The outcome of the war hung in the balance. Until now, the United States Navy’s operational effectiveness and readiness was in peril as they had suffered significant losses of the scant few carriers they had in the Pacific Fleet prior to December 7, 1941. The Imperial Japanese naval forces had extended their effective reach to include most of the Western and Southern Pacific and were seeking overall dominance of the ocean. The only opponent standing in their way was the severely weakened U.S. Navy.
In the previous six months, the American Navy had sustained strategic losses near Java with the sinking of the USS Houston (CA-30) in the Sunda Strait and the USS Edsall (DD-219) in the Java Sea, both on March 1.
Looking to put the Japanese on the defensive, American forces struck the Japanese homeland launching a (psychologically) successful air strike from the deck of the USS Hornet, causing Japanese military leadership to start holding back naval and aviation resources as a home guard, reducing the offensive capabilities. Japan had to consider herself vulnerable for the first time in the war while trying to convince citizens otherwise.
Continuing to press their imperial expansion Southward (Australia’s natural resources the ultimate goal), the Japanese, preparing for an offensive to take Port Moresby, New Guinea, began mobilizing the Combined Fleet in the South Pacific. American Forces countered and pressed for an attack which resulted in what came to be known as the Battle of the Coral Sea. While this battle was a strategic win for the United States, it was substantially painful losing the carrier Lexington and sustaining substantial damage to the Yorktown, leaving the Navy with just two serviceable flat tops, Enterprise and Hornet.
The Coral Sea battle demonstrated that over-the-horizon naval warfare had emerged as the new tactic of fighting on the high seas, as the carrier and carrier-based aircraft surpassed the battleship as the premier naval weapon.
While the Navy was very public in developing aviation during the 1920s, behind the scenes, a new, invisible weapon was being explored. Radio communication was in its infancy following World War I and adversarial forces were just beginning to understand the capabilities of sending instantaneous messages over long distances. Simultaneously, opponents were learning how to intercept, decipher and counter these messages giving rise to encryption and cryptology.
Officially launched in July of 1922, Office of Chief Of Naval Operations, 20th Division of the Office of Naval Communications, G Section, Communications Security (or simply, OP-20-G) was formed for the mission of intercepting, decrypting and analyzing naval communications from the navies of (what would become) the Axis powers: Japan, Germany and Italy. By 1928, the Navy had formalized a training program that would provide instruction in reading Japanese Morse code communications transmitted in Kana (Japanese script) at the Navy Department building in Washington D.C. in Room 2646, located on the top floor. The nearly 150 officers and enlisted men who completed the program would come to be known as the “On The Roof Gang” (OTRG).
By 1942, Naval Cryptology was beginning to emerge as a viable tool in discerning the Japanese intentions. The Navy was beginning to leverage the intelligence gathered by the now seasoned cryptanalysts which ultimately was used to halt the Japanese Port Moresby offensive and the ensuing Coral Sea battle. However, the Japanese changed their JN-25 codes leaving the naval intelligence staff at Fleet Radio Unit Pacific (known as Station HYPO), headed by LCDR Joe Rochefort, scrambling to analyze the continuously increasing Japanese radio traffic.
A breakthrough in deciphering the communication came after analysts, having seen considerable traffic regarding objective “AF,” suggested that the Japanese were targeting the navy base at the Midway Atoll, 1,300 miles Northwest of Hawaii. While this information would eventually prove to be
invaluable and was ultimately responsible for placing Pacific Fleet assets in position to deal a crushing blow to the Japanese Navy, it was anything but an absolute, hardened fact. Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz risked the balance of his carriers (Hornet, Enterprise and Yorktown) sending them to lie in wait of the assumed impending attack.
The attack came and the prepared American forces struck back, inflicting heavy damage to IJN forces, sinking four carriers, one cruiser and eliminating 250 aircraft along with experienced aviators. Though the war would be waged for another three years, the Japanese were never again on the offensive and would be continuously retracting forces toward their homeland. The tide had been turned.
On this 74th anniversary of the Battle of Midway, I wanted to spotlight a different aspect of the history of the battle, the emergence of cryptology as a strategic weapon, and share some of my own collection of that focuses on one of the original OTRG alumni, my uncle Howard.
Howard enlisted as an Apprentice Seaman in the Navy in 1932 (despite what the news clipping states) and proceed to serve in the fleet while working toward a radioman rating. He would be rated as a radioman 3/c in 1934 and accept an assignment to cryptological training at OP-20-G. In the years leading up to the war, he was assigned to Station HYPO and Station CAST (at the Cavite Navy Yard, Philippine Islands) transferring days before the Japanese raid.
Assigned to Station HYPO in early 1942, he would work closely with Commander Rochefort in code-breaking efforts and is purported (in my family circle) to have sent the transmission to Midway personnel to send un-coded messages about their inoperable evaporators, which ultimately led to the confirmation of Midway as Objective “AF.” He would be assigned to the Admiral’s staff (Admiral Raymond Spruance, who was substituting for Halsey at the time) aboard the Enterprise and would receive a meritorious promotion from the admiral as the result of his round-the-clock duties for the duration of the 4-day battle.
By 1944, my uncle had been promoted to the officer ranks, making Chief Radio Electrician, warrant officer-1. A career spent in naval cryptology, my uncle retired after 30 years of service.
Regretfully, none of my uncle’s uniforms, decorations or medals survives to this day. Neither of his sons inherited anything from their father’s more than 30 years of naval service. In my decision to honor him, I requested a copy of Uncle Howard’s service record (as thick as an encyclopedia) and began to piece his military tenure together by gathering uniforms and other associated elements. My collection of assembled uniform items representing his career, while not yet complete, has been a long endeavor – dare I say, a labor of love?
Approaching June 4, many Americans will be reminded of a pivotal event that took place on this very day during World War II, when a massive armada of ships carrying troops that were preparing for an invasion (that would commence on the morning of June 6th, 1944). The plan was to establish a foothold in enemy-held territory, extending their reach with a new base of operations. Thinking of this date in particular, Americans will conjure thoughts of paratroopers flying over a stretch of water as they begin to traverse flak bursts en route to their targets.
For the past several years, veterans and their families have made their way to the hallowed ground on the beaches and drop zones in and around Normandy, France, seeking to re-trace their steps on the ground where the D-Day Invasion commenced. Though few of those brave men remain this eve of the 72nd anniversary, the children of those veterans will be joined by grateful citizens as they remember the sacrifices made by so many men on that day in 1944. With so much attention given to Normandy (especially by Hollywood in recent years with Saving Private Ryan and the Band of Brothers series), typically overlooked (when thinking about this date) is a battle that arguably had the same or even greater impact on the War’s outcome.
The Battle of Midway took place at a time when the U.S. was still ramping up to fight, having been caught unprepared for war. American Army ground troops wouldn’t be committed for a full-scale assault until November of 1942 with Operation Torch in North Africa. The Marines wouldn’t begin any offensive campaigns until landing craft bow ramps were dropped onto the shores of Guadalcanal. This meant that the majority of the fighting that was taking place since December 7, 1941 was being carried out by U.S. naval forces.
In commemorating the 70th anniversary of the battle, regrettably little ceremonial attention will be paid to the few surviving veterans who are, at the very least, in their late 80s. Yet, we need to remind ourselves of the significance of this battle and remember those who risked it all and sent the Japanese forces into a three-year retreat.
Being a collector (primarily interested in Navy militaria), it takes a fair amount of legwork and an awful lot of providence to acquire authentic pieces that may have been used during this battle. We have to ask ourselves, “what would be the most target-rich focus area that we can pursue for treasure?” Clearly, the answer to that question would be veterans’ uniforms. Considering that there were two task forces containing 28 vessels (and 260 aircraft), there would be literally thousands of veterans each with multiple uniforms to choose from–if you can determine that they actually participated, attached to one of these units.
Those interested in obtaining pieces of ships or aircraft will have an infinitesimal chance to locate authentic items for their collection… but that means there is still a chance. Below is a list of every U.S. Navy ship that participated in the battle (I’ll leave it up to you to research the participating aviation squadrons from the carriers and Midway Island):
USS Enterprise, USS Hornet, USS Yorktown
USS Astoria, USS Minneapolis, USS New Orleans, USS Northampton, USS Pensacola, USS Portland, USS Vincennes, USS Atlanta
USS Aylwin, USS Anderson, USS Balch, USS Benham, USS Blue, USS Clark, USS Conyngham, USS Dewey, USS Ellet, USS Gwin| Hammann, USS Hughes, USS Maury, USS Monaghan, USS Monssen, USS Morris, USS Phelps, USS Russell, USS Ralph Talbot, USS Worden
USS Cachalot, USS Cuttlefish, USS Dolphin, USS Finback, USS Flying Fish, USS Gato, USS Grayling, USS Grenadier, USS Grouper, USS Growler, USS Gudgeon, USS Narwhal, USS Nautilus, USS Pike, USS Plunger, USS Tambor, USS Tarpon, USS Trigger, USS Trout
USS Cimarron, USS Guadalupe, USS Platte
Remember, you can also seek commemorative items, vintage newspapers or original photographs, or named (engraved) medal groups from veterans who fought in the battle – creativity and a lot of research will help you reap great reward!