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Admiral Frederick H. Michaelis, USN (Ret.) (1917-1992)

ADM Frederick H. Michaelis, USN (Ret.)Based on five interviews conducted by Dr. John T. Mason Jr. from November 1981 through April 1982, this volume contains 172 pages of interview transcript plus an index. The transcript is copyright 1996 by the U.S. Naval Institute; the interviewee placed no restrictions on its use.

A 1940 graduate of the Naval Academy, Michaelis reported to the fleet flagship USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) and became involved in an early installation of radar. After surviving the attack on Pearl Harbor, he went to flight training in Pensacola and qualified as a naval aviator. In the latter part of World War II he was in Fighter Squadron 12 (VF-12), which he eventually commanded. After postgraduate education in aeronautical engineering, he was involved in nuclear weapons development, commanded Air Group 11 in the USS Kearsarge (CVA-33), served on the AirPac staff and with the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Air. He was executive officer of the USS Randolph (CVA-15), skipper of the oiler USS Tolovana (AO-64), underwent nuclear power training, served in the Plans and Policy section of OpNav, and in 1963 became second CO of the nuclear-powered carrier USS Enterprise (CVAN-65). As a flag officer he was ComCarDiv 9, on the staff of DCNO (Air), as deputy of the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff, as Commander Naval Air Force Atlantic Fleet from 1972 to 1975, and finally as the four-star Chief of Naval Material from 1975 until his retirement in 1978.

An index to this volume can be viewed here (.pdf).

In this selection from his first interview with Dr. Mason at the Naval Historical Center in Washington, D.C., on 9 November 1981, Admiral Michaelis tells of his early experiences with radar in the period shortly before the start of World War II.


Admiral Michaelis: This was in '39, and I graduated in '40. It was the first class to have our leave curtailed, and we got to our ships. The scent of war was in the air; there wasn't any doubt about it.

Doctor Mason: Did you have a choice of your ship?

Admiral Michaelis: I could only get a surface ship, couldn't get a carrier. So I opted for the biggest surface ship, because it had navigation aboard. I went to a battleship, the Pennsylvania; I first was assistant navigator.[1] Then I became a battery officer in their secondary battery, which was a surface battery of 5-inch guns, which were always in the shadow of the big 14-inch guns.

Doctor Mason: Were there many of your classmates on board?

Admiral Michaelis: Thirteen of us went aboard at the same time. Then, shortly before Pearl Harbor was attacked, I was called in by the exec one day, and he said, "I have a letter here from the Bureau of Navigation." In those days that was the name for the Bureau of Personnel.

Doctor Mason: Headed by Admiral Nimitz at that point, was it not?[2]

Admiral Michaelis: Nimitz, yes. This was in the middle of 1941, June or July.

Doctor Mason: Yes, he was plucked from that to go to Pearl Harbor.

Admiral Michaelis: This message described a radar officer. They were looking for a very stellar, fine-performing individual. The exec said, "The captain and I decided that you would be the radar officer."

I said, "I'm flattered. Commander, could you tell me what a radar is?"

He said, "I was afraid you were going to ask that."

Doctor Mason: It was too secret for him to tell you?

Admiral Michaelis: It really was. It was an interesting experience. Then I said, "It wouldn't happen to be that rack that I saw on the 'Prune Barge'? That was what we called the California in those days.

He said, "Yes, I think so." There were only two ships in the fleet that had radar at that time. The old CXAM-1 was a whale of a good radar for its time, and I don't think anything touched it for about three or four models after that.[3] It had the old A-scan type of presentation. The two ships that had radar were the Chester, a cruiser, and the California. So I went out for a few days on the Chester to find out all the lore about radar. In those days it was really the halt leading the blind.

Shortly after that, maybe two weeks, I signed for a tremendous amount of gear coming aboard while we were in the yard there at Pearl. We put this thing together, and I signed for it, not having any idea what I was signing for. My hide was literally saved by a chief radioman named Klouck, who was absolutely the most amazing radioman.[4] He not only knew the operation of radio, but he knew about the guts of radio. Once you know radio and understand the principle of radar, you become a pretty good radarman. He had never been to MIT or any of the rest of the technical schools. He was self-taught and really made the thing hum.

It was an interesting thing. We had a servo in this little shack. He used to crank a very small dial, and the radar face would swing around, and you could read the azimuth. It was always relative, so you had to convert it to true.[5] You would keep cranking it until you could see a blip out on this long skinny tube. It was called an A‑tube, and you had to calibrate it almost every day. It was calibrated in thousandths and tens of thousandths of yards out on this tube. When you would see a blip on there, you would stop. You would read the angle, and then you would go out on the tube and read the distance, and then you would plot a point on a piece of paper.

[1] The USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) was commissioned 12 June 1916. Following modernization in the early 1930s she had a standard displacement of 33,384 tons, was 608 feet long and 106 feet in the beam. Her top speed was 21 knots. She was armed with 12 14-inch guns and 12 5-inch/51 broadside guns and eight 5-inch/25 antiaircraft guns.

[2] Rear Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, USN, who in December 1941 became Commander in Chief Pacific Fleet following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

[3] The CXAM was an early air-search radar.

[4] Chief Radioman Charles H. Klouck, USN, who later became an officer and eventually retired as a lieutenant commander.

[5] This is a reference to the bearings of a given object in relation to the ship.



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