By: Tom Schram
Dateline Okinawa: September 1970
“Welcome to Okinawa and NSGA Hanza – please do not plan on requesting any off island leave because it will be denied. The Captain has just assumed command and does not want any officer personnel leaving until he is convinced that there is adequate redundancy in all operations.”
This was my welcome to NSGA Hanza in 1970. All I could say was “Wow, what a start to this tour of duty!” The commanding officer was Captain John Kingston Cowperthwaite USN. I was a LTJG starting a new operations division at Hanza, Operations Division Delta, a non-morse operation that had been removed from Kami Seya and was being relocated to Hanza. I had been the Assistant Division officer at Kami Seya and asked for the job as Division Officer at Hanza. And, so it began. I served under CAPT Cowperthwaite while stationed at Naval Security Group Hanza, Okinawa from 1970 – 1973. These three years were the most formative in my Navy career as there was time to experience multiple “challenges” posed by differing assignments, the change from U.S. to Japanese control of Okinawa civilian administration and the winding down of the Viet Nam effort. CAPT Cowperthwaite was the Commanding Officer for my entire tour on Okinawa.
Captain Cowperthwaite was commissioned in 1948 after finishing his undergraduate studies at Yale University. His career had taken him to many NSGA locations, one of them at Bremerhaven where he met his wife, Wally. They had a son together, John Kingston Cowperthwaite, Jr.
Captain Cowperthwaite was quite a challenge for the junior officers. We had a hard time figuring him out but ultimately came to realize that he was always thinking about what the future would hold for each of us. That was a hard conclusion to reach because the lessons learned under him were neither fun nor easy. But, learn we did. At least I did and never forgot what I learned, even though I didn’t realize the depth of these lessons for years. He was demonstrating leadership from the top, although sometimes it was enigmatic to say the least.
My education started with the new division. The Captain started his own course on how to “manage up” the chain of command. I had been used to a very independent operation at Kami Seya but this was a whole new ball game. Everything that left Hanza regarding my division went through the chain of command and it included the Captain. Daily sessions with him explaining the message traffic taught me that I really had to be on top of things, even way beyond the current topic. That paid off in spades later. He took great pride when we christened Operations Delta, our new division. Here is a photo from the archives where we officially opened the division.
The Captain then decided that I needed to broaden my experience, “for my own good”, as he explained. I subsequently served as the Admin Officer and the Facilities Officer. It was a very well rounded 3 year tour that prepared me for the rest of my life. One more time, he was focused on leadership training for the officers. We just didn’t know it at the time.
After I resigned my commission in late 1976, we maintained a loose communication process of exchanging Christmas Cards and then when email came of age in the 1990’s, we used email. The Naval Cryptologic Veteran’s Association aided in this communication.
In volunteering to write this for Dick Carlson, I wanted to focus on what the Captain meant to me in the last year of his life. He died in August of 2005, three months after my Dad passed away. But, prior to his death and before he knew that he had to have surgery, he and Wally went out of their way to make time to meet my Dad and me on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
As it turned out, the Captain had entered the Navy via the old V 12 program. This was a program where candidates attend college for 2 years and then are commissioned in the Navy as an Ensign. The Captain had joined in 1944, toward the end of WW II and his first college assignment was at Wesleyan in Middleton, CT. After 2 college years there, the war was over, the unit was closed, and he was transferred to a 4-year NROTC program at Yale, from which he was graduated in 1947 and commissioned an Ensign. He joined an organized reserve unit in Baltimore in January of 1948. The only billet open was the Naval Communications Supplementary Activities (the forerunner of the Naval Security Group). “What’s that Chief?” was the question. “I can’t tell you, but you will like it” was the response. And he did.
The Captain saw reserve training duty at Dupont, SC; Winter Harbor, ME; Scaggs Island, CA, and Washington, DC HQ at Nebraska Avenue. Active duty assignments included Adak, AK; joint tour with the Armed Forces Security Agency; Naval Security Group HQ; Bremerhaven, Germany; Cheltenham, England; Hanza, Okinawa; and Camp Zama, Japan.
During our visit, we reminisced about a lot of old times, friends, and various shenanigans that were pulled during the three years on Okinawa. From my travels via USMC helicopter to Taiwan to bring back his teak office furniture that went into the famous “Boom Boom Room”, his office made from old boom boards on the FRD-10, to the hand made officers club (from a converted back up generator building) and more. All in all, it was a wonderful visit and the kindness he showed my father was beyond description.
When my Dad died, 2 months later, the first person I heard from was the Captain. He remained true to his character and wrote me a moving condolence letter. He and my father had become friends and the Captain wanted me to know that he was there for me. He coached me about loss of a loved one, just like a leader would do. Two months later, I received a terse email that he was about to undergo heart valve replacement surgery. He’d had heart bypass surgery several years earlier. I tried calling him for a week and finally connected. I asked him about the upcoming surgery. In his typical way, he said that it needed to be replaced and the best way was to use a pig’s valve to do so and that’s what he was doing. It was to be a straightforward procedure and he was confident of success. It did not turn out that way. He died a few days later from complications.
Captain Cowperthwaite was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in January of 2006. He was a tormentor, mentor, friend, and shipmate. He remembered all of those officers who served with him and when we were last together, talked about them fondly. We lost a good one with the Captain’s departure and this sailor misses him daily.
Featured image: Captain John K. Cowperthwaite (L) and Tom Schram ®
14 April 2023 at 06:01
Nice sketch of whom I’m convinced was a truly fine human being, a superb officer, and a great leader.