Chief ship’s clerk H.L. Bryant, the yeoman of the U.S. Navy’s Translation and Dissemination Section, OP-20-GZ, finished logging the sheaf of newly decoded messages and looked around the desk-filled room, trying to catch the eye of one of six linguists. It was the policy of the section chief, Lieutenant Commander Alwin D. Kramer, to have any unoccupied linguist dig into the untranslated message traffic as soon as it was delivered from the Cryptanalytical Section. Two circuits— the Tokyo–Washington and the Tokyo– Berlin—were reserved for the most skilled translators. Minor circuits, referred to as the China net, were assigned to one of the less experienced men.

On this occasion, Bryant noticed that the top message was from the Tokyo– Washington diplomatic circuit, the socalled “Purple Code.” Searching around the room for an appropriate translator, the yeoman caught the eye of a solidly built, slightly balding man in his mid-40s and nodded. Civilian analyst Merle Ralph Cory took the message and started working on the Japanese text, triggering a process that would eventually send information to the highest levels of the U.S. government and spark an undying controversy.

Cory had joined OP-20-GZ in 1940, just as relations between the United States and Japan were becoming increasingly strained. In September of that year, Japan, Germany and Italy had signed the Tripartite Pact, vowing to “assist one another with all political, economic, and military means when one of the three is attacked by a power at present not involved in the European War or in the Sino-Japanese conflict”—a direct reference to the United States.

Unknown to the Japanese, as they discussed issues with their new partners, U.S. Army Lt. Col. William F. Friedman had successfully broken their extremely complicated diplomatic cipher system. His team of codebreakers then painstakingly constructed a machine that duplicated the Japanese apparatus, Alphabetical Typewriter Type 97, a drawer-size box installed between two Underwood electric typewriters.

The box contained four coding disks that were activated by a current passing through a row of sockets called a plugboard. When a key was pressed on the input typewriter, an electrical impulse traversed the coding wheels, causing a different key, corresponding to the code, in the output machine to strike the paper.

The American prototype was not pretty, but it worked, even though it reportedly spewed sparks and made loud whirring noises when it wasn’t working right. The Japanese were convinced their code could not be broken. From the summer of 1940 on, however, the United States was reading virtually all the traffic between Tokyo and its important embassies. Intelligence officers aptly referred to the decoded transcripts as “Magic.”

Decoding the transcripts was one thing, translating them quite another. After breaking the code, the next step was to find skilled translators, such as Cory, who had come from the State Department, to decipher them.

Assigned to the American Legation in Peking before the war, Cory had attended Yenching University, where he was tutored in Japanese. Posted to the Orient by the State Department, in the late 1930s he was transferred to the embassy in Tokyo and then the consulate in Nagasaki. His time in Japan allowed him to perfect his language skills and, perhaps more important for his future assignment as a translator, gain an understanding of Japanese culture.

Cory quickly became highly regarded as one of the Navy’s most proficient civilian translators. He was often called upon to translate the most difficult intercepts. The particular November 1941 morning that Bryant motioned to Cory had begun like so many others. Daybreak was still an hour away when the translator left his modest bungalow in Rockville, Md., for his office in the old World War I Navy Department building on Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C. It was damp and cold, and Cory did not look forward to another long day of pencil pushing; he was bored with translating decoded messages, especially since he was now considered to be on a 24-hour duty basis.

Cory and the other translators often worked from 0800 hours until 2200 or 2300, due to the heavy volume of Purple traffic. After parking his car, Cory entered the gray building and walked down a long corridor on the first floor to the sixth wing. He stopped in front of a tall, stern-looking Marine and showed his identification badge. The guard closely scrutinized it before allowing him to pass through the closed door. The tightly controlled area contained the offices of OP-20-G, Security Section, Naval Communications, whose innocuous title hid the highly classified Intercept and Direction Finding Section (OP-20-GX), Cryptanalytical Section OP-20-GY and his own Translation and Dissemination section, OP-20-GZ. The “G” sections made up the 20th Division of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, the U.S. Navy’s headquarters establishment.

Cory’s morning began with Chief Bryant’s message. Not wanting to waste valuable time on an unimportant communiqué, he quickly evaluated the transcript and immediately noted the classification, Kimitsu (secret), the sender (Tokyo Foreign Office) and the message priority (Urgent). It was enough to continue. Within a short time, Cory was able to organize the disparate syllables into a coherent text:

(Secret) From: Tokyo To: Washington 19 November 1941 (J19) Circular #2353 Regarding the broadcast of a special message in an emergency. In case of emergency (danger of a special cutting off our diplomatic relations), and the cutting off of international communications, the following warning will be added in the middle of the daily Japanese-language shortwave news broadcast. In case of Japan-U.S. relations in danger: HIGASHI NO KAZEAME [east wind rain]. JapanU.S.S.R. relations: KITANOKAZE KUMORI [north wind cloudy]. JapanBritish relations: NISHI NO KAZE HARE [west wind clear]. This signal will be given in the middle and at the end as a weather forecast and each sentence will be repeated twice. When this is heard please destroy all code papers, etc. This is as yet to be a completely secret arrangement. Forward as urgent intelligence.

Cory immediately realized the significance of the message: A nation that destroyed its codes was headed toward war. Normally reserved and quiet, a person who did not like to call attention to himself, he nevertheless rushed over to Lt. Cmdr. Kramer and excitedly showed him the salient points of the message.

A meticulous, exacting man, Kramer compared the original Japanese text with the translation—and, satisfied it was deciphered correctly, made his way up the chain of command. In addition to supervising OP-20-GZ, Kramer was also the Navy’s courier, responsible for delivering Magic to the highest level of government, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Cory’s translation of the “winds message” brought about a frantic effort to intercept the execute order because it could give the United States several hours’ advance warning of Japanese hostilities. The Navy’s main intercept stations at Corregidor, Hawaii and Bainbridge Island, Alaska, were placed on full alert. Plain-language intercepts flooded GZ, swamping Cory and his fellow translators with false alarms.

At 1149 hours on Saturday, December 6, 1941, the first of 14 parts of Tokyo’s response to continued negotiations with the United States arrived by teletype at OP- 20-GZ. By 2045 that evening, the first 13 parts had been typed and placed in their distinctive reddish-brown loose-leaf cardboard folders for Kramer’s delivery. It was after 2400 before he completed the mission. The 14th part, breaking off negotiations, arrived five hours later for decoding. By 0945 Washington time, the fully translated message was in the hands of President Roosevelt, who said, in effect, “This means war.”

The Japanese Foreign Ministry had instructed Ambassador Kichisaburo Nomura in Washington to present the 14-part message to the U.S. secretary of state no later than 1300 (0730 Hawaii time). Because of a series of administrative blunders in decoding and typing the message, Nomura did not arrive until 1405, 35 minutes after the attack on Pearl Harbor had begun. By the time the ambassador entered Secretary of State Cordell Hull’s office, the fleet anchorage was a scene of utter devastation—the battleship Oklahoma capsized, battleship West Virginia sunk and a huge cloud of black smoke marking the funeral pyre for more than 1,000 men of battleship Arizona.

The shock of Pearl Harbor hit the translators of GZ hard, but they did not have time to reflect on what might have been. Messages poured in, and they went to a “day-on, stay-on” work schedule, scrambling to keep up with the traffic. New faces appeared as the Navy’s recruiting effort paid off. One, Edward Van der Rhoer, became friendly with Cory and remembered taking a walk on Constitution Avenue during a lunch break. It was now early spring, with a hint of summer fragrance in the air. They walked in silence, he recalled, “just taking deep breaths of soft air,” when Cory suddenly announced, “I’m going into the Marines!” Taken aback, Van der Rhoer asked why. Cory grimaced. “I’m sick of pencil pushing.”

Cory was too old for a regular enlistment, but the Corps was desperately short of Japanese linguists and he was offered a direct commission, which he accepted in May 1942. Just before leaving, he invited Van der Rhoer to dinner at his house in Maryland. “It was a strangely somber evening,” Van der Rhoer recalled. “I met his wife, and we had some drinks before dinner, but no one had much to say. Conversation lagged. We sat down for dinner in a gloomily lit dining room.

“Cory pulled himself together and talked a little about sailing on Chesapeake Bay, after which he lapsed into silence. His wife stared intently at him and only occasionally acknowledged my presence. As soon as a decent interval had passed, I thanked them for their hospitality and took my leave. Cory left OP-20-GZ not long after to enter the Marine Corps, and I never saw him again.”

Cory’s orders took him to the 1st Marine Division, which was forming up at New River, N.C. He was assigned to the 5th Marine Regiment’s Intelligence Section as a translator who would interrogate prisoners and interpret documents. Soon after he left, his friends at GZ received a letter bemoaning his new digs: “I received orders on Saturday morning for my final physical examination. Enclosed is the $10 I borrowed. It’s flat country, and I’m not too fond of the base. The weather is sticky, humid and hot! We’re leaving in a few days for an undisclosed destination, and I won’t have time to come up to see you. I have blisters on my feet, but I’ll have more than that before this is over.”

In mid-May, the 1st Marine Division sailed for New Zealand and learned upon arrival that it was to conduct the first offensive operation, code-named “Watchtower,” against the Japanese. In his book Guadalcanal Diary, Richard Tregaskis recounted “shooting the bull” with Cory and another officer on the deck of their transport after it left in June. They talked of home and family, a favorite topic aboard the troopship. “I’d like to be back sailing a boat on Chesapeake Bay,” Cory related nostalgically. “I’d settle for the White Mountains or Cape Cod.” Their discussion was abruptly terminated as the ship’s loudspeaker system blared, “General Quarters, man all air-defense stations,” sending the interlopers scrambling.

A few days later, Cory and his travel mates discussed the latest rumor, the sinking of a Japanese submarine that had been shadowing the convoy. One Marine said that he had actually seen the flashes of gunfire. Cory abruptly interjected, “Two more days to go,” stating the obvious and revealing that he was nervous about the landing scheduled for August 7, 1942.

At first light, the assault troops clambered down cargo nets into the landing craft that would take them to Guadalcanal. Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat fighters and Douglas SBD-3 dive bombers roared overhead, while cruisers and destroyers belched fire in the half-light.

Their target was a picture book tropical island 90 miles long and 25 miles wide, surrounded by white sand beaches backed by coconut palms. Jungle-clad mountains rose high in the southern part of the island. Rain forest, coconut plantations and fields of kunai grass—crossed by rivers and streams—marked the northern part of the island.

Cory’s turn came later when his Intelligence Section loaded for the run to the beach behind the first assault waves. They landed standing up; there was no resistance, but the Marines quickly found out the apparent tropical paradise they had seen from the ships was a hot and humid hellhole. Jungle slime gave off a fetid stench, while boot-sucking mud sapped strength and made patrolling a grueling experience. Jungle vegetation restricted visibility to a few yards and kept ocean breezes from penetrating the dense foliage. A horde of blood-sucking insects welcomed the newcomers as they scrambled ashore and moved inland.

At one point during the advance, the Americans came upon a Japanese camp and took several prisoners. They were a scraggly bunch, none more than 5 feet tall, dwarfed by their captors, who looked huge by comparison.

The call went out for 2nd Lt. Cory. He soon found out that the half-naked men were from a Japanese navy labor battalion that had been working on the airfield. One of the men had been allowed to keep his visored cap with its cloth anchor insignia. All had shaved heads, scraggly beards and sallow skin. Malaria was rampant on the island. Equipment strewn about gave evidence of the camp’s hasty abandonment. The pre-H-hour shelling had ripped tents and shattered coconut palms, their trunks slashed by shrapnel and their tops blown off. A few mutilated Japanese bodies were sprawled in the dirt, victims of the same bombardment. It was a sobering experience for the civilian translator-turned-Marine interrogator.

Days passed, and more prisoners arrived for Cory to question. Most were cooperative—Japan did not have a prisoner of war code because it expected that its troops would kill themselves before capture. One prisoner, a naval warrant officer, proved to be difficult. Cory worked on him to no avail and finally resorted to an old tried-andtrue tongue loosener—a little medicinal brandy. The libation did the trick. The man told Cory that a large number of rikusentai (infantry-trained naval personnel) and laborers were wandering around in the jungle west of the Matanikau River and were willing to surrender. At the same time, a report came in that Marines in the same area thought they saw a white flag.

Cory took that information to Lt. Col. Frank Goettge, the division intelligence officer, who organized a 25-man patrol to bring the Japanese in. On August 12, 1942, the Marines set out in the darkness aboard a tank lighter: scouts, intelligence clerks, a few infantrymen, Goettge, Cory, Captain Bill Ringer (a 5th Marines intelligence officer), and Lt. Cmdr. Malcolm L. Pratt (the regimental surgeon).

Navy Lieutenant Jack Fuller, the officer in charge of the Lunga boat pool, remembered: “We were all laughing and talking to the members of the small party while they were awaiting the boat which was to take them down. They left feeling quite confident in their mission. We waited until our boat returned and then turned in. According to the boat crew everything was quiet and peaceful.”

It was not. Shortly before 2200 the patrol landed just west of the Matanikau estuary—despite a warning to stay clear of the area—near a coral ridge. They deployed in a rough, shallow perimeter in a row of giant banyan trees near the water’s edge. As Goettge, Ringer and another Marine went forward to find a suitable bivouac, the darkness was shattered by gunfire. Goettge fell with a bullet in the head, as a torrent of fire erupted from the undergrowth, catching the surprised Marines at close quarters. Ringer took charge of the survivors and organized a defense.

Within seconds, Cory fell seriously wounded, a bullet in the stomach. He lay on the beach bleeding heavily, unable to move. Pratt went to help a wounded man and was felled with bullets in the chest and lower back. Ringer sent two men, Corporal Joseph Spaulding and Sergeant Charles C. “Monk” Arndt, for help as the Japanese increased their pressure on the tiny perimeter. As dawn broke, only four Marines remained alive. Trapped on the beach, they made a desperate run for the protection of the jungle. Three were cut down, one of them Ringer.

The last survivor, Platoon Sgt. Frank L. Few, made a mad dash for the water. As he looked back, “swords flashed in the morning sun.” Cory’s old friend Van der Rhoer was later told, “The swimmer saw a soldier thrust his bayonet into Cory’s body, stretched out on the sand where he had first fallen.”

Cory was listed as missing in action on August 13, 1942; his status was changed to killed in action (body not recovered) a year later for administrative purposes by the secretary of the Navy. Cory’s wife, Carolyn, wrote to Van der Rhoer and told him that she had received the “bad-news telegram.” A headstone was erected in New Tacoma Cemetery, Tacoma, Wash.

Ralph Cory should never have been a Marine, much less at Guadalcanal. It was government policy that anyone connected with Magic was expressly prohibited from combat or duty that put them in close proximity to the enemy. Cory saw his duty as being at the front, not “pencil pushing” in the rear. He slipped through the cracks and paid with his life.


Originally published in the April 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here