Who Was In The Room Where It Happened: Unmasking the WWII Radio Messenger of “The World Wonders”
Monday, April 22, 2019
When a unique research request with an infamous subject made its way to the National Museum of the Pacific War (NMPW), it was my genealogical research skills honed over years that played a vital role in making a historical discovery.
The request came from historian Richard Frank, who concluded research at the NMPW during September 2018. He’d spent time studying one of our unpublished memoirs, which appeared to give new information on a well-known incident. Two of the most recognizable names from the Pacific War were involved and, according to the memoirist, so was a hapless officer that sent a notorious message from one to the other. The messenger was identified by name and Frank asked if that name could be verified in our archives.
First, a bit of background. During World War II, US landings at Leyte Island on October 20, 1944, threatened Japan’s access to oil and raw materials in the region. To counter, the Imperial Japanese Navy sent three large groups of fighting ships to the area. The series of encounters between the US and Japanese navies that followed is considered the largest naval battle in history and resulted in nearly 13 percent of all US Navy Cross medals awarded for bravery during WWII.
Admiral William F. Halsey and Task Force 34 protected the landings at Leyte. The Japanese navy’s plan was simple. One group of ships would attract Halsey’s attention and draw him and a large portion of his task force away from their protective mission while the other two groups attacked the landing area.
The gambit worked, and three days later an urgent message requesting assistance arrived at the headquarters of Commander in Chief Pacific (CINCPAC) Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. In response, Nimitz radioed a message to Halsey requesting his location. When sent, it read:
TURKEY TROTS TO WATER GG FROM CINCPAC ACTION COM THIRD FLEET INFO COMINCH CTF SEVENTY-SEVEN X WHERE IS RPT WHERE IS TASK FORCE THIRTY-FOUR RR THE WORLD WONDERS
The radio officer sending messages like this would normally place a string of nonsensical words, called “padding,” at both beginning and end so that, if intercepted, any attempt to understand it would be frustrated. The officer receiving the message would then remove the padding before delivering the message. In this instance, the end of the message— “The World Wonders”—appeared to make sense, so it remained when delivered.
When read by Halsey, it gave the impression that Nimitz was sarcastically criticizing his decision to move Task Force 34 away from the landing area. In reaction, Admiral Halsey became enraged and brooded over the situation. During the hour it took for him to recover and head back to give assistance, the US lost one escort carrier and three other ships.
In the following decades, two key questions about “The World Wonders” message lingered. Who sent it and why did the ending of it make sense when it shouldn’t have? Both appeared to be answered in an unpublished memoir by Elmer R. Oettinger Jr. in NMPW’s archives.
Written in the late 1980s, Oettinger’s memoir details his experiences during the war as a CINCPAC communications security officer. Shortly after completion, he donated the memoir to the NMPW. In it, Oettinger revealed that a recently promoted ensign, named Dan Coster, sent the infamous message.
According to Oettinger, Ensign Coster had received a promotion from the enlisted ranks due to “bravery in sea combat” and had not been at CINCPAC headquarters for very long at the time of the incident. In Oettinger’s opinion, this new man had not been properly trained to handle sensitive messages and, therefore, posed a communications risk at CINCPAC. Oettinger claimed that he attempted to report the matter but his concern was rebuffed. As a consequence, “The World Wonders” message was sent sometime later.
Admiral Nimitz was born in Fredericksburg, Texas, where the NMPW is located, and our archives have several small collections from individuals that served at CINCPAC headquarters. Even though Oettinger gave a specific name, I approached this search as I would a genealogy puzzle. I considered it possible, even likely, that after four decades the name provided could be spelled as he remembered it sounded and not as it truly was. For that reason, I considered name variations.
After searching through several folders I discovered a document that appeared useful. It was from the right timeframe and had lists of junior officers. Page two showed an Ensign “J. D. Kaster”—that immediately focused my attention.
I followed up on my discovery by using a trusted genealogy website. I hypothesized that “J. D. Kaster” would be in the age range of most people who served during the war and would have been born between 1915 and 1925. One of my initial search results contained an Iowa WWII bonus record for a John Donald Kaster. After glancing over the handwritten entries on the form it seemed highly likely that I had the right person.
In one section of that record, John Donald Kaster indicated all the places that he served during the war. He wrote that he was on USS Northampton followed by brief duties elsewhere before eventually receiving an assignment to “Com-Chief Pacific Fleet.” I knew that Northampton was torpedoed and sunk in 1942, which might explain the act of bravery Oettinger mentioned, and I also recognized that “Com-Chief Pacific Fleet” would be CINCPAC.
I then checked the Navy muster rolls, which showed that Kaster was a Northampton radioman when it was sunk. Those records also confirmed his short assignments and that he was promoted to ensign in early 1944, before assignment to CINCPAC headquarters. Some additional searching also resulted in hometown newspaper items that revealed he was known as “Don” Kaster.
One of the collections in the NMPW archives is related to USS Northampton. A folder in the collection contained recollections involving the sinking. I found that one of them was from the radio officer, Ensign Byron W. Eaton. In his remembrance, Eaton described how he and radioman Kaster destroyed the ship’s codebooks and decoding machines after the order to abandon ship was given. That act to deprive the Japanese of valuable means to decode American messages may have appeared significant enough to warrant a promotion and eventual assignment to CINCPAC headquarters.
“You are a superhero of the archives. Did you wear a cape and a mask when you did this?” That was the message of astonishment that I received from Richard Frank after providing the historian with my findings. As the NMPW archivist, genealogical research skills are something I regularly hone. The museum focuses on honoring those who served in the war, and some of the greatest satisfaction I receive from my job comes from making sure veterans are known. To help make that happen, I use trusted genealogy resources. In this case, the sender of “The World Wonders” message might have never been positively identified if not for an archival intercession.
This article was originally published in the March/April issue of the Society of American Archivists’ “Archival Outlook” and was reprinted with permission from the author.