Redemption at the Hand of the Enemy

By J. Michael Wenger

Shaky Start as an Ensign

John William Steele was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, to Sadie Curry and William Marmontel Steele on 16 December 1903. Graduating from the well-known Warren Easton Boys High School in New Orleans in 1921, he entered the U.S. Naval Academy as a midshipman on 28 June 1921 and graduated on 3 June 1925, receiving his commission as an ensign the next day. 1

“Jack” Steele participated in intramural athletics, including football and gymnastics, and was on the Academy’s wrestling squad during his plebe year. He earned a reputation for possessing a stubborn streak, for late returns from parties and dances, and for absences from meal formations. These characteristics and habits stayed with Steele well into his military career, proving both a help (stubbornness and persistence) and a liability (tardiness and absences). 2

Following graduation, on 4 June 1925 Steele took passage on the USS Henderson (AP-1) and reported on 29 June 1925 to the battleship Tennessee (BB-43) at San Pedro, California. Thence, he transferred to the destroyer Selfridge (DD-320), where Steele first exhibited the behavior that would plague his career for the next nine years. While in the Selfridge , Steele faced a general court-martial in August 1926 and was convicted of “absence from station and duty after leave had expired,” losing 15 numbers in grade. In 1927 the young ensign lost another 15 numbers for “absence from station after leave” and for being “arrested on shore and detained for drunkenness.” Steele participated in the destroyer’s patrols off Nicaragua during July 1927. The Selfridge then returned to the West Coast, where the ensign’s pattern of problems continued. In September 1927, it was found that while ashore at Mare Island, Steele’s “conduct in regard to indulgence in intoxicating liquors was not as good as might be expected.” 3

Following those incidents, Ensign Steele attempted a change in career path, and on 4 November 1927, requested assignment to aviation flight training at NAS Pensacola. Unfortunately, his alcohol abuse again manifested itself. In August 1928 he faced trial by general court-martial for being “so incapacitated by previous indulgence in intoxicating liquor as to necessitate being prohibited from the controls of aircraft.” The guilty verdict cost Steele 100 numbers in grade. Captain Thomas R. Kurtz Jr., assistant chief of the Bureau of Navigation, stated that Steele did not possess “the character to become an aviator,” and recommended that he be detached from Pensacola and returned to general duty. The station’s flight surgeon concurred, adding that the ensign represented a “potential risk.” 4

The Onset of Health Problems

Consequently, Steele’s training as a student aviator came to an end on 16 August 1928. During this period of tumult and disappointment, he married Ruth Marie Ferguson of Pensacola at Milton, Florida. The time spent with his new wife was short, as on 5 September 1928, he reported to the Nokomis (PY-6), a former yacht and survey vessel then in the Caribbean. Following a period of introspection, Steele requested reinstatement to flight training at Pensacola. Denied admission on 13 April 1929, Steele reapplied, receiving a terse and tepid endorsement from the Nokomis ’ medical officer, that he was “physically and tempermentally [sic] qualified for aviation training.” This final attempt to return to Pensacola ended in failure. 5

While Steele’s recurrent alcohol abuse abated during this period, he was caught up in legal troubles when a financial note he cosigned with another officer embroiled him in a dispute relating to nonpayment. When that matter was resolved, Steele underwent instruction at the Hydrographic Office in Washington, D.C., for a short period, and reported to the Naval Academy on 15 July 1932. On 23 May 1934, he detached with orders to report to the cargo ship Gold Star (AK-12), then the station ship at Guam. 6

The Gold Star was an interesting ship, “a familiar sight in the far-flung ports of Asia” during the pre-war years. Chamorro natives from Guam made up a substantial portion of her crew. It is probable that his experience in the Far East sparked Steele’s interest in Asian languages, particularly Japanese. His stay, though possibly seminal, nonetheless was brief. He had reported to the Naval Hospital on Guam for a physical on 28 December 1934. Doctors determined that he was moderately underweight and suffering from significant hearing loss in both ears. A board at the hospital pronounced Steele unfit for service and recommended that he transfer to a stateside hospital for observation and appear before a retiring board. Embarking on the transport Chaumont (AP-5), Steele left Guam on 11 July 1935, bound for Mare Island. 7

An Order To Retire—at Age 32

An examination on 15 September at the Naval Hospital at Mare Island confirmed the earlier diagnosis of bilateral deafness. While a midshipman at the Naval Academy, Steele had inner-ear infections ( otitis media ) in 1922 and 1923. He recovered but over time developed considerable sclerosis in the mastoid regions and a perforated eardrum. Further, the diminutive (5-foot, 5½-inch) officer was undernourished and underweight at 110 pounds. Like their counterparts in Guam, the physicians at Mare Island found Steele to be unfit for duty, with the result that another board soon placed him on the retired list, to be effective 1 April 1936. 8

Anticipating such action, and having developed an interest in linguistics, in March 1936 Steele returned to Honolulu and began to study the Japanese language on a full-time basis. After completing that course in May of the following year, Steele notified the Navy of his intention “to remain in Japan for several years,” and boarded the S.S. President Wilson in Honolulu on 21 May 1937. Steele studied Japanese in Tokyo and Yokohama through mid-September 1940, with the training extending over a period of three years, excluding one return trip to the United States.

During his time in Japan, Steele maintained regular communications with the Navy’s Bureau of Navigation (which became the Bureau of Personnel in 1942), informing it of his studies and changes in domicile. Clearly, Steele—well aware of the deteriorating relations between the United States and Japan—was setting the stage for a possible recall to duty. His developing language skills would make a strong case for reinstatement to duty in the event of war. 9

His diligence and hard work bore fruit, and Steele was ordered back to active service. With his studies concluded, he returned to Hawaii in September 1940 and established a residence in Honolulu. Returning to duty on 9 January 1941, he reported to the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard, with the caveat that he submit to yet another physical examination to determine his fitness for duty. If not qualified, he would return to Honolulu and consider his active service at an end. If qualified, however, Steele was to report for assignment.

Reinstatement into the Navy

On 29 January, doctors pronounced Steele physically fit for “shore duty not requiring auditory acuity.” Taking into account his language skills and expectations, it was probably with some degree of surprise (and dismay) that he received orders on 14 February to report to NAS Kaneohe Bay as personnel officer on 19 February—a scant four days subsequent to that station’s commissioning ceremony. 10

Although Lieutenant (junior grade) Steele might have been disappointed with his assignment at Kaneohe, there was certainly no lack of work awaiting him. Because the station was new, a great deal of construction was in progress. Apart from the five enlisted barracks, little housing was in place. The task of addressing a chronic housing shortage for married officers and enlisted men at Kaneohe demanded a major portion of Steele’s energies, as he was responsible for securing billets for the burgeoning population at the base throughout 1941. Housing was very tight, forcing Steele to direct some men to rent houses in the nearby town of Kailua, some as far away as Pearl City. He commandeered beach cottages within the reservation that by chance had not yet been demolished. As December approached, Steele had proved himself an efficient officer, responding promptly to what surely seemed unreasonable demands.

Steele’s billet in the morning hours of 7 December 1941 is unknown, but certainly the Japanese attack enveloped him as it did many of his fellow officers. At about 0745, Japanese fighters appeared over the station from the north and strafed the four ready PBY?5 Catalinas moored in the bay, PBYs on the parking aprons south and east of the hangars, and the utility aircraft parked near the station runway. Patrol Wing One lost approximately half its 36 aircraft in the attacks. In addition, a large number of officers and men fell, killed and wounded by Japanese machine-gun and cannon fire.

At about 0815, a lull descended over the station, during which the men fought fires and attempted to save or salvage lesser damaged and undamaged aircraft. The respite proved to be short-lived. At about 0905, the Japanese returned, this time in two formations totaling 18 horizontal bombers. The first nine aircraft executed a bombing run that did little damage against Hangar 2. Another nine bombers made a similar run against Hangar 1, where the Japanese had greater success. Three bombs struck the building with others falling close aboard to the east and north. Set afire, the hangar suffered severe damage, with many casualties among the men in and near the building.

A Fortuitous Japanese Crash

Simultaneously, a fighter unit from the carrier So?ryu?, under Lieutenant Fusata Iida, attacked, inflicting still more casualties among Kaneohe’s defenders. Antiaircraft fire, however, fatally damaged his plane’s fuel system, and Iida elected to go to his death in a series of blistering and suicidal strafing attacks on the hangar line.

During his last pass over the industrial area, Iida drew fire that probably killed him. His Zero fighter inverted slowly and impacted at a shallow angle near the southern base of Puu Hawaiiloa, a hill rising in the center of the station. While the wreckage was strewn over a wide area, the cockpit and center section of Iida’s aircraft was somewhat intact, with Iida still in the wreckage. 11

Enter Lieutenant Steele. In short order, he reported to the crash site and readily identified Iida by the name on his flight suit. Among the bits of documents recovered was Iida’s flight chart, ejected intact from the wreckage as the aircraft slithered against the base of Puu Hawaiiloa. Interestingly, the chart proved to be a reprint of an American item, overprinted in Japanese. Although no markings on the chart indicated Iida’s unit or its approach to Oahu, Kanji characters were present, representing the numbers five-nine, two-nine, and four-eight, with stray characters immediately below. 12

After translating the inscription, Steele was unable to divine its significance. 13 The only hint was the inscription’s location southwest of Oahu. Apparently, driven by the frantic desire to use every scrap of information to determine the location of the Japanese, authorities leaped to the conclusion that the inscription indicated the presence of Japanese carriers southwest of the island.

In light of “information” derived from Iida’s flight chart, NAS Kaneohe Bay radioed a message to Pacific Fleet headquarters at 1330, informing Admiral Husband E. Kimmel that the markings on the map indicated a possible rendezvous position 223 degrees and 90 miles distant from Pearl Harbor. Rear Admiral Patrick N. L. Bellinger, commander, Patrol Wing Two, immediately radioed an airborne PBY?5 from Patrol Squadron 23 to search a sector covering 220–230 degrees. Of course, the crew found nothing, as the Japanese strike force had just recovered its aircraft far north of Oahu. 14

Promotion and a Key Wartime Post

Steele’s presence during the Japanese attacks on Kaneohe was not so much significant for the intelligence accrued from Iida’s crash site (which precipitated a wild-goose chase to the southwest). The true significance was that Steele demonstrated that his skills as a language officer were critical to the Navy and to the coming war effort. Steele’s health continued to be an issue, being underweight and having perforated eardrums. Nevertheless, he received a promotion to lieutenant (temporary) (Ret.) on 8 January 1942, effective 2 February 1942.

No longer content to hide his candle under the Kaneohe basket, Steele requested a change in duty on 26 January based on his knowledge of Japanese. In his endorsement of Steele’s request, station chief Commander Harold M. Martin agreed wholeheartedly with the change, acknowledging that Steele’s skills could “be used to better advantage of the Navy,” but declared nonetheless that he regretted the impending departure of his efficient retired “two-striper.” 15

Steele received a promotion to lieutenant commander on 16 June 1942. Nothing is known of his activities during the balance of that year, except that his labors from April onward were “entirely duties of a language officer.” He presumedly translated documents in connection with ongoing intelligence activities in Hawaii. By January 1943, however, he was assigned to the staff of Vice Admiral William F. Halsey Jr., commander, South Pacific Area.

For the next year, Lieutenant Commander Steele worked as officer in charge of translating Japanese documents captured by American forces during their advance through the Solomon Islands. Steele impressed Halsey with his “forceful leadership and unswerving devotion to duty,” which, coupled with “excellent administrative ability” in the direction of the officers and men of his section, “provided his superior command with military information necessary for the defeat of the enemy.” Steele received the Bronze Star in recognition of this meritorious service. 16

In early 1944 Commander Alvin D. Kramer relieved Steele of his duties, with Steele returning stateside for a period of rehabilitation. A short stint at the Bureau of Naval Personnel followed; thence, an assignment to the position just vacated by Kramer in the Central Pacific Area— Joint Intelligence Center, Pacific Ocean Areas (JICPOA). 17

Retirement (Again) and a Reputation Redeemed

Returning from leave on 26 March 1944, Steele took the reins as officer in charge of the Translation Section, JICPOA. The section served through the end of the war, producing critical intelligence “of the highest order,” made possible by Steele’s “intimate knowledge of the Japanese language, his keen critical judgment, and his single-minded devotion to the tasks at hand.” Among Steele’s other responsibilities, he trained language officers for work with the fleet and ground forces. His Herculean efforts and his legacy of well-trained language experts “constituted a material contribution to the success of operations in the Central Pacific area.” For this outstanding service and performance of duty, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz awarded Steele the Legion of Merit, a well-deserved honor for an officer who had found his niche in America’s war effort. 18

Steele rose to the rank of commander on 19 December 1944. On 1 September 1945, he was detached as officer in charge of the Japanese Translation Section of JICPOA, but continued his service until 10 September 1946, at which time he retired with the rank of commander. 19

As a young ensign, Steele had made many poor choices that nearly derailed his career. Despite a soiled record, and knowing that those black marks might dog him in posterity, Steele pursued the path to reclamation with energy and determination, positioning himself to grasp any second chance that the Navy might extend. The desperate shortage of officers and somewhat lowered standards of the time notwithstanding, to the Navy’s great credit it recognized value in a man who had done everything in his power to “right his ship” and prove his worth. In return, the Navy ensured that his knowledge and extraordinary talents found their fullest use. As a result the country reaped enormous benefits from John William Steele’s contribution to the war efforts that defeated the Axis powers.

1. Statements of Service and BuNav Bio Sheets, John W. Steele, National Personnel Records Center, St. Louis, MO (hereafter, NPRC).

2. Lucky Bag 1925, Entry for John William Steele, 185.

3. Report of Compliance with Orders, John W. Steele, 1 July 1925, NPRC; JAG to Chief, BuNav, “General court-martial case of John W. Steele, Ensign, U.S. Navy,” 24 September 1926, NPRC; Memoranda for Chief of BuNav, 10 August 1928, re: John W. Steele, NPRC.

4. Ensign J. W. Steele to BuNav, “Aviation flight training, request for,” 4 November 1928, NPRC; Memoranda for Chief of BuNav, 10 August 1928, John W. Steele, NPRC.

5. Aviation Training Data, 25 February 1929, John W. Steele, NPRC; Aviation Training Data, 25 February 1929, John W. Steele, NPRC; Flight training–request for, John W. Steele, 13 March 1930, NPRC; letter, medical officer, Nokomis , 13 March 1930, NPRC.

6. Campaign Medal Receipt, John W. Steele, 12 August 1931, NPRC; letter, John W. Steele to Clarence Brown, Attorney-at-Law, 23 February 1938, NPRC. While on board the Colorado , Steele received his second Nicaraguan Campaign Medal (Nr 611) on 12 August 1931 for prior service.

7. Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships , Vol. III (Washington, DC: GPO, 1968), p. 114; Reports of Medical Survey, 10 July 1935 and 10 October 1935, John W. Steele, NPRC.

8. Report of Medical Survey, 10 October 1935, John W. Steele, NPRC; Statement of Naval Service, John W. Steele, 30 March 1949, NPRC.

9. John W. Steele to Chief BuPer, Qualification as Interpreter (Japanese), 4 May 1945, NPRC; letter, John W. Steele to BuNav, “Change of address,” 13 July 1937, NPRC.

10. Naval message, BuNav to John W. Steele, 6 January 1941, NPRC; Statement of Naval Service, John W. Steele, 30 March 1949, NPRC; Report of Compliance with Orders, John W. Steele, 10 January 1941, NPRC; Chief BuMed to Com14, “Physical fitness for mobilization assignment in the case of Lieutenant (jg) John William Steele, USN, (Retired),” NPRC; Report of Compliance with Orders, John W. Steele, 19 March 1941, NPRC.

11. The material relating to the prewar history of NAS Kaneohe Bay and the accounts of the attack and LT Iida’s crash are drawn from a forthcoming book by J. Michael Wenger, Robert J. Cressman, and John F. Divirgilio, to be published by Pacific Historic Parks.

12. Imperial Japanese Navy Nautical Chart 2030 of the Hawaiian Islands, recovered from the wreckage of Iida’s aircraft, RG80, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD (hereafter NARA). Commander Martin inserted the following handwritten inscription at the bottom of the chart: “Found in Japanese single seater/shot down at/NAS Kaneohe/HM Martin.”

13. There is no answer to this question even today. The author passed the information to several Japanese military historians, including those at the War History Office of the Japan Defense Agency in Tokyo; no one could shed light of the significance of the inscription.

14. Radio Dispatch, NAS Kaneohe to CinCPac, 2330 GMT, 7 December 1941, RG 80, NARA; Radio Dispatch, ComPatWing TWO to 12 VP 23, 2331 GMT, 7 December 1941, RG 80, NARA II; various carrier air group reports, War History Office, Japan Defense Agency.

15. Acceptance of Appointment, John W. Steele, 2 February 1942, NPRC; NAS Kaneohe Bay to BuNav, Mailgram 130140 regarding physical examination of John W. Steele, NPRC; John W. Steele to Chief BuNav, Change of Duty—Request for, 26 January 1942, NPRC; CO, NAS Kaneohe Bay to Lieutenant John W. Steele, “Detachment,” 29 April 1942, NPRC.

16. John W. Steele to Chief of Naval Personnel, 4 May 1945, “Qualification of Interpreter (Japanese),” NPRC; Bronze Star Citation, John W. Steele, NPRC.

17. BuPer to CNO, “Lieutenant Commander John W. Steele, USN, (Ret.)—Request for orders,” 21 March 1944, NPRC.

18. “Statement of Fact,” preparatory for award of Legion of Merit, John W. Steele, NPRC; CinCPac/POA to Chief NavPers, “Commander J. W. Steele, USN (RET)—Retention on active list,” 19 May 1945, NPRC.

19. Chief BuPers to John W. Steele, Statement of Naval Service, 30 March 1949.



Conferences and Events

Maritime Security Dialogue

Wed, 2018-08-01

Maritime Security Dialogue A discussion with ADM Karl L. Schultz, USCGCommandant, U.S. Coast Guard Moderated by VADM Peter H....

The New China Challenge

View All

From the Press

14 July - Book Discussion

Sat, 2018-07-14

14 July - Book Discussion

Sat, 2018-07-14

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 140 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership