospital corpsman.
The operators continued down from the catwalk, through the interior of the island structure and out on the flight deck. There we were shocked to discover that the ten ton gun mount aft of the island structure had disappeared along with most of its crew. It must have sustained a direct, or near direct, hit.
Several bodies had been laid out in a row alongside the island structure. We continued out toward the port side of the flight deck, waiting for contact by LCDR Fullenwider as to the Flag’s intentions. (The captain of the ship was making an extensive inspection to determine the overall condition of the ship). LCDR Fullenwider subsequently advised us that Admiral Fletcher had decided to move his flag to one of the heavy cruisers and that we were to transfer along with other flag personnel. At this point, we asked and received permission to dispose of one RIP-5 over the side; also, Tack Walvoord requested and received permission to return to the Flag Radio room and retrieve all other publications, hard copy traffic and any other items deemed useful. The operators were then instructed to report to the Flag Lieutenant on the hangar deck, portside, and advise him we were part of the Flag to be transferred with Admiral Fletcher.
After making our way through ankle deep water, aviation gasoline, oil and wrecked airplanes on the hangar deck we located the Flag Lieutenant and reported as instructed. (LCDR Fullenwider had already departed the ship with Admiral Fletcher). He was very skeptical that three grease covered sailors in dungarees could be a part of Admiral Fletcher’s Flag and I could sense that he was about to refuse our transfer. On inspiration I requested that he examine the keyboard of the RIP-5 I was carrying. He gave the RIP-5 a long close examination, looked once more at the operators and gave his permission to depart the ship at next opportunity. He asked no further questions. As we stood by we became aware of burial at sea services taking place on the hangar deck amidships. The Chaplin was conducting multiple burials. After about 30 minutes a whaleboat approached the portside immediately below usand the Flag Lieutenant checked off the personnel and equipment scheduled to transfer to the cruiser. The ladder to the whaleboat consisted of a knotted line from the hangar deck to the water so we lowered the RIP-5 on a separate line – into about 3 inches of salt water in the bottom of the whaleboat. All hands safely loaded we made the transfer to the U.S.S. Astoria without incident. We boarded the Astoria via a cargo net draped over the fan tail, portside. The cruiser got underway immediately and the intercept operators stood by topside out of the way of the ships’ crew to await further instructions from LCDR Fullenwider. While waiting, two SBD dive bombers buzzed the ship, indicating their intention to ditch alongside. Again the ship stopped and lowered a whaleboat. Both SBD’s ditched, one after the other, in perfect water landings near the whaleboat which picked up both crews immediately. They hardly got their feet wet although both aircraft sank very quickly. After the rescue the ship again got underway and shortly thereafter sounded General Quarters – impending air attack. The gun crews advised us to put cotton in our ears, or better yet, take cover below wherever we could find it. (Having been trained in gunnery while in the fleet I felt quite useless as a stranded intercept operator with no battle station duties). I opted to find my way to the main deck below and remained near a damage control party.
The air attack commenced in a few minutes and, again, the ship’s anti-aircraft batteries commenced firing in a familiar sequence; first the 5-inch 38’s, then the 20mm and last the .50 caliber machine guns. The noise was even more deafening than I experienced on the Yorktown. After the attack I learned that one torpedo plane had made a run on the Astoria but was shot down close aboard. The Yorktown was not so fortunate. We could see her listing to port several degrees and knew she had been severely damaged by torpedoes.
After the attack the intercept crew was directed to report to the ship’s main transmitter room and set watch, utilizing existing ship’s receivers and antennas. The RIP-5 was installed at a position and a search watch initiated immediately. The transmitter room crew was very helpful, considering the circumstances. The intercept operators were even outfitted with a change of clothing after the ship had directed all Yorktown survivors to lay down to the Ship’s Store to draw health and comfort items.
We then learned that the Yorktown was to be abandoned. Her list was so severe it was feared she might capsize at any moment. The cruiser and destroyers, assisted by units dispatched to usby Admiral Spruance, set up patrol around the Yorktown. Other units moved close in to rescue Yorktown sailors as they went over the side and cleared the ship.
When the rescue operation was complete, the Astoria and all other units continued on at brisk speed in what seemed to be a northerly or northwesterly direction. LCDR Fullenwider advised us that the taskforce hoped to intercept a portion of the retreating enemy fleet. (By then we were cognizant that the enemy fleet had lost four aircraft carriers and some other surface units as well). We continued to obtain some intercept of enemy fleet units but I don’t believe it was of much tactical value to our taskforce since Hornet and Enterprise seemed to be conducting the follow-up attacks. At about this point the RIP-5 ceased to function due to its immersion in salt water. We used pencils and paper thereafter, thus proving the value of our training in use of the Kati Kana stick (pencil).
After cruising through the night hours the Astoria force returned to the Midway area where LCDR Fullenwider directed the intercept unit to prepare for transfer to the U.S.S. Saratoga which had arrived too late to participate in the battle. We subsequently rendezvoused with the Saratoga and transferred to her without incident. An intercept position was set up in an auxiliary radio room on the bridge, utilizing ship’s receivers and antennas. We continued to monitor the high frequency spectrum while the Saratoga steamed toward Pearl Harbor.
However, no significant intercepts occurred during this time. The intercept watch stood down when the Saratoga wasapproximately two hours from Pearl Harbor and the operators were instructed to prepare for transfer to Wahiawa.
Featured Image: The USS Yorktown is hit on the port side by a torpedo launched from a plane off the Japanese aircraft carrier Hiryu during the Battle of Midway on June 4, 1942. (Image: National Archives and Records Administration, 80-G-414423.)