The Monkey and the Code Book


Monkeys make good pets in theory. In practice they are usually
more trouble than they’re worth. David Jensen.

Had I gotten my way you guys never would have heard of me. I had planned 25 years in the Army followed by a second career teaching high school physics someplace. As a mechanical engineer that seemed a good post-Army retirement plan.

God had other ideas. As a soldier I averaged eight months out of twelve away from home. It seemed I could be either an Army helicopter pilot or a Dad, but I couldn’t be both. Like an idiot, I decided to go to medical school. Eventually I wrote enough to land this gig, and the rest is history. However, it certainly wasn’t my plan.

I had a high school physics teacher — Gene Barbor — who had a powerful influence on me. I saw myself following a similar path.

My formative world was liberally dusted with World War II veterans. Sixteen million served out of a population of 137 million, so they were literally everywhere. My senior math teacher packed a Browning Automatic Rifle all the way across Europe. Mr. Barbor was a Navy officer serving aboard a destroyer in the South Pacific. They’re all gone now.

Every now and then Mr. Barbor would wax nostalgic in class. Most of his tales were funny or harmless. There was the one where one of his gunners got his head literally blown off in front of him during a Japanese air attack, but that was an outlier. Most of his stories were more benign.

The United States produced 377 destroyers of all types during
World War II. For a time one of them had a pet monkey.

My favorite orbited around a monkey. A WWII-era Fletcher-class destroyer carried a complement of 329 officers and men. Most were either conscripts or recent volunteers. There was subsequently an extreme shortage of proper experience. As a result, many times you might have a warship cruising about looking for trouble crewed primarily by souped-up teenagers. This was one of those times.

Mr. Barbor’s ship once happened upon a deserted island. The skipper dispatched a landing party to scout the island for fresh fruit with which to augment the mess. The away team returned with mangoes and such as well as an unexpected passenger. These guys had captured a monkey.

The little guy was undeniably adorable, and the ship’s complement took to him immediately. Mr. Barbor said regulations were quite specific concerning the inadvisability of bringing illicit fauna aboard a US Navy warship, but the ship’s commander was a soft-hearted soul. He thought it a bit pirate-esque to have a monkey onboard. The thing was apparently fairly personable and spent his days frolicking on the bridge.

Mr. Barbor’s ship spent most of its time on isolated antisubmarine patrols or on missions to retrieve downed aircrew. Without a great deal of adult supervision all involved saw little harm in keeping the creature. Then came one very hot day.

This was, after all, the South Pacific, and the temperatures were blistering. The crew had therefore opened the windows on the bridge to take advantage of the scant breeze produced while underway. The ship’s monkey scurried about playfully.

The most important single item on the ship was the code book. Codes changed regularly according to a set timetable. For a given period encoded messages would come in over the wireless, and the commo guys would use the code book to decode them. This information told the skipper where the ship should go and what its particular mission might be. Loss of the code book would compromise the security of every ship in theater. As a result, the book itself was weighted so it could be thrown overboard in the event the ship might be boarded. You can see where this is going.

On this fateful day the ship’s monkey spontaneously snatched the codebook off of the chart table and casually tossed it out the window. Before anyone could react, the weighted document splashed off to meet Old Hob. Understand this was a really big deal.
Now if they got orders to do something important they had no way to decode them. Careers died over less. Commanders could be court-martialed over such. They still had several days until the new codes kicked in.

The Captain had the ship steam in circles until the new codebook took effect, and the monkey was given his leave at the next handy landfall. No one was the wiser. However, the tale of the larcenous monkey did ultimately add great levity to Mr. Barbor’s fifth period physics class.

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