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Herman Kossler’s Bottle of Scotch

Updated: May 3

by Andrew W. Hall
(Image on the left, Herman Kossler on Cavalla‘s bridge, 1944. Photo: Harry “Bus” Engler, via Cavalla.org.)

Wilfred J. “Jasper” Holmes was a U.S. Naval intelligence officer in Hawai’i
during World War II. He was assigned to the Estimates Section of the Fleet Radio Unit Pacific (FRUPAC) at Pearl Harbor, where he was deeply involved in the interpretation and analysis of Japanese wireless intercepts. In fact, he was one of a handful of officers in Hawai’i who was privy to material classified above “top secret.” Holmes was part of the team that interpreted and analyzed intelligence derived from the breaking of the Japanese naval encryption code JN-25 – classified as “Ultra.”

(Image to the right, Fleet Radio Unit Pacific, also known as Station HYPO, the codebreaking and intelligence station at Pearl Harbor.)

Holmes came to FRUPAC, or Station HYPO, as the unit was known, by an unusual route. He was neither a cryptologist nor an intelligence officer by training; he was a line officer in the Navy, a submariner. By the mid-1930s he was a lieutenant, commanding the submarine S-30 at Pearl Harbor, when he began suffering from arthritis in his back. In 1936 he was medically retired.

Holmes had a degree in engineering, and quickly found a position as an instructor at the University of Hawai’i. He had considerable skill as a writer, too – he’d written the prizewinning essay in the U.S. Naval Institute’s annual competition in 1934 – and began publishing essays and short stories under the pen name Alec Hudson, several of which were published in the Saturday Evening Post. These often had a naval theme, and Holmes’ descriptions of naval equipment and procedure we detailed enough that another aspiring writer, Naval Academy Midshipman Edward L. Beach, recognized that “Alec Hudson” must have been a naval officer.

Holmes was called back to active service in mid-1941. Tensions between Japan and the United States were rapidly increasing, and most naval officers were convinced that at some time soon, those tensions would flare into a shooting war. At the time, HYPO seemed to be making good progress on the JN-25 naval code, and another section of the unit was able to read much of the diplomatic code, Purple.

Because Holmes had no cryptographic experience, he was assigned to the Estimates Section, where his experience as a serving line officer would be best employed, compiling intelligence drawn from various sources to determine the strength, composition and movements of various Japanese military units – naval groups, air wings and island garrisons.

(Image to the right, Jasper Holmes. Image: Naval Security Group via U.S. Submarine Veterans.)

Holmes’ work brought him into contact with units from all over the Pacific Fleet, but he remained a submarine officer in spirit, if not in assignment. Holmes developed a close working relationship with Dick Voge, the operations officer of the Pacific submarine fleet. Voge would comeby HYPO every morning around nine o’clock, where he and Holmes would compare the current positions of U.S. submarines with decrypted messages concerning Japanese fleet movements. Most days this information was somewhat general in nature, but from time to time intercepted and decoded messages provided enough detail to put an American submarine in exactly the right spot to intercept a major target.

Which brings us to Herman Kossler’s bottle of Scotch.



U.S.S. Cavalla as she appeared about the time of her first war patrol in June 1944.

In June 1944, during the buildup to what would later be known as the Battle of Philippine Sea, HYPO collected and decoded Japanese operational plans detailed enough to enable two submarines, Cavalla and Albacore, to position themselves directly astride the Japanese Navy’s lanes of approach. Albacore got the big new carrier Taiho, but Cavalla, on her first patrol, got the grand prize – the Japanese carrier Shokaku, a veteran of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Homes recalled:

Of the six Japanese aircraft carriers that had taken part in the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Shokaku was the fifth to be sunk. We had long since identified all the ships of the Kido Butai that had attacked Pearl Harbor, and their sillouettes were posted on the wall in the Estimates Section. It gave me an unprofessional vindictive satisfaction to check off each of those ships as it was sunk. I told Voge I would give a bottle of Scotch to any submarine skipper who sank one of them. Voge was careful to present every qualifying skipper for his bottle, but I never saw Herman J. Kossler, the captain of the Cavalla, after he sank the Shokaku. Kossler was the only submarine captain to sink a capital ship of the Kido Butai, and I still owe him a bottle of Scotch.

Shokaku, one of the last of the Kido Butai. Image from combinedfleet.com.

Holmes’ private ritual became known among the submariners at Pearl; Ned Beach, the Naval Academy midshipman who had recognized “Alec Hudson” as the pen name of a naval officer, went into submarines himself and soon learned of the practice. As Beach wrote many years later,
 
[Holmes] had become an intelligence officer at Pearl Harbor and, after the attack on the Day of Infamy, had taken on himself the particular and personal dedication to see the destruction of every ship that had participated in it. During the war, from time to time, commanders of submarines would receive by messenger, without explanation, a bottle of fine whiskey. Little by little the word got around that one of the ships sunk on a recent patrol had carried special significance for someone. In this way Jasper Holmes never left out submarines. It was through him that we would receive orders to be somewhere at a certain time – and on occasion there was a bottle of booze at the end of the trail.

Holmes doesn’t mention it, but he missed Kossler because Cavalla did not return to Pearl Harbor after that first, eventful patrol, instead putting in at the new forward submarine base at Majuro. In fact, Cavalla wouldn’t return to Pearl Harbor until September 1945, after the war had ended. Instead, Cavalla’s five subsequent patrols were all run out of forward operating bases in Australia, the Philippines, and the western Pacific.

After the war Jasper Holmes returned to the University of Hawai’i, where he eventually became Dean of Engineering. More than thirty years after the war, when the existence of Ultra intelligence was finally made public, Holmes published a memoir of his experiences, Double-Edged Secrets: U.S. Naval Intelligence Operations During World War II. It’s a fascinating account of a central, essential part of the war that’s gotten relatively little attention. Holmes writes with considerable modesty describing his role at HYPO; in fact, he was deeply and intimately involved in many of the critical episodes that took place there, and one suspects he gives himself too little credit.

A colleague of mine once told me about a retired naval officer he had known who’d been in naval intelligence during the war, with a very high classified material clearance, who later was assigned to assist the naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison in compiling his official, multi-volume history of the conflict. (As I recall, my friend explained that this intelligence officer had been deeply involved in planning the interception and shootdown of Isoroku Yamamoto, commander-in-chief of the Imperial Fleet. The mission was considered so risky, and so likely to expose the success of Allied codebreaking, that it had to be approved personally by President Roosevelt.) Morison didn’t have a high security clearance, and even if he had, he wouldn’t have been able to use that material in his writing. So Morison plodded along using declassified action reports, while his assistant could only shake his head and think, “you don’t know half the story.

Not even close. 

Copyright © 2010 Andrew W. Hall, all rights reserved
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