“The Message that Couldn't be Sent"
It was the 31st of January 1944. We were still at war with Germany in Europe and with Japan in the Western Pacific. My name is Joe Gill. I was a radioman, 1st Class, but my designated function was Communications Chief. There were 70 men in our division. APA 37 USS Cavalier had been in the Pacific Theater for only eight months but she had landed troops on hostile beaches in Eniwetok, Saipan, Tinian, Leyte in the Phillippines, Luzon, Luzon again, and then again. By January, 1945 we had been attacked by kamikazes, under artillery fire, strafed, and had survived. That night, on a calm sea, a Japanese submarine fired a torpedo at us. It struck the stern of the ship, driving the stern into the air, ripping tears in the thick steel hull. The bow was driven under, once more causing structural hull damage forward. The rudder was gone as was the propeller. (Jap sub was the RO46)
When the torpedo hit, I was on the mid-to-four watch, seated at the supervisor's desk. I found myself on the floor, the power off, Emergency lighting on. Sparks and flames came from a transmitter and I raced down the decks for a fire extinguisher.
The Captain informed us that we had been torpedoed but that we were not sinking yet. We soon learned that we were in deep "doodoo" without power or steerage. We were alone in the South China Sea with a Jap sub lurking nearby. It didn't look good. Confusion. After awhile the ship's engines engaged and we had electrical power. Now we were a rudderless hulk and we needed help. There was a war on. This was at the time that Admirals Halsey & Nimitz were fighting the desperate Japs in Leyte Gulf and a dozen other places. We had no air cover or contact with other ships....But we had radio.
The Admiral's communications department encoded a 600 group message to be sent to a naval station. This message began with the ship's coded call sign XXXX v YYYY. A radio symbol (QRT) informed the naval station that we had a message for help. When making up a message, rigid procedure must be followed. If it's a routine message, the designation is "R". If more urgent, the designation is "P". Higher than that is "OP". This was a damage report and non-combat. Radio traffic in the Pacific was practically in gridlock. In the radio shack there was a gaggle of Naval officers, our Coast Guard Comm Officer, and the on-duty radiomen.
A Navy radio operator tried to send the morse code message to a shore station. He was informed that an "OP"message had no priority. Hours went by, and another radio operator attempted to send the message. I was the most experienced radio operator on board, having previously served on Greenland patrol on a ship that was authorized to send weather reports and other traffic. Most of the 1945 radio operators aboard ship had never sent a message. The gathered officers were busily "covering their assess". All of them were making decisions "by the book". Most of them had stopped thinking when they finished their brief training. I knew the message, as made by the Navy Comm. officer would never be accepted by a shore station. We needed help and we needed it in a hurry. But a "damage report" classified as "OP" would never be accepted. I made one change in the heading.
Finally, I took my turn. I called the Leyte traffic station, "from which all blessing could flow. I told them I had a 600 group message. They told me to go ahead and I send it. While the big shots yakked in the radio room, I keyed the transmitter. The operator gave me a hugely important "R" indicating that he had received it (and action on it had already begun). Then I sent a correction. I changed the classification of the message from "O" meaning urgent, to "OP" the proper designation for a "damage report".
A Navy tug, the USS Rail (ATO-139) took us in tow later in the day. The Jap sub was sunk by a destroyer escort which I think was commanded by James Roosevelt, FDRs' son. The Cavalier survived. Towed to Pearl Harbor, repaired, she remained in active service until the Viet Nam fracas.
Moral of the Story. Sometimes it doesn't pay to go by the books.