The Universe Wonders

Midway through The Wrong Side of Space, Lombardi laments one of her ship captains breaking his ship’s position in the formation with the words: “Where is Vaettir heading? The universe wonders.”

This is an homage to WW II’s 24 Oct 1944 Battle of Leyte Gulf. Lombardi experiences the same frustration that Admiral Chester Nimitz felt when his Task Force commander, Admiral Halsey, moved from position in pursuit of a Japanese carrier group.

The carrier group, actually a mere diversion meant to lure Halsey away, was critically low on aircraft and in reality not much of a threat. However, with Halsey’s move of his own fleet carriers further north, his carriers were unable to support the defense of Leyte Gulf from Japanese battleships and heavy cruisers attacking the key region.

As a result, tiny escort destroyers and escort carriers were pressed into service against Japanese ships ten times their size. Miraculously (for the Americans), this severely outmatched force was able to defend Leyte Gulf and protect the vulnerable marines in the area.

When Nimitz heard that escort destroyers were facing off against ships like the Yamato, and that his own fleet carriers that should have been doing the job were out of position far to the north, he sent a coded message to Halsey: TURKEY TROTS TO WATER GG FROM CINCPAC ACTION COM THIRD FLEET INFO COMINCH CTF SEVENTY-SEVEN X WHERE IS RPT WHERE IS TASK FORCE THIRTY FOUR RR THE WORLD WONDERS

Reading that message, it’s easy to understand how Halsey took it as a stinging rebuke. “Where are you? The world wonders.” Halsey actually sulked for an hour before turning his carriers back to the south. The Battle of Leyte Gulf would be over before Halsey’s carriers were back into a position where they could support the defense effort.

And that’s the story… or so I thought for most of my adult life.

It ends up, the message was never meant as a scathing indictment on Halsey. Encoded messages are sent with what is called security padding meant to make enemy efforts to decipher them more difficult. Since the openings and endings of messages usually follow a similar pattern (and therefore are easier to decrypt), security padding is added to the beginnings and endings of encoded messages to avoid this. That’s the “Turkey Trots To Water” part. “The World Wonders” was actually just routine security padding tacked on to the ending. However, the decoder on Halsey’s carrier included it in the message handed to Halsey and the confusion over this simple mistake resulted in a wasted hour during a critical battle. It’s the small stuff that gets you.

A final note: “The World Wonders” is most likely taken from a poem about the infamous 24 Oct 1854 Battle of Balaclava… it was the 90th anniversary of that battle on the day of the Battle of Leyte Gulf. The poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade by Tennyson, reads in part:

Flash’d all their sabres bare,
Flash’d as they turned in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army while
All the world wonder’d.

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