Chaos at Heeia
SUNDAY, DECEMBER 7, 1941: STATION HYPO, HEEIA, TERRITORY OF HAWAII
Ray Rundle’s job was so secret that the U.S. Navy made him swear not to tell anyone what he did. It was a secret he liked to keep, even from his cousin Walter, who had spent the previous night in
Ray’s room at the barracks in Heeia, Hawaii. Walter was a Navy aircraft mechanic stationed at nearby Kaneohe Naval Air Station. He and Ray were not only cousins, they were also best friends and were thrilled to be stationed together in Hawaii—which was exotic and exciting, unlike their tiny hometown of Ryegate, Montana, located about sixty miles northwest of Billings. Since Ray and Walter both had Sunday off, they planned to spend it sightseeing in Honolulu.
Unbeknownst to his cousin, Ray was an intercept operator who’d been trained at the Main Navy Building in Washington, DC. The training in the nation’s capital taught him how to copy the IJN version of Morse code, which was based on Japan’s katakana alphabet.
This alone earned him entrance into an exclusive group of Sailors and Marines known as the On-the-Roof Gang. In February 1941, he’d graduated from the twenty-fifth and final offering of the training held in Washington, DC, and had been assigned to Station HYPO, the intercept site in Heeia, Hawaii.
The day before, Ray had completed an uneventful day shift performing intercept of IJN communications. Led by Radioman First Class Elliott Okins, the on-watch supervisor, Ray and the rest of his crew had spent the entire day scouring the airwaves for a coded weather message instead of copying the typical IJN communications. They hadn’t found it, and Ray supposed they’d keep looking until they did.
Whatever they want me to do at work is fine, he thought. But today is my day off.
Even though Ray was relatively new to the job, he’d shown real skill in intercepting IJN katakana transmissions. In fact, he’d already been promoted to radioman second class and was performing his job better than many other operators his senior.
With rare time off together, Ray and Walter set out on foot to Kaneohe, where they planned to catch the next bus to Honolulu for a day of sightseeing. They walked along Kamehameha Highway and passed over Kaneohe Stream. From their vantage point, they could clearly see Kaneohe Bay and the naval airfield. It was a cool morning on the windward side of Oahu, making the walk pleasant and easy. As they passed by a deli, Ukulele music broadcast from a local radio station echoed out into the street. The smell of coffee and sizzling bacon urged them to go inside, but they resisted the temptation.
Strolling along, they heard a formation of airplanes approaching from behind. They didn’t think much of it since Kaneohe Air Station routinely had plenty of air traffic, but it did seem a bit odd for this early on a Sunday morning. When a single plane flew directly overhead—low enough that it made the pair look up simultaneously—they immediately knew something was wrong. The plane was flying so low that they could see the pilot looking straight at them through his open canopy. To Walter’s trained eye, the plane looked similar to the U.S. Army Air Force’s Curtiss P-40 Warhawk flown out of Wheeler Air Base on Oahu, except that behind the cockpit and on each wing, he saw the Hinomaru: the telltale rising sun emblem of Japan. The low-flying plane was a Japanese Zero!
The Zero banked and turned in the direction of Kaneohe Air Station, and the pilot closed his canopy and followed the slope of the hill down toward the bay. As the plane glided across the bay, the pilot let loose with his strafing cannons, throwing geysers of saltwater into the air. The Zero continued on, and the pilot found his intended targets, hitting the runway and at least four PBY Catalina seaplanes sitting on the tarmac. When the pilot circled to come around again, Ray and Walter dashed into the deli to take cover.
Panting from the adrenaline coursing through their veins, the cousins looked at each other, confused. What the hell is going on? they both thought. The deli owner, who was obviously of Japanese descent, was grinning at them, which perplexed them even more. Couldn’t he hear what was going on outside?
Meanwhile, back at Station HYPO, Elliott Okins, a graduate of On-the-Roof Gang Class #20, was relaxing in his assigned housing unit on base with his morning cup of coffee and the Sunday edition of the Hilo Tribune Herald. The front page was full of stories about Japan’s military activities in the Far East, including an IJN convoy steaming toward Thailand and President Roosevelt’s efforts to come to some sort of agreement with Emperor Hirohito about Japan’s increasingly aggressive actions across the Pacific. Another story quoted retired Rear Admiral Charles Woodward, who stated that the United States was already at war given its aid to the Allies in various battles around the world.
Okins nodded his head and chuckled when he read on the front page that Senator Ralph Brewster from Maine, who sat on the Senate Naval Affairs Committee, said the U.S. Navy could defeat the IJN “any place, any time.”
I hope it doesn’t come to that, Okins thought.
Just then, someone banged loudly on the front door of Okins’s house. It was his next-door neighbor and fellow On-the-Roof Gang graduate, Chief Radioman Harvey Howard. “Okie, get out of bed! Get up! We’re being attacked!” he hollered. Okins opened the door to see a wide-eyed, out-of-breath Chief Howard. “C’mon, we have to get to work!”
Just then, a Japanese Zero streaked over Okins’s house and turned toward Kaneohe Bay. The pair watched in horror as the fighter plane’s cannons burst into action, rat-a-tat-tat, rat-a-tat-tat.
“Let’s go!” Okins yelled. They hopped into his 1936 Ford Model 48 sedan and headed for the intercept building across the base. By then, the Zero had been joined by others, who were forming into single file. One by one, the planes in the formation turned directly over Heeia as if using the flagpole at the intercept site as a guidepost on their attack runs toward Kaneohe.
Okins and Howard hurried into the building to see intercept operators Henry Ethier and Wesley Knowles sleepily waiting to be relieved of their shift.
“What are you doing?” Chief Howard barked.
“The skeds are all quiet, Chief,” Ethier replied, referring to the groups of enemy radio transmissions on specific radio frequencies at certain times.
“We’re being attacked! The air station is going up in flames!” Howard shouted.
Okins sat down at an open intercept position and tuned the receiver to 590 kilocycles to listen to commercial radio station KGMB out of Honolulu. He turned on a speaker so the rest of the men could listen in. The radio announcer, Webley Edwards, repeated over and over, “Attention! This is not an exercise! The Japanese are attacking Pearl Harbor! All Army, Navy, and Marine Corps personnel should report for duty immediately.”
Halfway between Heeia and Kaneohe, Walter and Ray heard Webley Edwards’s broadcast blaring on the deli’s radio and knew they had to report to their duty stations. Agreeing to talk to each other as soon as they could, they rushed out of the deli in opposite directions and headed to their respective bases.
Running up the street, Ray needed to find someone to give him a ride to Heeia. This would probably be difficult to do considering what was going on, so he continued to run. Eventually, he heard a car approaching from behind, and he stuck out his thumb to try to hitch a ride. When the car stopped next to him, he noticed a familiar face—it was Chief Radioman Joseph “Mac” McConnel, one of the senior operators at Station HYPO.
“Hi, Chief Mac,” Ray said.
“Get in!” Mac shouted.
“I can’t believe it!” Ray said as he jumped into the car. “There must be a dozen Zeros attacking Kaneohe! Where’d they come from?”
Mac shrugged and sped toward Heeia. When they arrived at the base, Chief Radioman Leroy “LD” Lankford met them at the gate, which was being guarded by a Marine. After his transfer from Station
ABLE in Shanghai in September, Lankford was now the radioman in charge of Station HYPO.
Relieved to see reinforcements, Lankford barked orders at McConnel and Rundle. “Mac, you go with Howard and Okins out to Kamehameha Highway. Get a couple of .45s from the arsenal and round up any Japanese nationals you see. Rundle, you head inside and fire up a position. You’re on watch now.”
Within an hour, all the Japanese Zeros had departed the area over Kaneohe Bay, and the men had arrested half a dozen Japanese nationals. Two turned out to be Japanese consular officials dressed in top hats and tails, who were trying to get to their offices in Honolulu.
The men brought all the prisoners to the base at Heeia and held them at gunpoint. By then, Station HYPO’s entire roster of thirty-five On-the-Roof Gang operators had reported for duty as instructed. The intercept spaces were small, so only ten of them could squeeze in. The rest mingled in the yard between the building and the fence, some gazing at the smoke rising from Kaneohe Air Station, the others gawking at the Japanese prisoners being held, wondering what they were going to do with them.
“I say we shoot ’em,” Chief Howard said. “Shoot ’em in the back and say they were trying to escape.”
“We’re not shooting anyone,” Chief Lankford said. Howard knew Lankford was right; his emotions were simply getting the best of him.
Just then, a pair of Marines performing the daily courier run arrived at Station HYPO to pick up the intercept logs from overnight to take back to the Combat Intelligence Unit at Pearl Harbor. Despite the mayhem across Oahu, the Marines were still executing their daily orders as usual. One of the Marines described the carnage at Pearl Harbor, including ships burning, capsized, and sunk, and the scores of enemy aircraft that filled the skies, attacking ships and airfields all around the naval base. He assumed that thousands might have been killed in the attack.
The men at Station HYPO couldn’t believe what they were hear- ing. Until then, all they knew was that Japanese Zeros had attacked Kaneohe. The attack on Pearl Harbor sounded much, much worse.
Inside the intercept room, Maynard Albertson, Orville Jones, Charlie “Shanghai” Southerland, Harold “Pete” Waldum, and Howard Cain—all graduates of On-the-Roof Gang training—joined operators Ethier, Knowles, and Rundle. They each manned an intercept position, trying to find the ships responsible for the attack. Each of the operators searched for and copied any katakana telegraphic code transmissions they could find, but there were suddenly so many frequencies active that they couldn’t keep track. Their efforts were unfocused and random—any semblance of an intercept plan had long since been abandoned. It seemed that the chaos on Oahu had caused an equal amount of chaos inside the intercept room.
Outside, in addition to turning over the intercept logs, Chief Lankford asked the Marines to assist with the Japanese prisoners. The two Marine couriers and the armed guards on duty at Station HYPO led the six Japanese citizens to Pearl Harbor Naval Base for incarceration.
Meanwhile, in the basement of the Administration Building of the Fourteenth Naval District in Pearl Harbor, Joseph Rochefort, commander of the Combat Intelligence Unit, and his men were taking cover under their gray, steel desks. He had been preparing for a family picnic and had been called to work as soon as the attack began. Because of the chaos around Pearl Harbor, he didn’t get to the “Dungeon,” as it was called, until around 0900.
Located directly across from Ford Island, the Administration Building sat next to the “Ten-Ten Dock,” which was named for its length of 1,010 feet. At the height of the attack, Rochefort wondered how much of the IJN’s Operations Code, or JN-25, the codebreakers at Station CAST or the Research Desk in the Main Navy Building had broken. Instead of the Operations Code, Commander Laurance Safford of the Research Desk (OP-20-G), had assigned Rochefort’s unit the responsibility of breaking the IJN’s Admin Code.
Rochefort’s team consisted of twenty-two officers and twenty-five enlisted men working in the Dungeon. They decrypted, translated, analyzed, and reported on the intercept picked up across the island at Station HYPO. After what seemed like hours, Rochefort decided to go upstairs when he was sure the attack was over. He wanted to go outside to see how bad the attack had been, but he told his men to stay put until he gave them the all clear. Emerging from the basement, he saw that the typically serene Pearl Harbor had been turned into hell on earth. He couldn’t believe his eyes: The Ten-Ten Dock was severely damaged, its lumber strewn around like toothpicks. USS Helena, which was moored at the Ten-Ten Dock, had been hit by a torpedo and set ablaze. USS Oglala, which was tied up alongside Helena, had rolled over onto its port side and was sinking in the oil-soaked water next to the pier. Men on board Helena screamed in agony with burns, broken bones, and severe lacerations, while hospital corpsmen doled out morphine to those most seriously injured. Mutilated bodies of dead Sailors lined the deck of Helena.
Beyond the chaos of Ten-Ten Dock, Rochefort witnessed ships burning all around Ford Island, immense columns of dense, black smoke rising into the air in all directions. The smoke blotted out the sun and obscured most of the sky. What remained of USS Arizona was engulfed in flames and sinking. USS Oklahoma was lying on its starboard side with more than half of it below water. USS Nevada, the only battleship to get underway during the attack, was forced to beach at Hospital Point on the eastern shore of the Main Channel in order to keep from sinking and possibly blocking the entrance to Pearl Harbor. There were so many other ships burning, sinking, and out of place that Rochefort was completely disoriented.
Looking over the destruction across Pearl Harbor, Roche- fort wished he had spent more time on JN-25 because what they’d extracted from the Admin Code was of little intelligence value. But he tried not to berate himself too much. After all, Station HYPO had intercepted very few Japanese naval communications in the previous week. There was simply nothing to decrypt, even if they had broken the code.
Rochefort’s view of the devastation was sickening and demoralizing to behold, and he felt an overwhelming sense of failure for not being able to predict such an event. Right then and there, he vowed to throw more weight against the JN-25 as soon as he could get operations moving again in the Dungeon.
Unless, of course, they fire me, he thought, which is a very real possibility.