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Intercepting enemy messages

After graduating from Kenmore High School, Henry Newbigging landed a job at the Tonawanda Box Board plant along the Niagara River in the Town of Tonawanda.

But the young man wasn't content with a factory job, so he decided to get out and see the world -- after seeking the wise counsel of his mother.

"I was having lunch one day with a co-worker at Tonawanda Box Board," Newbigging recalled. "He'd been in the Navy but had been discharged for hitting an officer. He told me, 'You're wasting your time here. You should join the Navy.' I said I'd think about it. I told my mother, and she said, 'That's what I would do, if I was a man.'

"So I joined and took an aptitude test and scored high in radio skills, and the first thing I was taught was Morse code. I got rapid promotions because I was excellent at it and decided to make a career out of the Navy."

Then came Dec. 7, 1941. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and suddenly Newbigging was part of a war.

"I was stationed down in the British West Indies at Trinidad when the bombing occurred. I remember I was taking a shower when it happened," the 93-year-old Town of Tonawanda resident said.

"I heard a Marine yelling, 'Hank, Hank, come here.' He was on duty at the radio. He was a novice, but the message was coming over in plain English, which never happened. It was the president's words saying we'd been attacked. The Marine was shaking."

And while Newbigging never actually fired a weapon at the enemy, he and his fellow radio operators played a crucial, behind-the-scenes role in monitoring the movement of German and Japanese warships in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

"While I was in Trinidad, I would pick up Morse code from German ships," he said. "The Germans were very, very shrewd. At the time, there were so many radio transmissions from German shipping that Washington had us build a radio reception unit up in the hills of Trinidad that gave us greater capability to intercept their messages."

He and his shipmates, he said, were eager to increase their eavesdropping on the enemy but soon found out that the enemy was on to them.

"The station was as clear as could be up on a hill," he said. "We hadn't been in the new station 20 minutes and a German submarine began shelling us. We got the hell out of there. When the Germans realized we weren't firing back, they just left the area."

Newbigging and his buddies never returned to the vulnerable station. Instead, they operated at another station that was not as accessible to enemy fire.

And while the Germans rarely broke radio silence on the high seas, Newbigging said, he sometimes picked up their messages.

"We never knew what the Germans were saying because the messages were in a secret code that we forwarded to our officers, who decoded them," he recalled.

As the war progressed, Newbigging shifted to the Pacific.

"We hopped, skipped and jumped. We went where we were told to go," he said. "We intercepted a lot of the Japanese messages, especially when we were in the Philippines."

By this time, Newbigging had been commissioned as an ensign and assisted in decoding messages.

"A lot of it turned out to be false information to throw us off," he said. "The enemy mainly tried to confuse us. They'd say they were going to such-and-such an island and go to another. There were hundreds of islands down there. They were like little sandboxes."

A member of the VJ-9 Utility Squadron, Newbigging said he also participated in flights on which airborne targets were towed to provide practice for naval aviators in the Pacific.

"We provided target practice for other pilots to sharpen their skills for when they went into battle," he said.

By the end of the war, Newbigging had rethought his plans to spend his work life in the Navy.

"I told my commander I would not be re-enlisting," he said. "I'd gotten married in the meantime and had a son, and military life was tough on the family."

So, Newbigging returned to Buffalo in 1946 and found full-time work at the Veterans Administration benefits office.

"I started as a clerk-typist and worked my way up to the assistant director of the regional office of the VA," he said. "I retired in the mid-1980s. My work was very satisfying. You were helping men and women with their readjustment problems."

He and his wife, Bernice, raised seven children.

"I miss my wife dreadfully. She died a number of years ago, and they've been very long years without her," he said.

He cherishes the happiness they shared, though, as well the camaraderie with fellow veterans.

For years, Newbigging said, he and his "ROMEOs" -- or "retired old men eating out" -- would meet every morning for breakfast at a local Burger King.

But now that time is catching up with him, he says, one of the "ROMEOs" -- Joe Burgio, another Navy veteran of World War II -- stops by his home frequently:

"Joe brings me coffee and pie, and we rehash old times. Joe has been like a brother to me."

***

Henry D. Newbigging, 93

Hometown: St. Catharines, Ont.

Residence: Town of Tonawanda

Branch: Naval Air Corps

Rank: Ensign

War zones: Atlantic and Pacific oceans

Years of service: 1939-46

Most prominent honors: Presidential and secretary of Navy commendations

Specialty: Radio operator