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Bull Session

June 2024
3min read

“Shut up!” I blurted out at the voice behind me while I was trying to hear a critical weather report on the U.S.S. Missouri.

None of us looked forward to going on duty and standing our watch. Four hours on and four hours off around the clock was not an easy routine. This was especially true if you were a radioman aboard the USS Missouri, flagship for the U.S. 3d Fleet deep in the Pacific Theater of Operations.

The year was 1945. As an eighteen-year-old eligible for the draft, I had enlisted in the Navy before graduation from high school in Davenport, Iowa. After boot camp and radio school, at Farragut, Idaho, I was assigned to the staff of Adm. William F. “Bull” Halsey aboard the Missouri, an Iowa-class battleship.

I felt honored to pull duty as a staff member with a four-star admiral. Halsey usually selected the New Jersey, another Iowa-class ship, but the Jersey had steamed stateside for some badly needed maintenance and repair. The Missouri got the call.

There were seven radio transmitting-and-receiving stations aboard the Missouri, and I usually spent my four hours handling routine communications among ships of the fleet. I had been onboard several weeks and had not even seen the admiral. Then I was transferred to the radio station just behind the ship’s bridge. I would be copying coded messages from several military shore stations. When decoded, these transmissions would help our meteorologists map weather conditions over possible Japanese bombing targets. I quickly came to realize the importance of my work. The safety of our carrier pilots might well depend upon the accuracy and thoroughness of the radiomen on duty behind the bridge.

To obtain weather information I usually copied station NPG Honolulu or an Army station from Andrews Air Force Base on Guam. These were clear stations with little interference of any kind. But station KCT from Vladivostok, U.S.S.R., was different.

If our planes were to raid the Japanese islands of Hokkaido or Honshu, we needed the weather report from KCT. The Japanese, knowing this, constantly jammed the KCT frequency with music, loud laughter, foreign languages—anything and everything to drown out the signal. It required keen concentration to find our signal and stay on it while totally ignoring all the “trash.”

One evening I was copying KCT with the usual Japanese garbage jamming my frequency. I had my eyes closed, and I was concentrating totally on that faint but distinctive signal: Dit dah dit. I automatically hit the R key on the typewriter (or mill, as the Navy called it). Dah dit dit dit, B. Dit dit dit, S.

Then a loud voice behind me asked, “Are they jamming our station?”

“Yes, sir,” I replied, my concentration broken. I hit the space bar of the mill several times to indicate missed letters. I found the signal once again.

“Are you able to copy it?” The voice again. I hit the space bar several more times before finding my signal once more. “Will you be able to get enough for us?” And the space-bar routine again. But this time I blurted out, “Shut up!”

“YOU DO NOT TELL ME TO SHUT UP!” His voice boomed like the big guns attached to the main turrets.

When the transmission was complete, I pulled the message from my machine. Wondering if the blank spaces would ruin our mapmaking effort, I turned in my seat—and looked up at four stars on each lapel of a brown shirt. I had just met Admiral Halsey.

Oh my God, I thought. I was an insignificant radioman, third class, and I had told an admiral to shut up. At nineteen years my life would end. I would be fortunate to get a court-martial for insubordination along with a dishonorable discharge from the Navy.

“Sir, are you the one I told to ‘shut up’?”

This tough-looking admiral was standing there with arms folded and legs apart in a mild inverted Y, brown naval field cap pulled to his brow, jaw jutting menacingly with lips pressed firmly together. I could see now why they called him Bull Halsey.

“Yes, lad,” he blared.

“I apologize, sir. I did not know it was you. I have no excuse, sir .”

The admiral broke his stance and began to pace the floor. “Lad,” he bellowed, “when I come into this radio shack and speak to you while you are on that radio, YOU DO NOT TELL ME TO SHUT UP! DO YOU UNDERSTAND? ” His voice boomed like the nine 16-inch guns attached to the ship’s three main turrets.

“Yes, sir, I understand.” I was frozen at attention and, I am certain, tears were welling in my eyes.

Then, stopping in front of me and looking me straight in the eye, he went on in a very calm and friendly voice. “If I or anyone else ever bothers you while you are on that radio, you do not tell them to shut up. What you tell them is GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE and THAT’S AN ORDER . Do you understand, lad?”

I could only look at him and stammer, “Yes, sir.”

We saluted. Admiral Halsey went on his way. I never met him again.

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