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Living History: Fort Ward home is alive with WWII secrets
A house is rarely just a house. But Sarah Lee’s house comes with something extra.
“It’s a responsibility to the ghosts,” she said.
An article Lee published some time back in the journal CRYPTOLOG elaborates.
“There are ghosts in our house,” she wrote. “Well, we’ve never ever actually seen them, but we know that they’re here. After all, it’s impossible to walk into our house and not sense the ‘ghosts’ of the hundreds of young men and women who worked here from 1910 through the ’50s.”
In one of its many incarnations, Lee’s Parkview Drive home was once known as Station S. There, on Dec. 7, 1941, U.S. Navy personnel working at the top-secret outpost intercepted a famous message sent from Tokyo to the Japanese ambassador in Washington, D.C.
Via teletypewriter, personnel transmitted this message from Bainbridge to the U.S. Navy building in D.C. Just hours later, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor occurred.
When Lee bought the residence in 1989, Fort Ward itself was an outpost, something entirely different from the bustling suburban neighborhood in place today. Lee had just a general notion that the building was “historic.”
“I knew there was something significant because older people would drive by sometimes, especially in the summer, and get out of their cars and take photos. Almost apologetically,” she said.
Lee’s wish to piece together the story grew. Her father began researching the building, learning that it had begun its life in 1910 as a Navy gymnasium and post exchange.
Meanwhile, if Lee noticed a car driving particularly slowly, she’d sometimes flag it down, invite the driver inside, and ask him what occurred there.
“Their answer would be, ‘Oh we worked here.’ But they didn’t really say much more than that.”
She finally got an explanation. On arriving at Station S, personnel – many no more than 17 or 18 years old – were taken down to the basement and asked to swear secrecy, at the risk of being shot for treason, about the intelligence work they were about to participate in.
Decades after the war ended, Lee’s impromptu visitors and the veterans she met in the area remained reticent about revealing details. Even at a 2002 celebration held in Fort Ward to honor the veterans who served there, old buddies shushed each other.
“These men and women had a deep sense of honor, and they’d been told not to tell. And so they didn’t,” Lee said.
She was mildly amazed, then, and deeply appreciative of the irony, when she was contacted by Nao Tase of Tokyo Broadcasting Systems’ international news department.
The correspondent had made arrangements to interview Tom Gilmore, one of the Navy men who worked in Station S, about the intelligence work that took place there. She and her crew hoped that Lee would be amenable to letting them tour the house and film Gilmore inside.
The interview was to be be part of a 4 ½-hour docudrama about Japan’s role in World War II. The drama component, Tase said, would delve into Japanese politics at the time. The documentary component would include coverage of three American locales, Honolulu, D.C., and Bainbridge Island. Tase was particularly interested in code breaking, and had already done extensive research in the National Archives on U.S. Army cryptologist William Friedman, whose work led to the breaking of Japan’s ultra-sophisticated PURPLE cipher.
She knew that Bainbridge was one of the places where Japanese code was intercepted; a network of contacts led her to Station S, and to Lee.
As Gilmore and Lee sat on the sofa in her front room this past Tuesday, Tase and Lee drew information from Gilmore that helped fill in the picture of what life and work inside the building were actually like when he arrived in October 1939.
Gilmore described a Fort Ward base that was itself not heavily populated, but a main floor inside Station S that was packed to the gills with people, desks, and close to 100 radios beeping out Morse code.
He offered specific insight into how he and other Navy personnel could identify the type and source of each Japanese transmission, for instance, a commercial message versus a significant military missive.
He also told a dramatic story of how later in the war, when he was at sea, he picked up a transmission from a Japanese fighter plane that had just been shot down. In methodical, even code that conveyed to Gilmore a sense of utmost calm and professionalism, the radioman aboard the plane tapped out – over and over – that he was honored to be doing his duty for the glory of the emperor. Gilmore knew the plane had hit the water the moment the transmission stopped.
“And I said, I have to take my hat off to him, for having the courage,” Gilmore said.
This sentiment is what struck Tase most about talking with the veteran, now a Tacoma resident. Although he appreciated the quality and construction of a good signal – he described one example as “beautiful” – he also expressed curiosity and mindfulness of the person he imagined to be behind it. Dots and dashes really represented humanity. And Tase found it deeply compelling that two enemies an ocean apart were, in essence, communicating.
“It was amazing, how he really respected people like that,” she said. “We were the enemies then. He probably had tons of reasons to hate the Japanese.”
As the camera crew set up their equipment, Lee asked Gilmore whether he ever imagined he’d be interviewed by a Japanese television station.
“No, I didn’t,” he answered. “And I can’t think why, anyway.”
“Well, you are a very important part of our history,” Tase answered.
This is what blows Lee away about the Tokyo Broadcasting project. For starters, she learned more from Tom Gilmore’s visit than she’d ever known before, which was personally exciting. But she also developed enormous appreciation for the scope of the work that Tase had taken on, and for its significance to Bainbridge. History had come full circle.
“She has done so much of the research that I felt I should have been doing but didn’t have time,” Lee said. “This house, in our community, is going to owe a reporter in the Tokyo Broadcasting System for the work she has done. That is, to me, what makes this house special. That it caused that to happen.”
So, back to the ghosts. Lee, a Morse-code enthusiast herself, whose rotary phones have been retrofitted as transmitters, said that one day she was down in the basement when a message came through. She could hear and feel the reverberations from where she stood.
“And it was this very weird time travel sense of what it might have been like,” she said.
Tase experienced something similar on her visit.
“I don’t know if Sarah told you, but we went down to the basement where the incinerator was. And I could sort of imagine people taking all the (confidential) papers and throwing them into he incinerator and burning them.
“And then, I felt like I could feel people typing,” Tase said. “I guess I’d seen so many messages and had heard people talking about it...It kind of felt like I was hearing the radio and the messages being typed out.”
For both women, for Tom Gilmore, and for the veterans who have tentatively accepted Lee’s invitations to come inside over the years, Station S – Lee’s home – holds significant power.
“I have a big sense of duty, of responsibility, that I don’t feel like I’ve ever lived up to,” she said. “When you buy a house like this, you don’t just buy a house. You buy a responsibility. And I hadn’t realized when I bought the house how much responsibility there would be.”
That’s why she said she’s waiting to win the lottery, so she can research and curate the house full-time, and give the ghosts their due.
“The thing that makes it so important is that you can take history and say, okay, from 1939 to 1941, these were the people who were here. Or, you can make it come alive. That’s what this house still being here allows you to do. Because it’s kind of like a magnet, for the people who used to work here, a magnet for Tokyo Broadcasting System, and a magnet for history. And whether that’s the ghosts or not, I don’t know.”