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Station S (Fort Ward, Bainbridge Island)
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In September 1939, the U.S. Navy relocated a secret radio listening post from Fort Stevens, Oregon, to Fort Ward on Bainbridge Island in Kitsap County, a few miles from Seattle in Puget Sound. The radio post was renamed "Station S" and began eavesdropping on Japanese messages in 1940. At the end of World War II, the station turned to the Cold War, intercepting messages from Russia and, later, North Korea. Station S closed down in December 1953.
Secret Listening Post
In May 1932, the U.S. Navy established a radio listening post at Fort Stevens, Oregon (near Astoria). But the station discovered reception issues in 1938, forcing a move. After a survey determined that Bainbridge Island had ideal reception, the Fort Stevens station relocated to the island in September 1939. It opened at Fort Ward (established 1900-1903) as the Communications Support Activities (COMSUPACT). Rhombic antennas were erected on the parade grounds. In 1940, the facility was renamed Station S, Naval Security Group Activities (NSGA) and eavesdropped on the Tokyo-to-San Francisco radio net, recording Japanese diplomatic messages sent in Japanese Morse code.
From the start, Station S would be a very secret operation, remaining hidden from local residents and the general public. Occupying a former army post, with the radio intelligence center housed in what had been the Post Exchange building, the station avoided public awareness. It helped that Fort Ward had ample vacant space, so no new construction, which might have drawn outside interest, was needed to open the intercept facility.
The Bainbridge listening post also had another significant intelligence activity, radio direction finding (RDF), for locating and tracking enemy ships. Using radio signals acquired by several listening stations, RDF could identify a ship’s location. To locate or identify a ship’s position required at least two RDF station reports, but the addition of a third report ensured more accurate locating. Bainbridge operated in the West Coast High Frequency Direction Net as the Net Control and Plotting Center, compiling its own and other RDF stations’ data to keep a log of Japanese ship locations. The data was then sent to West Coast naval commands and the Chief of Naval Operations in Washington, D.C.
Naval Radio School
On October 28, 1940, a Naval Reserve Radio School opened at Fort Ward. Each class consisted of up to 40 students, who would come for four months of training in radio operations. To accommodate them, all six cells in the fort’s former guardhouse were removed and the space was converted into a classroom. Additionally, fort barracks were rehabilitated to provide student housing. The students would learn Morse code, typewriting, naval communications operations, and elementary seamanship. At graduation, those who passed a test would receive radioman third class ratings and be assigned either to the fleet or ashore.
The school provided excellent cover for the top-secret radio operations across the parade grounds in the former Post Exchange. A full-page photo essay soon appeared in The Seattle Times, indicating that the radio school was the U.S. Navy’s purpose for being on Bainbridge Island.
An additional 160 acres were acquired in 1941, land to the west and south of Fort Ward. Construction crews erected 60 temporary wood-frame buildings, and existing Fort Ward buildings were modified for new uses. The former administration building became home for Commander B. C. Purrington (1896-1961), the station commander. The bakery became a power house. And the former PX was converted into Station S.
Signs of War
In November and early December 1941, an increase in Japanese diplomatic messages in kept Station S busy intercepting the heavier traffic, which reached its peak between December 4 and December 6. Commander B. C. Purrington also noted increased shipping activity in his November and December 1941 secret station reports to the Chief of Naval Operations. The stepped-up radio and shipping activity indicated something important was happening. On December 7, 1941, Station S intercepted a message from Japan about breaking off negotiations with the United States. Station S forwarded this significant message to Washington, D.C.
In early September 1941, Japan's military and civilian leaders had decided that they would go to war if they could not obtain oil and raw materials through negotiations. The United States and other nations had frozen Japanese assets and closed off Japan’s access to oil. Japan was fighting in China and required oil to keep up its campaign. Japan's diplomats were instructed to try negotiations despite a belief that they would not succeed. Meanwhile the Japanese military prepared for war. The message intercepted by the Bainbridge radio was the signal to begin the war.
This intercepted message expressed the Japanese position that it would be impossible to reach an agreement through further negotiations. The Japanese had secretly moved their naval force for the attack on Pearl Harbor, located in Hawaii.
Tokyo had planned that the Japanese ambassador would deliver the message to the U.S. Secretary of State on December 7 at 1 p.m., shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor was to start. To maintain the advantage of surprise, the Japanese government did not present a declaration of war. But delivery of the message was delayed, and, despite the various indications that war might break out, United States intelligence officials did not anticipate the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
It came at 1:20 p.m., Washington D.C. time. The following day, on December 8, 1942, following an address to Congress and the nation by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945), the United States declared war on Japan.
During the War
In November 1942, Station S took over the Canadian radio intelligence work. During World War II, an anti-submarine net was laid across Rich passage. In September 1942, a navy radio transmitter station was built at Battle Point, north of Station S. The Battle Point station included a reinforced concrete transmitter building, helix building, and four 300-foot towers. Later, an 800-foot radio tower was added. This station relayed messages from the Pacific to the 13th Naval Command in Seattle.
WAVES, Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, arrived in 1944, and a number of them worked at Station S. The former quartermaster building was converted to barracks to house them. In January 1945, some intercept-trained WAVES skilled in Japanese Morse code went to other intercept stations.
Cold War and Closure
After World War II, new eavesdropping targets were selected. In 1946, the Naval Radio School taught Russian code, and Soviet messages were listened to. In 1950, Station S began intercepting messages from North Korea. The Naval Radio School became the U.S. Naval School Communications Technicians, which taught students radio skills from October 1951 until it closed in December 1953. Naval Security Group Activities ceased in 1953, and the station moved to Marietta, Washington. Again, Fort Ward and naval radio activities went into caretaker status.
In 1958 the navy abandoned Bainbridge Island. In 1959 the General Services Administration (GSA) disposed of the land and buildings. In 1960, 137 acres on the water became Fort Ward State Park.
Battle Point station closed in 1971, and the land was turned over to the Bainbridge Park District. The federal government removed the five towers in 1972. The area is now Battle Point Park, and the former transmitter building has been converted into a 3,000-square-foot gymnastics center.
In 1978 the Fort Ward site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Ivan W. Lee Jr., The Story of the Little Fort at Beans Point (Bainbridge Island: private published, 1994), available at Northwest Reference Collection, Bremerton Public Library, and at Bainbridge Public Library; David Kahn, The Code Breakers: The Comprehensive History of Secret Communications from Ancient Times to the Internet (New York: Scribner, 1996); “Fort Ward, Washington,” The Coast Defense Study Group, accessed on September 1, 2010 (http://www.cdsg.org/); David Hansen, “This Is Ft. Ward, Wash. Today,” Headquarters Heliogram, Council on America’s Military Past, Issue 101, p. 8; “Fort Ward Work Completed,” The Seattle Daily Times, October 27, 1903, p. 4; “Summer Camp To Be Dedicated At Fort Ward,” The Seattle Daily Times, June 30, 1935, p. 40; “Radio School Opens Monday,” The Seattle Times, October 25, 1940, p. 4; Charles Aweeka, “800-foot Bainbridge Tower Due to Go Down into History,” The Seattle Daily Times, April 23, 1972, p. 29.
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Listening station, 1940-1953 (now private home), Fort Ward, Bainbridge Island, 2010
Photo by John Stanton
Fort Ward Barracks, Bainbridge Island, 2010
Photo by John Stanton