Book review

The Tale of Chief Harry Kidder: The US Navy’s On-The-Roof Gang by Matt Zullo Reviewed

The tale of Harry Kidder is a good but sad one. His story, and the stories of other radiomen before and during the Pacific War, are told in Matt Zulo’s The US Navy’s On-The-Roof Gang, in two volumes, Prelude to War and War in the Pacific.

Kidder’s story starts with a displeased mother and father: Harry longed for the the sea and not the farm.

By the early 1920s, he was stationed in the PI—Philippine Islands for you civilians. Off duty, he experimented with homebrew ham radio, delighting in talking to the States. Which is something that is still cool. String together a couple of tubes, some wire, a capacitor or two, and you can talk, sans internet, all across the world.1

He was copying Morse code when he noticed odd combinations that didn’t fit the usual codes. Radio operators broadcast in their native tongues, of course, but since Morse is slow, many codes are used: “QRM” for “interference”, “CQ” for “anybody up for a chat?” and so on.

He worked out that the new code was Japanese, Imperial Navy. He worked out what the codes meant. And he worked out the “skeds”, the schedules, sites, ships, and frequencies routinely used by the Imperial Navy. He knew, like all radio operators of experience know by the “fist” of the operator, which individual was broadcasting, so he was able to identify ships. Kidder had just invented signal intelligence, or SIGINT2.

His work was noticed by Lieutenant Laurance Safford, who has just been promoted to a newly created radio intelligence research desk in DC. Safford was later portrayed in the movie Tora! Tora! Tora! as the diligent code breaker who tried to warn about the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Safford’s first act was to set up a training camp to teach the Japanese code. He recruited Kidder to be the instructor. They were stationed in the Main Navy Building in DC, which, like most modern buildings, was hideous and unwieldy. There was no space for a classroom, so Kidder made his own on the roof of the building. The On-the-Roof Gang was born.

Promising radiomen in the Navy and Marines were found and sent to the school. Their work was secret, so the men wore civvies and stayed in a rooming house instead of on base. Kidder fell in love with the cleaning girl at the rooming house where the students were housed. He entrusted to her the money he received after his parents died.

As great a job Kidder was doing in DC, the Navy has rules about being in one place too long, so he was shipped back overseas. Well, you can guess what happened. He was back in the PI when he found out. A man who didn’t drink, he went out and got drunk and was accused by some loose women of theft. Then, and later, the sailors were both loved and loathed in the PI, and the Filipino judge threatened jail. As a compromise, Kidder retired from the Navy and went to Florida. He loved heat.

But it was his genius that made possible the listening net—radio stations all around the Pacific—and radio intelligence activities that were invented before the war began.

The book is more than about Kidder, of course. The controversies about who knew what and when about Pearl Harbor are there, like the “Winds” message. This was a message that was supposed to be buried in a civilian weather report, broadcast openly. The weather report would indicate which target would be attacked. If the weatherman said “Easterly wind, rain; Westerly wind, fine”, it meant Japan was going to declare war on the USA and Britain.

A radioman named Briggs (yes) claimed he heard that message, more than once, and duly passed the info on. But it could never be verified.

The second volume describes the war through the ears of the radiomen at the various Pacific stations. The Midway ruse of broadcasting the island was low on water is there. The Japanese, in code, said in effect that their next target was the island low on water. But the code had been broken by Edwin T. Layton, Joseph J. Rochefort and others. So the USN was ready and waiting—and still nearly lost the battle.

It was Rochefort’s idea about the ruse, implemented by Layton. But Rochefort had enemies in DC. These—Admirals King and Redman and his brother (a pair I have never read anything good about)—never forgave Rochefort for being right. Which proved them wrong, so they screwed Rochefort over. Proving that you can always be fired for being right in the wrong direction. The opposite of the truth that you can’t be fired for being wrong in the right direction.

Zullo tracked what happened to the men at each of the listening posts all through the war. Those on Station Baker on Guam were taken prisoner and shipped to Japan early in the war. The story of Captain Markle Smith, in command of the station, in the POW camp is particularly fascinating.

The books range, at times oddly, between dry but valuable history, which rich detail—“sticks”, “mills”, unwashed coffee cups, gripping submarine rescues, prison escapes—and novel-like drama. Zullo presents lists of each class in the On-The-Roof Gang. He says what happened to what station and when, and how. Many technicalities are given, and for those who know their radio, these are of great interest. But they might not excite non-enthusiasts.

This is likely why Zullo decided to puts words in mouths, somewhat unfortunately, I think. He says in the introduction that he had to “invent a small number of minor characters to help flesh out the story”, and he “supplemented the historical record with stories from my personal experience in the U.S. Navy”. He knows what this means and says “this book should be considered a work of fiction.”

You see the difficulty. You never know whether what you’re reading happened or was invented. These nagging thoughts detract from the history, though his maneuver does aid readability. Zullo would have been better off writing one book of history, and a second of historical fiction. He certainly has enough material for the history. His website has a wealth of information.

This would have freed him up to put more meat on the bones of the novel. As it is, every time he gets you hooked on a story, he shifts to history, and vice versa The whole taken together is still worth reading, however, and I am glad to have the books. But I am a radioman from way back, and I was stationed in the Pacific, so my interest is more natural than perhaps yours would be.

Let’s finish Kidder’s story. Safford knew Kidder had been railroaded, and he recruited him back into the service during the war, knowing he was too valuable to sitting in the Florida sun. Safford promised to get him back to the PI. Which meant Greenland.

Where he badly injured himself on the ice. The ice! Once again he forced to retire. Life was not kind to Kidder. But he was invaluable. Without him, the Navy would have been at least a year behind in radio intelligence. Which could have meant everything. The war, especially early on, was a close thing.

Today being Memorial Day, I want you to say a prayer and hoist one in honor of Chief Harry Kidder.

1As I was writing this from northern Michigan Saturday morning, I was listening to a net on 7163 kHz: men from Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Japan, and even Pennsylvania, coming in fine.

2The same techniques which are now used to track you with the radio (which you call a cellphone) you carry with you everywhere.

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Categories: Book review

10 replies »

  1. Sounds really interesting. I’m an old Army 05K/98K (Navy CTT), trained in Pensacola, Lower Alabama.

    Today is the day to remember all those who fell along the way. They had names, families, hopes and dreams.

  2. The ham radio guys are an interesting subculture. I don’t know much about it but they are passionate about radio. Like golfers are about golf.

    “You see the difficulty. You never know whether what you’re reading happened or was invented.”

    You can say that again. Much of the history we were taught was invented. “Making the world safe for democracy” was baloney. A small group of string-pullers around Wilson maneuvered us into WWI for their own imperial ambitions. Same thing in WWII. String-pullers hell-bent on getting us into war finally boxed in the Nips and provoked Pearl Harbor. Lindbergh spilled the beans on who was behind it and they crucified him for that.

    Americans and our military serviceman have been dupes for this cabal. Went along with it because we were sold on the story of being heros and we were making a lot of money while the Empire’s ponzi grew. But between the Iraq war and this latest Ukraine fiasco it’s clear we’re in the grip of a satanic, foreign cabal using foolish men to further the cabal’s evil ambition for worldly power. That’s a hard pill to swallow. We used to think we’re the good guys; freedom, democracy, blah-blah-blah. But no, we’re just a bunch of effing dupes. So we’re the bad guys.

    Happy Memorial Day.

  3. For those who might not know, and to confirm what our gracious host said, a cell phone is a contraction of a cellular radio-telephone. (Never did some of the other stuff; but I did have a transmitter license on the citizens bands, back in the day. So I was well aware that you didn’t have any expectation of privacy when acting in public, like all radio broadcasts are.)

  4. Gotta’ love a story about Ham Radio operators, especially one in context with today’s holiday!
    Great stuff, as always! What interesting lives they had, in the early days of gathering intelligence by radio.
    I gotta’ spend more time on 40m too! Been hanging out on the higher frequencies in anticipation of the new sunspot cycle. #greylinepropagation
    Thanks for posting!
    …dit dit 🙂

  5. That whole generation was a breed apart my father spent the war as a
    flight instructor on B-17’s at Randolph AFB in Tx. Flew hundreds of missions
    in the Berlin airlift and was subsequently stationed at Lakenheath AFB England
    as a B-29 pilot/instructor during the early days of the cold war. So many stories lost
    in time. He came from a family that had relatives in both the Revolutionary
    and Civil War /CSA. He would be appalled at the current domestic and
    geopolitical situation we find ourselves in today battling the Communist/Fascist
    tyranny that his generation thought they were resisting.

  6. Great post. But I can’t figure what happened when Kidder was shipped out. Did he return and go to jail? Was he framed? Did his gf take his money? Pearl Harbor?
    Why should I be able to guess this part?

  7. re: “a net on 7163 kHz:”

    WB2REM’s (REM – like Rapid Eye Movement) hangout I think; an interesting group to listen to … In the morning (early, like 5, 6 AM) I listen to those guys with a portable (TECSUN PL880) receiver and later about 8 AM central (Texas) time the 3840 kHz group in Texas and neighboring states comes on. They can be listened to via http://www.usa3840.com on the web …

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