Interview with Raymond Kester

United States of America

Name & Surname: Raymond Kester
City of Birth & Country: United States of America
Rank in US Navy in 1942: Passed examinations for RM2c. Transferred from USS Houston (CA-30) as Radioman 3 Class (RM3c). Promoted to RM2c shortly after coming aboard Marblehead. Later, after the Flores Sea bombing, promoted to RM1c. Later Warrant Officer and LT before retirement and a whole new career in telecommunications.

[This interview with Mr. Raymond Kester was done via e-mail in January 2001 and is posted here by his kind permission.]

Mr. Kester, can you tell us when and why did you join the US Navy ? Was this perhaps from economical reasons ?

I joined the US Navy in 1938. Partly economic. You must consider that we were in midst of a world-wide "great depression." My first intention was to join for four years fulfill my obligation to my country and save enough money to pay my first two years of college (chemical engineering). Duty in the Asiatic Fleet, where the monetary exchange rate was two-for-one or better, would be an assist.

Was USS Marblehead your first ship you served on ?

No. After graduating from Navy Training I was assigned for further training as a radio operator (Radio was my hobby; licensed radio Amateur W7HFY). I was assigned to Cruiser Divison 3 Flag Allowance. (Admirals Kimmel, Fletcher, Theobald) I served in USS Concord, USS Milwaukee and USS Cincinnati - Omaha Class Cruisers and sister ships to USS Marblehead. Then to USS Houston (CA-30) for duty in the Asiatic Fleet. I transferred to USS Marblehead (CL-12), November 25, 1940.

USS Marblehead was stationed bofre the start of the war in Pacific in the Philippines acting as a part of Admiral Hart's Asiatic Fleet. Veterans from USS Houston often says that they spent much of their time in those last weeks at the open sea drilling and training from a war which they knew that it would come. How was the situation with USS Marblehead ?

All naval ships conduct training and drills so that real operations are met as a routine. We were aboard outdated, outclassed fighting" ships; but with spirit and good morale. Most of us felt that when the "real thing" came along, we would, at best, fight a delaying action and be rescued by the main fleet. A Task Force consisting of Marblehead (Task force Commander), Destroyer Tender Black Hawk, and Destroyer Squadron 29 departed Manila, PI November 25, 1941: Arrived Tarakan, Boreno in the NEI. November 29, 1941. On November 28, 1941 all hands were informed: "No more drills! The next actions would be the real thing; act accordingly."

Do you recall the first day of war on USS Marblehead ? What was the morale among the crew ? Was anyone concerned about not beating the Japanese due knowing that USS Marblehead is already an obsolete ship, not ready for any big battles ?

Yes. We received the fateful radio message from Admiral Hart at 0300 December 08, 1941: "Japan started hostilities. Govern yourselves accordingly". General Quarters was sounded at 0315 and Marblehead went to war. The morale was high.
Marby departed Tarakan December 09 for Balik Papan (December 11-16) where all hands continued preparing the ship for war and making battle preparations: Rechecking all war fighting equipment, doing "strip ship" operations. (getting rid of surplus and not needed equipment and such as removing tile from washrooms and other loose items that could become "missiles" if the ship was hit by explosive devices. As a note; I repaired radio equipment aboard SS President Madison. Most of us felt, but did not dwell on the possibility, that we would not survive.
We knew the ship was old. We did not realize how bad off we were until we actually fought the ship.

When were you attacked for the first time by the Japanese ? Was this still in the Philippine waters ?

We were attacked February 04, 1942 in the Flores Sea while member of a Combined Dutch American Strike Force (Cruisers; US Houston and Marblehead and Dutch Tromp with Dutch and American Destroyers) going to attack a Japanese Task Force of transports, cruisers and destroyers. off Balik Papan. Marblehead sustained one near miss bomb hit which made a 3 x 9 feet hole in the port side forward and damaged the keel, one direct hit mid-ships starboard and one direct hit center-line (Aft) forward of the number two 6-inch twin gun mount; disabling it, the emergency steering station, and steering engine room which locked the rudder at 30-degree - a tight turn. Houston received one direct hit just forward of the number three 8-inch main battery gun turret (Aft) which disabled it and caused many casualities.

Was USS Marblehead attacked by any Japanese bombers of submarines during her voyage to Dutch East Indies ?


What was your first impression when you came to the Dutch colonial possesion East Indies ? What kind of impression did the people make on you ?

No real impression. We were sailor's having experienced many ports and surrounding cities. I, as I still do, looked, enjoyed, and accepted the people as they were and learned about their lives and culture. Each NEI city, as other cities of the world, had it's own charm and bad points. Macassar was a port facility and supporting township. The Netherland East Indies port of Tarakan, Borneo was an oil port and Dutch outpost. Not many amenities. Lots of beer and the dutchmen were good company. Even a "movie house" that was showing a "Hop Along Cassidy" Western Movie. The streets were dirt - mud when it rained - Planked walkways served as sidewalks. This similar to the early western towns in the US. We saw only the dock side of Balik Papan and Tjilatjap because we were working. I have fond memories of Surabaya, Java where I worked with a Dutch foreman and his work crew in the Navy Yard Electrical Shop I learned how to hand-wind armature coils for electric motors. This particular knowledge was put to good use later aboard another ship.

The USS Marblehead conducted, while being in the East Indies, a lot of convoy duties if I am not mistaken. Do you know what kind of cargo did those convoys carry ? Troops or material or both ? What kind of threat did represent the Japanese submarines at that time ? Did you conduct perhaps any anti-submarine measures on your ship ?

Most NEI convoy duties were with Oilers: Trinity and Pecos; Supply Ship Goldstar, Aircraft Tender: Langley, and in company with destroyers and other naval ships. Marblehead was part of a convoy from Surabaya to Port Darwin, Australia which included merchant ships of mixed cargo and military supplys. Japanese submarines were alway a threat. Our anti-submarine measures were our speed and the accompanying destroyers equipped with old, barely effective passive sonar.

Your ship was intended, together with USS Boise and some destroyers, for conducting the famous night attack at Balik Papan, where at the end the USN destroyers managed to sink several Japanese ships ? How come that both light cruisers didn't took part in that operation ? Do you think you could do more damage to the Japanese invasion fleet, maybe even stop the Japanese invasion at Balikpapan, if both cruisers would took part in that night attack ?

The original plan was for Marblehead to provide exit cover for the DesDiv 59 destroyers after the Balik Papan harbour attack on ships of the Japanese Landing force. Boise was to have provided screen and back-up in the event a near by Japanese Task Force should intervene. Marblehead experienced a problem in a low-pressure turbine which limited her speed to 28-knots using three of four engines. Boise was then to replace Marblehead. Boise, while enroute to Postiljon Island staging area, struck a shoal and suffered hull damage. Marblehead then went alongside Boise at Wawordo bay to embark the Task Force commander and proceeded to Surabaya. Boise was ordered to proceed to Tjilajap. The four destroyers of DesDiv 59 went into Balik Papen harbour without escort. This was the first, and sucessful, offensive action in the War against Japan. There was only one casuality, a flesh wound, experienced by the strike force. We will never know what additional damage may have been done if the orginal plan had been met. If the ships had met with the near by Japanese ships --- there have been more casualities. These ships could well have caused more damage; but; could not, at that time, prevented the invasion.

We know that USS Marblehead had a lot of problems with their enginees and it also didn't had a modern fire control equipment ? How come that you didn't receive any new equipment before December 1941 ?

Marblehead did not experience excessive engine troubles. The significant, ships force repairable problem, at a crucial time was unfortunate. It may, however, have been another "very fortunate happening" that gave us life. Houston was equipped with the then "Modern" fire control equipment -- Still 1930 technology. Marblehead was just plain old and had not been updated since a 1933 "modernization. Also, she was assigned to Asiatic Fleet in 1937. Maintenance only was done at Cavite Ship Repair. Another fact of life must be kept in mind - These were "Treaty" ships maintained in depression years with were obscenely small budgets. We ate well; but, did not have the luxury of anything new or NOT essential.

On of the last stop of USS Marblehead in the East Indies was in a small port of Tjilitjap, which was marked in Allied plans as a major supply port of the troops on Java. However, some historians says that the port was much to small and as that it was unsuitable for supplying the trapped troops on Java. What exactly was the main deficiency of the Tjilitjap harbour ?

Historians were correct. But you must consider - it was the best available south Java port. You make the best of what you have. Tjilatjap had a narrow access channel to a small, shallow and narrow port facilities.

When exactly left USS Marblehead the East Indies ? Were you attacked while being stationed in Tjilitjap or later during your sail to Australia ?

We had Japanese observation aircraft over Tjilatjap. The Japs were too busy with Surabaya and other north side places, preparing for invasion landings. Marblehead arrived Tjilatjap February 13 and departed February 21 for Trincomalee, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Onward to Durban, SA; Port Elizabeth, SA; Simons Town, Cape Town, SA; Recife, Brazil; and arrived New York, NY May 04, 1942. The situation in Tjilatjap was very tense. Every means of transport was used to evacuate people from the island. Marblehead went due South from Java before turning West to the Indian Ocean, and North to Ceylon. This is probably the only thing kept us being sunk along with other ships that stayed close to Java and within range of Jap aircraft.

Could you briefly describe your following assignments in the World War II ?

After Marblehead arrived in New York Naval Shipyard, I was a Radio Operator at the Ship Yard while waiting to go on leave to my home in Oregon (West Coast US). When I returned from leave, I was ordered to Electronics Materiel School (Radio Engineering). Upon completion of the RMS I was assigned to USS Leedstown (APA-56) (Amphious Personnel Attack). A troop transport ship as a Radio Technician -- (1943-1945). Leedstown participated in six major assualt landings (Kwajalein, Guam, Peleliu, Leyte, Luzon and Iwo Jima) and many troop training and resupply activities. After Iwo Jima we transported cargo to Leyte. Then, returned independently to Honlulu where we embarked hospital patients for transport to San Diego CA. The ship's voyage ended in the Naval Shipyard Long Beach CA for refit prepartory to the landing on Japan. This was followed by assignments to Heavy Cruiser, USS Oregon City (CA-122), and Air Craft Carrier USS Midway (CVB-41) as Assistant Electronics Officer; Instructor/Division Officer in Electronic Materiel School, Also attended Washington University (Part time); USS CAMBRIA (APA-36) as Electronics Officer. These shipboard assignments were followed by several years in special communictions operations. I retired from the U.S. Navy in 1962. I have worked in the Telecommunications Industry (Applications engineeringg, product line and project management, and Analyst and consulting positions). Two years ago, I stopped working for income. I now engage in several activities which travel and general enjoyment.