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In World War II, it was standard practice to add nonsense phrases to coded messages in transit, in order to thwart decryption efforts. One of those phrases accidentally changed the course of the largest naval battle in history.

Samar

U.S. Navy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Battle of Leyte Gulf, off the coast of the Philippines, involved hundreds of ships and more than 200,000 people. I won’t give you a play-by-play – it’s too complicated – but at one point (the Battle off Samar) a small allied fleet was under attack from the Japanese navy. They sent out a call for help to the much larger “Task Force 34” fleet, who were nearby.

The chief of the naval forces, Admiral Nimitz, was radioing back and forth with the fleets from his headquarters in Hawai’i. At one point, he sent a message seeking to clarify the location of Task Force 34:

Where is, repeat, where is Task Force Thirty Four?

For transmission, some extra random words were added to the beginning and the end of this message. Normally these would be removed after the message was transmitted but before it was delivered to the admiral in charge of Task Force 34. But this time, some of them weren’t removed, leaving this message:

Where is, repeat, where is Task Force Thirty Four? The world wonders.

The recipient, Admiral Halsey, read this as damning sarcasm from his commanding officer and went into a sulk. (Yup, Wikipedia describes it as a sulk. Ouch!) It would be another hour before Halsey went to help the smaller fleet, and in the meantime many ships were lost.

 

Categories: Asia History Military Modern history Places The poles and oceans

The Generalist

I live in Auckland, New Zealand, and am curious about most things.

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