ST. PETERSBURG — With frail hands, the cryptologist raised the dust-coated gold plaque off the kitchen counter, bringing it inches from his face. His clouded eyes struggled to make out the words as he scoured the text on which his name — Douglas W. Harold — is buried among hundreds of others.
"What's that?" he asked.
"That's a plaque honoring the On the Roof Gang," his grandson, Nico, replied.
Harold put the award down. He stood still and gazed at the items before him — a commemorative coin from Pearl Harbor, a framed letter from a Navy officer — not speaking, but remembering.
For 38 of his 95 years, Douglas Harold worked as a cryptologist for the U.S. Navy. A veteran of both World War II and the Korean War, he was among an elite group of code breakers — sailors and Marines specially trained to intercept and analyze foreign communications.
In the early days, it was the Japanese. Trainees were brought to Washington, D.C., where they sat inside a steel-reinforced concrete blockhouse on the roof of the Navy Department Building, studying Japanese language and codes. Hence the moniker the On the Roof Gang.
Today, Harold of St. Petersburg is one of five known surviving members of the famed group. Earlier this year, he and the other surviving members were honored with an official declaration from the commander of the U.S. Navy's Fleet Cyber Command, recognizing their pioneering service in naval cryptology and information warfare.
It is an honor, like so many others he has received in his lifetime, that Harold appreciates, but about which he is not overly proud.
As he thumbed items on the kitchen counter in his St. Petersburg home on a recent evening, his hands moved to a small box overflowing with more dusty medals and ribbons.
"Those are your medals," Nico said.
Harold raised a wry smile.
"They're just medals for staying alive," he said.
• • •
The memories come to mind through a haze, like ships idling on a vast and foggy sea. He remembers Pearl Harbor. He remembers getting called to come aboard the aircraft carrier USS Lexington as they headed out to sea for the initial war effort.
By that time, members of the On the Roof Gang were well acquainted with the duties of intercepting Japanese radio communications. The first class was put into service in 1928. Harold joined in 1934. But it was the first time that Harold had been called upon for his services as a means of war.
He remembers the war's first air assaults — American pilots launching from the Lexington to defend the ship against Japanese pilots in the Battle of the Coral Sea. He remembers looking out a porthole in the ship's hull, seeing the bombs falling as Japanese fighters attacked. He remembers going out to the gun deck, where a bomb crashed into an ammunition box and threw chunks of metal into the chests and upper bodies of a dozen men.
"Am I going to make it?" Harold thought.
To avoid capture, the crew sunk the ship.
"That ocean looks awfully big when you're out there with no support under you," he remembered.
After he was rescued, he returned to Pearl Harbor, later transferring to the USS Yorktown before it shipped to the Battle of Midway Island, where Japanese fighters so badly damaged the ship that it was withdrawn from service.
All the while, Harold worked the radios. He knew when the attacks would come and where.
The hardest parts of Harold's war were over after the Yorktown returned to Pearl Harbor. At the war's end, he was dispatched to China and Japan.
In Shanghai, he was ordered to take a Japanese radio transmitter off the air — a task he accomplished by firing a bullet through its power tube.
• • •
It wasn't a life Harold ever envisioned. As a boy growing up in West Virginia during the Great Depression, prospects were few. Harold's father, an electrician, told him there would be little to look forward to if he stayed in his hometown.
So during a vacation in his last year of high school, Harold and a friend went to visit a local Army recruitment office. The commander there was out to lunch, but a Navy recruiter was available across the hall. They left not long after, the Navy's two newest sailors.
"That lunch could have saved your life," Harold's grandson, Nico, said as his grandfather recalled the story.
After a few years as a sailor, Harold read a message that a fleet intelligence officer had sent to hundreds of Navy men. They needed men who met certain requirements, the letter explained, to be part of a new intelligence program.
Harold responded. And soon after, he was among the first members of the On the Roof Gang.
"When you're in your early 20s and 30s you say, 'What? Me? That's not for me,' " Harold said. "I have no regrets."
• • •
Nowadays, Harold does a lot of thinking at his home in St. Petersburg, where Nico cares for him. His health is declining. His vision and hearing have faded. But memories of a life of service and the legacy he passed on make him proud.
He thinks of the places the Navy later took him, traveling to Germany and North Africa for various intelligence operations.
He thinks of the time he spent after the war as an exchange officer in the United Kingdom, conducting national security operations.
He thinks of his family — his wife, Norma, with whom he came to live in St. Petersburg after his retirement from service, a son and grandson who followed in his footsteps. For a brief time, in the early 1970s, all three Harolds were in the service at the same time.
"It has been interesting," Harold said. "It's been a nice life."