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Voice of the Komets Bob Chase served as a Navy cryptographer

Bob Chase grew up close to the water in Michigan and worked on ships before joining the Navy at age 17 during World War II. (Courtesy photo)
Bob Chase grew up close to the water in Michigan and worked on ships before joining the Navy at age 17 during World War II. (Courtesy photo)
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press

He marveled at sight of nuclear bomb testing; encourages youth to serve in the military

Monday, October 24, 2016 10:38 am
Editor’s note: This is one in a biweekly series about World War II veterans and their experiences. Bob Chase, known to thousands as the announcer for Komets hockey games, worked as a cryptographer, or code maker/breaker, for the U.S. Navy during World War II.

“We could hardly wait to break codes when they came in,” said Chase, 90, of Fort Wayne. “They were assigned security headings. If it was ‘Confidential,’ the content was not deemed important. If marked ‘Secret,’ we decoded. Messages labeled ‘Top Secret’ we didn’t touch but passed them to our officer in charge.”

During his time of service, he handled codes while stationed in a mountain in Hawaii and aboard ships in the Pacific.

Chase was born in Negaunee, Mich., as Robert Donald Wallenstein. He later adopted his wife’s maiden name for his announcing career.

His father had served in France and Germany during World War I as a member of the Army field artillery unit. Chase didn’t hear war stories from his dad while growing up, but a sense of patriotism was ever present. “Our family respected the military,” he said.

Living close to water, Chase became a Sea Scout. At age 15 he moved to Canada to haul iron ore during the summer and at 16 he was old enough to work on American ships.

After living on his own, it seemed natural, upon graduating from Graveraet High School in 1943, that Chase would enlist in the U.S. Navy. “I needed a parent’s signature because I was 17 years old,” he said. “Mom was reluctant to have me join, but Dad let me choose the branch because he knew I’d be drafted.”

Chase was sent to Farragut Naval Training Station near Athol, Idaho, for boot camp. Chase heard about mental aptitude tests being administered by the Navy to sailors interested in aviation. “They wanted to prepare future pilots for flight training with courses in math and minor engineering,” he said.

After passing the test, Chase completed two semesters at Hobart College in Geneva, N.Y. Unfortunately, Chase didn’t pass succeeding tests, and the Navy sent him to New York City Pier 92 to work. There, Chase heard about another program – the Navy was looking for volunteers for a special project in naval intelligence.

Chase applied for the program, though he was unsure of exactly what was involved. When a thorough governmental background check ensured he was trustworthy, Chase was sent to cryptography school in Washington, D.C. He was assigned to the Hawaiian island of Oahu to decode messages from a naval station located inside a mountain. “We climbed down ladders in a mountain near Wahiawa,” he said.

Later, he was stationed aboard ships in the Pacific. “On flag ships, we had a sophisticated machine at the time in the radio shack called an ECM (electromechanical system of rotors used to encipher messages),” he said. “It was like a typewriter with round cylinders and letters stamped on it.”

Encrypted messages were padded with letters and numbers at the front and rear to disguise their meanings. “When we typed things in code, it formed five-letter groups,” he said. “We never wrote words.

Each day a new code sheet was received. “It was water sensitive so if the paper got wet, the print disappeared,” he added.

Chase was part of the safety monitor group. “We were sworn to secrecy,” he said. Chase was reassured of safety with an ever-present Marine in the code room.

Later, he learned the real reason for the Marine. “If we were overrun by the enemy, the Marine’s last deed would be to make sure our crew did not come out alive because of what we knew,” he said.

When FDR died in April 1945, Chase, who may have been stationed on the USS Wasp, wondered about the future of the war. “Everyone had respect for FDR and no one had heard of Truman,” he said. “We worried Truman might not be able to execute the war like FDR had done.”

Chase was thankful for Truman’s decision to bomb Nagasaki and Hiroshima in Japan to end the war. “He did something no other president has ever had to do,” Chase said. “The U.S. was planning a major invasion of Japan and our soldiers were told to get their wills in order because the expected casualty rate was 60 percent.”

When the war ended in September 1945, Chase continued his military service by joining the Army National Guard as a combat engineer. “There was no Navy Reserve in the UP (upper peninsula of Michigan),” he said. He received a commission as a 2nd lieutenant and switched to the Army Reserves. He was discharged as a 1st lieutenant in 1947.

Before leaving the Pacific, Chase participated in the Able and Baker nuclear bomb tests held at the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands.

“We could see their eruptions from our ship 30 miles away,” he said. “We viewed it through eye shields. It was absolutely awesome and moved our ship sideways. There was no heat, just wind. It was amazing that anything manmade could disrupt the water like that. I wished more people could have seen it in person.”

In 1950 he married Muriel Chase, known as Murph. The Chases are parents to four children. One of their sons and a grandson have served in the military in Vietnam and Afghanistan.

On their 50th wedding anniversary in 2000 the Chases toured Oahu, revisiting Bob’s military venues. Chase also has participated in Honor Flight of Northeast Indiana in 2014 to Washington, D.C., to visit the monuments and Arlington National Cemetery. This fall marks 65 years since he began announcing Komet hockey games for WOWO radio. He has published a book about his professional life in radio called “Live from Radio Rinkside.”

In looking back at his military service, Chase encourages youth today to follow suit. “I would not trade it for anything,” he said. “I think now more than ever our young people should be required to put in time in service to this country before going to college. It would give them something to be proud of and would develop a respect for this country.”

Bluffton author Kayleen Reusser published the book “World War II Legacies: Stories of Northeast Indiana Veterans.” Contact her at kjreusser@adamswells.com.



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