During his 38-year career, Frederick H. Michaelis rose through surface and combat aviation roles to the rank of four-star admiral as Chief of Naval Material. He had command of the USS Enterprise (CVAN-65) and served as deputy director of the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff and commander of Naval Air Force, Atlantic Fleet.
Following graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1940, Ensign Michaelis joined the USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) and was on board the battleship in drydock at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked. A few weeks before, he had been called in by the executive officer, who had a letter from the Bureau of Navigation advising that the ship needed “a very stellar, fine-performing individual” to be radar officer. Michaelis was to fill this role.
He recalls replying: “I’m flattered, commander, could you tell me what a radar is?”
In these edited excerpts from his oral history, Michaelis goes on to say:
There were only two ships in the fleet that had radar at that time, the USS Chester (CA-27) and the USS California (BB-44), with the CXAM1 air search radar. The old CXAM1 was a whale of a good radar for its time. I don’t think anything touched it for the three or four models that followed.
I went out on the Chester for a few days to find out all the lore on radar. In those days, it was really the halt leading the blind. Shortly after that, I signed for a tremendous amount of gear while we were in the yard at Pearl. I signed for it not having any idea what I was signing for. My hide was literally saved by Chief Radioman Charles Klouck, the most amazing radioman. He knew the operation of radio; he knew the guts of radio. Once you know radio and understand the principle of radar, you become a pretty good radar man.
We had a servo in this small 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. 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 of 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. Then you would plot a point on a piece of paper.
During the peace days before the war, late 1941, my classmates used to call down from the bridge when they had the deck. They would ask “What do you have on the port bow?” I would crank it around and couldn’t find anything, and they would reply, “Why don’t you throw that piece of junk away?”
I would say, “Can you see the running lights or just the truck light?”
They would say, “Just the truck light.”
I would say, “Well, it’s hull down, and I told you there has got to be something for these radar signals to bounce off of.”
I never convinced them until the war started, and we started steaming dark. I was the most popular man aboard ship at that point, including the captain, because I really had some eyes. We ran right through a convoy one night before the captain was convinced that he must either change course or turn on lights. He turned on lights, and that whole convoy turned on lights, and we were running right down through the middle of them. I had been telling the captain for 25,000 yards that we were running into a gaggle of ships.
At Pearl Harbor, at one point, the Pennsylvania’s radar was the only one out there. For about 40 hours after the Japanese attack, we had the guard and were hooked up by telephone lines to the control center. We could call our plots into them in a very crude manner.