In April 1941, I was called to active duty as an Ensign and ordered to a special communication “Refresher” school in Los Angeles at the Naval Reserve Armory in Chevez Ravine. I was one of about thirty reserve officers who qualified as communications officers for convoy duty.
After rushing us through a ninety-day course in thirty days, we were assigned to West Coast Naval District Headquarters as Communications Officers on temporary duty, pending permanent assignment. I ended up in Seattle, Washington, until the end of June 1941, when I received orders to COM 16 (Commander Sixteenth Naval District) Cavite, P.I.
Leaving Oahu, Hawaii, for Guam, Mariana Islands, we were told another passenger would be aboard, a Chief Radioman Donal Barnum, who was ordered to Guam. He also gravitated to the radio shack and soon we found he had unusual interests in some of the circuits Ensign Hirst and I found we could not “read.” We asked Barnum if he knew who they were. He identified the various transmissions “that’s Truk, and that’s Yap,” etc. Later I cornered him outside and asked him how come! Only after some evasive replies, which I told him were unsatisfactory responses, he went to his quarters and returned with his serve record. He showed me where he and been assigned to “special radio training” in Washington, D.C., where he learned Japanese “Morse.” He told me he was on his way to Guam to work at a “special radio station.” Barnum convinced me he was “legit.” Although I was not aware at the time, this was my first encounter with the Navy’s intercept organization.
On 12 August 1941, I reported to the Cavite Navy Yard, and was assigned duty at the yard Communications Office, and began standby watches. Along about October, the District Communications Officer called the quarters one day and asked us to put up an officer visiting from Corregidor. This turned out to be a LT John Lietwiler (1). In the course of conversation during his stay, he found that I had worked for IBM a couple of years as a field engineer, and showed considerable interest in my background.
About that time the District Communications Officer told me that because of my engineering and IBM background, he wanted me to set up a cryptographic machine repair unit to support Asiatic Fleet ships as well as the shore communication offices. I started to make plans for this in my spare time, arrange for workspace, look for a mechanically qualified radioman, etc. The District Communication Officer requested a supply of parts and authorization to have me “certified” without a formal school. Since the equipment was new to the Navy, they were desperate to have some sort of repair facility.
About two weeks after LT Lietwiler’s visit a request came to the District Communication Office (DCO) via Commander in Chief Asiatic Forces (CINCAF) to release me for duty with the Fleet Radio Unit (FRU) on Corregidor. In view of his plans for a crypto repair facility, the DCO violently resisted and went to CINCAF Headquarters to squelch the transfer. He apparently started a tug of war between the Fleet Intelligence Officer and the Fleet Communications Officer which got all the way to the Chief of Staff. The DCO won the battle and I stayed at Cavite.
Come 7 December 1941 and Pearl Harbor. The next day, 8 December (my birthday) Cavite was bombed at noon. I had come off the midwatch and was sleeping when the air raid sirens started. I slipped on some clothes and headed for the air raid shelter near the transmitter building. On the way, we could see the Japanese planes releasing their bombs. Most bombs were aimed at the Navy Yard but a few were obviously intended to take out the transmitter station. When the all-clear was sounded, we found some buildings on the statin had been hit and we could see the dense smoke and flames in the direction of the Navy Yard. I changed into a uniform and then received word to stay put, not to try to get to the DCO’s office or communication’s office. Most of the buildings were on fire and they were having a difficult time getting the Navy Personnel and civilian workers out of the yard area.
Several hours later, ENS Hart, who had been on duty in the yard, showed up wet and dirty. He had swam out into the harbor when the buildings caught fire and missed being hit when bombs aimed at the ships all around exploded. He swam around the point and walked back to the transmitting station.
We received word that evening that all communication’s personnel were to be evacuated to Corregidor the next day to man emergency communications in the tunnels there. We were to pack all our gear, but take only one suitcase/bag with us. We boarded the San Felipe – the Manila – Cavite ferry which had been diverted for the Corregidor trip.
When the ferry docked at Corregidor, a Lieutenant came aboard immediately and called out, “Is there an ENS Cook on board?” I stepped forward and he sad, “I am LT Fabian (2). Get your gear and follow me.” I assumed he was taking me to a place the DCO had assigned me, but I soon found myself at “A” tunnel which housed the Fleet Radio Unit. I questioned my verbal orders and LT Fabian said it had been arranged with the DCO. I took him at his word and shortly thereafter was taken to LT Lietwiler who advised me that I was now working directly for him.
He said he had no officer familiar with their IBM installation and he wanted me to take it over as a section head and use it to support their operation. He introduced me to a Chief Knutson and a Yeoman named Leonard Bowers. I was then told to familiarize myself with the operation as best I could for a week or so and see what I could do to support operations by machine processing. I met LCDR Carlson, LT Mackie, LCDR Richardson and LT Taylor, all who were Japanese language translators. Then there were some cryptanalysts, mostly enlisted. Blanchard and Mac Jones stand out in my mind.
I was then given some training in the analysis process being used to attack the Japanese Navy code.
I was also shown how the traffic analyst worked and the kind of product they turned out. The stock of parts, cards and paper was limited, so I proposed that I go to the Manila IBM office to see what I could get my hands on. I had met the local IBM Manager Kevin Mallon and some of his people, and felt I could get what they had. LT Lietwiler arranged for me to go to Manila by PT Board. I rode LT Kelly’s board (he was squadron exec under LT Bulkey of “They were Expendable” fame). Arriving in Manila mid-morning, I commandeered a car and went to the IBM office. I explained my mission and received complete cooperation. Their field engineer stripped his parts bins, and I got several cases of cards and paper. They helped me get it to the dock where I deck-loaded the pile of boxes and tied it down the best I could. They made the trip back to Corregidor safely and I got it all out to A tunnel.
I proceeded to work with Chief Knutson and Bowers to develop and produce machine prepared work sheets for the analysts and translators. By this time I had been at the Fleet Radio Unit about two and one-half weeks. I went over to the main tunnel one day on an errand for LT Lietwiler and came face-to-face with the DCO, LCDR Callahan. He exploded, “Where the hell have you been? I reported you missing,” I explained how LT Fabian had cornered me and taken me to the Fleet Radio Unit. “He can’t do that,” he yelled, “I need you down here.” I asked him get together with LTs Fabian and Lietwiler and sort out my status. After several days arguing, they compromised. I would work one watch with the communication crew and coding officer; one watch with the fleet radio unit and the rest of the day I had to myself to sleep, eat, wash clothes etc.
Word came that the Fleet Radio Unit would be taken out by submarine in increments, if the subs could get in and out. LT Lietwiler asked me if I could break down the IBM equipment so it would go through a 24’ submarine hatch. After doing some measuring, I said I could do it. He assigned a Warrant Machinist, Joel Lowery to help me break it down and crate it. In about two weeks I had it done. A bit tricky because it involved cutting multi-wire cables 2 to 2.5” in diameter and coding the wiring so only someone with the code book could match up the cables. I also mixed parts in the crates so mechanical reassembly would be a complex puzzle. This was so the equipment could not be readily reassembled if captured. I carried the code book and assembly notes with me.
The first group of the Fleet Radio Unit left, then the second. I did not know if I was considered part of the Fleet Radio Unit or not. I knew LT Lietwiler had queried Washington about my status but I was unaware of any reply.
The disassembly and crating was being done on my Fleet Radio Unit watch. On my Communications watch I was processing incoming and outgoing traffic for Commander Sixteenth Naval District and frequently the Army Command. The Army communication’s [lines] were mostly on the surface, so they were out of business every time the island was bombed or shelled. The Japanese used to open up on us with five or six-inch shells from the Bataan and Batangas areas. The area around “A” Tunnel was frequently in the target zone. If we were caught outside the tunnel when the shells started to fall, we would check the firing interval and then dash from shell hole to shell hoe until we got back inside. The only damage I sustained was skinned knees from diving into shells holes.
The shrapnel made sieves out of most structures. I recall Mac Jones having a large camphor-wood chest filled with tailor made clothes he was planning to take back to the States. Because space inside the tunnel was at a premium, he had to store it outside. He found a sheltered place and covered it with a tarp. After one bombardment, he went out to check and found that a shell had exploded near the chest and there was not one article of clothing that did not have a dozen or more holes.
General MacArthur had departed Corregidor the later part of January 1942 so the army traffic dropped in volume. Then by early April the Fleet Radio Unit was alerted to be ready for departure on short notice. I and several others were put to work preparing dummy message traffic to be used after the Fleet Radio Unit departure to conceal their departure for approximately two weeks.
About 8 April 1942, I was in the sack at 2100 when a field telephone handing near my bunk began to ring. I answered and it was the acting COM 16 requesting to speak to LT Lietwiler. I located him and he talked for a minute or so and then hung up. I was back in my bunk by then and opened one eye. He looked at me for a couple of seconds and then spoke – “Damit Cook, it you are coming with s, get your clothes on.” I deduced that earlier that day permission had been received from 20-G in Washington to consider me as part of the Fleet Radio Unit even though I had not been processed for special clearance. We had an hour to get ready and meet ground transportation outside. No baggage allowed. I stuck a couple of suits of skivvies and extra socks in my back pockets, grabbed my .45 pistol, razor, toothbrush and was ready to go. LT Lietwiler told me they would be unable to load the crated IBM equipment on the sub because it was to be boarded at sea. LT Lietwiler, LT Taylor and I were the only Fleet Radio Unit officers left and there were about twenty enlisted. We were taken to the small boat mooring and bot about a gig. An Army Colonel Clark joined us – he was General Wainright’s emissary to Washington. The night was black.
The 10-inch mortars on Corregidor opened up, throwing shells in the direction of Bataan. The muzzle flash-lighted the area for an instant each time the guns were fired. We proceeded in the gig to the area we were supposed to meet the sub – The SEADRAGON at grid coordinates near Mariveles. No sub. The gig’s coxswain started a search pattern. All of a sudden there were tracers across our bow and a voice hailed us to identify ourselves. It was one of the U.S. Harbor Patrol boats. After hushed exchange, we were informed that because of the Japanese offensive on Bataan, the sub was moved to another safer point. We learned that we had been closed to shore in a Japanese held area. We finally located the sub and embarked. The sub had a load of ammunition and food. Some of the ammunition had been taken off but most of the food was still aboard. COM 16 ordered the sub to take off immediately, and some back in two days to try and unload.
We went north and returned late afternoon on the second day. The Commanding Officer, LCDR Ferrall, FOUND TWO Japanese destroyers patrolling the entrance to Manila Harbor outside of Corregidor. At periscope depth he watched for a while and then decided to attack. He fired four torpedoes, one sunfished (2), one exploded prematurely and the other two missed. Torpedoes were a problem in those days. Needless to say, we had two destroyers on top of us very quickly with depth charges going off all around us. After a couple of near misses which shook the sub but did no major damage, the commanding officer decided to hide on the bottom. Pushing the safe-depth line on his gauges, we sat down rigged for a quiet ship. All controls were operated slowly by hand and care taken to make no noise, like dropping a bucket or wrench. The destroyers lost us and started to lay down strings of depth charges in a pattern that fortunately was not on top of us. After several hours they broke off the attack and resumed their patrol across the harbor entrance.
The Commanding Officer raised the sub to periscope depth about 0200 and located the destroyers. When they were at the outer limits of their pattern, he surfaced and departed at full speed. We then received a radio message from Corregidor not to attempt to enter the harbor but proceed to Cebu and unload there. Before we could get that far south, Cebu was overrun and we were told to return to Fremantle, Australia. So the sub continued south heading for Lombok Straits. Because of enemy air patrols we were running on the surface half awash, ready for a quick dive. Just north of Lombok Straits, we encountered some rough water and waves started to break over the conning tower.
Water started to come through the main induction vent to the engine room To save his engines, the chief on watch quickly closed the main induction valve, expecting to take air through the conning tower hatch. However, about that time a wave hit the conning tower tripping the latch and the hatch flipped closed. The diesels began to pump air out of the sub very rapidly. Fortunately the executive officer, LT Ward, was in the control room at that moment showing me how some of the controls operated. When his ears popped, he realized what had happened and ordered two of the biggest men nearby to try to force the hatch open while he vented air ballast inboard. After a struggle, the hatch opened. If it had not, the SEADRAGON would have been one of the mystery losses in the Pacific. The executive officer said it was the closest call he had up to that time aboard any sub. Our trip to Fremantle from there was uneventful and the passengers were most happy to walk ashore in a friendly port.
(1) CAPT John Marion Lietwiler was the 23rd Commander to lead the Navy Cryptologic community (March 13, 1955 – July 13, 1955), acting.
(2) LT Fabian served as Commanding Officer of NCTC Pensacola August 1960 – June 1961. He was the first Commanding Officer to assume this position as a Captain.
ENS Ralph E. Cook attained the rank of Rear Admiral and served last “Director Naval Security Group” first “Commander, Naval Security Group” August 23, 1963 to June 1971.
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