Monday, August 10, 2020

The U.S. Navy’s On-the-Roof Gang: Volume One – Prelude to War by Matt Zullo

The US Navy's On-the-Roof Gang: Volume I - Prelude to WarThe US Navy's On-the-Roof Gang: Volume I - Prelude to War by Matt Zullo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A fascinating look at the beginnings of the U.S. Navy’s radio intercept and cryptological program, and the men that made it happen.

The U.S. Navy’s On-the-Roof Gang: Volume One – Prelude to War, is the fictionalized account of the creation and development of naval radio intercept and cryptoanalysis beginning soon after the close of World War I up until the attack on Pearl Harbor. It is an awesomely told story of the actual people, places, and events; the fiction is the recreated dialogue.

The story begins in 1921 with a break-in at the Japanese embassy in New York City and the copying of secret diplomatic documents in an effort to find out what the Imperial Japanese Navy is building up toward in the Pacific. They had already instigated aggressive actions against Chinese on the China mainland, and this was of grave concern to the U.S. The FBI and agents of the U.S. Navy had been able to retrieve the code to decrypt Japanese radio transmissions in this fashion.

Meanwhile, navy radiomen had been picking up radio traffic from unknown sources that did not adhere to International Morse Code. Skilled operators, such as Petty Officer Harry Kidder stationed in the Philippines, were able to copy the “dits” and “dahs” from these unknown sources in between monitoring scheduled navy transmissions. Eventually, these reports and Kidder ended up in Washington, DC, as part of the Navy’s Code and Signal Section – “the Research Desk.”

Recognizing how critical the ability to listen in on the Japanese would be in the war that many felt was brewing, the Navy created a training facility on the roof of the Main Navy Building in the nation’s capital. Led by new instructor now-Chief Harry Kidder, eight Navy and Marine radiomen at a time were put through the school to learn to intercept the katakana code from the Japanese.

This new book by Matt Zullo was a fascinating and well-told story. The characters and events absolutely came alive – no dry-as-dust history lesson here. He skillfully wove together history with anecdotal recollections from the people that lived it and created an engaging and immersive reading experience. In fact, I was immediately ready to jump into the rest of the story in Volume Two!

I found it exciting seeing the creation of this secret, new unit with the mission of intercepting and analyzing the contents of the Japanese messages. I was amazed at the feat these guys accomplished just in being able to copy, report, and then convert to usable information the code they heard over great distances and under pretty rough conditions (both physically and atmospherically.) They were taking the ‘dits and dahs’ of encrypted Japanese and eventually translating it into English. Their personal stories made me feel a real connection to these men. I wanted them to succeed, and they did. But some of the things that happened along the way to a couple of them were heartbreaking.

I felt the frustration of these men as they struggled to gain support from those in Washington, DC and, sometimes, even at the various places they had established listening stations. I was shocked when Henry Stimson, Secretary of State under President Hoover, shut down the joint code-breaking operation of the U.S. Army and the State Department (leaving only the Navy’s group to carry on) saying “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.”

One thing that made the events and history so much more interesting to me were the details that kept anchoring this story to what the world was like during this time. For example, at this time (the 1920s and 30s), telephones were not in every home or office. Households were still using gaslights as not everyone had been able to afford the transition to electric lights as yet. Aircraft carriers were relatively new ships in the fleet. And Hawaii was a territory, not yet a state.

I appreciated the look inside day-to-day naval operations as well. The author provides a helpful key to abbreviations at the end of the book, but there were also little tidbits of information regarding rank, duties, and duty stations worked into the story, too. I learned that there is a universal compartment-marking scheme, a letter-number designation which will tell you where a particular location is on board ship. Also, a major stumbling block to getting candidates for the intercept school and position had to do with the promotion process. Many of the radiomen did not want to train to intercept the Japanese katakana because it would degrade their abilities and speeds in Morse Code, which was a significant factor in getting promoted. And then, as I progressed through the book, I realized what a logistical nightmare and considerations involved in setting up new intercept or direction-finding stations all around the world could be.

I highly recommend this book to readers of non-fiction, historical fiction, World War II buffs, and ham radio enthusiasts. It was engaging, easy-to-read, and totally engrossing. I loved it!

I voluntarily reviewed this after receiving an Advanced Review Copy from Reedsy Discovery.

See my original review on Reedsy Discovery!

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