The Radioman

Ken Lyon, 103, recalls his three years of sea duty in WWII


“How many people remember where they were 80 years ago like it was yesterday?  I do. I was on the deck of the USS Marblehead in Belfast Harbor! Our ship, one of 40 ships of several navies, had no idea of what was about to happen.” (D-Day was 80 years ago, and my friend is 103 years old.)

WWII Radioman

The words above are from Ken Lyon of Olympia, Washington, who enlisted in the Navy near the beginning of WWII. He’s referring to a day in June 1944, during his three years of sea duty. At the time, he served on board the USS Marblehead as a Radioman, the second of his three ships during WWII, the others being the USS Foss and the USS Providence. (Ken also served during the Korean War, then as a radio instructor. “I survived two wars and three wives!” he laughs. He was married to his third wife and life partner for 52 years.)

USS Marblehead

He loved that old cruiser, the USS Marblehead (1923), though it was not very comfortable. Designed for WWI and obsolete for active battle in WWII, it was nonetheless a workhorse with continued utility and capable of a very fast speed. At that time, Ken and his shipmates were unknowingly on the brink of the largest amphibious invasion in military history, the Battle of Normandy.

What was happening?

They were one of 40 ships in Belfast Harbor, Ireland, including the old battleships Texas and Arkansas. They had been in the harbor together for several nights but awoke one morning to find that the Marblehead was alone. The sudden disappearance of the other ships puzzled them. Something mysterious was clearly going on. The speaker system activated, “All Radiomen report to the radio room immediately.”

A unique situation

This was a unique situation in which the Radiomen took center stage. Ken said, “Upon arriving, we found a card placed on each of the 12 positions containing the call letters of each of the major ships that had departed. Ordinarily, radio silence is maintained when underway. But we got some rare sending practice when they assigned each of us to an operating position representing one of the ships that had left and had us send messages to each other to trick the Germans into thinking the ships were still in the harbor.”

Misinformation & deception

That was amazing. On this day, only one of two incidents during his entire service, he and the others SENT Morse Code.  Collectively, they did something that was a hallmark of World War II: delivering misinformation and deception designed to confuse the enemy. They “forged” the radio code that “should” have been transmitted.

Deception in WWII

You’ve probably heard of Operation Mincemeat, with a corpse floating ashore off the coast of Spain in an officer’s uniform, false identity papers, and documents - it was a ploy to trick the Germans into thinking the Allies plotted an invasion of Greece and Sardinia when it was really Sicily. Also, there were the “Ghost Army” units responsible for, among other creative deceptions, a plethora of inflatable dummy tanks.

Fake radio traffic decoy

Ken Lyon, with the other radiomen, created fake/decoy radio traffic to help create a cover for the assault on the beaches of Normandy. Theirs was part of the larger effort. You probably won’t find this level of detail in history books, but every piece of the collective effort fit together like a puzzle – and one that resulted in victory.


The USS Marblehead was directly involved, but not until the third day.

 “After acting our part as “decoys,” Ken said, “we received orders to Normandy.”

Operation Neptune was the largest seaborne assault in history, initiating the liberation of France and the rest of Western Europe. The time they went was a couple of days after D-Day and they were not in danger of being fired upon, something the old ship could not have sustained.

“However,” Ken said, “we could use our six-inch guns to take out enemy gun batteries that were harassing our troops. The only time I was scared was when a rocket barrage launched its load near us. I had never heard of those barges and thought this was the end.”

Techy work back then

Ken is adept at the use of a modern-era computer similar to my own, and figures out most conundrums himself, rather than calling on others or hiring a computer geek. He has always been a techy, but techy work was very different 80 years ago. Ken explained the routine work of a radioman:

“The primary duty of a Radioman in those days was to copy and send Morse Code.  We never sent code at sea though. At sea, it was all radio silence because U-boats (German submarines) would be alerted to the ship's location. We also assisted in some equipment repairs. There was a continuous string of messages sent to all ships in the fleet, one for the Pacific and one for the Atlantic. Everything was in code and each ship had a call sign. We copied it all, even though most of the code did not pertain to our ship.  We had to be alert, though, for our call sign to appear in the address. This went on 24 hours a day.  We were generally into three watches; each watch was four hours.”

Morse Code

In ordinary sea duty, they continuously typed whatever Morse Code they heard, upper case only, 20 words per line, on alert for the ship’s address in the heading. They typed 18 words per minute (much more difficult than ordinary typing), 5-letter code words.

Afterward, surrender

Afterward, they went on to the Mediterranean and then Brazil to look for ships supplying U-boats in the South Atlantic. Then they traveled first to New York and then on to Boston where Ken transferred to a newly commissioned cruiser, the USS Providence. That ship took off for a shakedown off Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, then proceeded to the Pacific arena. They reached the Panama Canal but returned to New York when they received news that the war ended with the Japanese surrender.

You’re in the Navy now

On a lighter note, the other incident in which he sent code rather than just receiving it occurred later stateside in Hollywood during the Korean War. Captain Ken Lyon served as a Navy Radioman instructor, teaching the skill to sailors slated for the Korean Peninsula. “It was a good job,” he said, and he was allowed to wear civilian clothing when off duty and, when later stationed in Santa Barbara, took trainees on cruises to Catalina Island. Ken was invited as a subject-matter expert to the set of “You’re in the Navy Now,” first released as “USS Teakettle.” Though his on-camera data transmission of an SOS was eventually edited out, he had a great time, talking about jazz for four days with actor Jack Webb (who later starred in the series Dragnet) and receiving $500 (for expenses only - no “real pay” as he was a U.S. service member.)

Back to the future

Hearing his recollections was great fun for this writer. But Ken pointed out at the end, “By the way, there are no more Destroyer Escorts or Cruisers. Nor are there any more Radiomen. They are called Communication Specialists and everything is done by computer.”

The Willy’s Jeep

We ended on an upbeat note and had a great time. I invited Dave Gaston, a WWII enthusiast from Littlerock, Washington (see the JOLT story about Dave, Honoring WWII Vets with a Willys MB Jeep) who drove a special vehicle to town that day. Ken and I had the delight of looking over Dave’s WWII Willy’s MB Jeep (Military Model “B”), manufactured in 1945.

The three of us then took a spin around Tumwater, me perched in the back! It was a good afternoon!

“I haven’t been in one of these since 1948!” Ken quipped and explained how, in WWII, he periodically drove a jeep into the woods to conduct test transmissions.

The Radioman has many other interests and skills, too: driving racecars, being a voracious reader, oil and watercolor painting, holding a Master of Economics from UCLA, steam trains, Amtrak, wood carving, model building, and, very recently, memoir writing. He practically has a photographic memory. Stay tuned!

Shirley Stirling, of Lacey, writes about good things people in Thurston County are doing. If you’d like to nominate someone to be profiled, contact her at or comment below.

Editors note: rocket barge was updated to rocket barrage. 


7 comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

  • JulesJames

    So well written! Thank you. I never thought through so many of these Naval details.

    Monday, June 10 Report this

  • What a treasure! A finely written article about a man who lived the history of WWII and Korea.

    Tuesday, June 11 Report this

  • HappyOlympian

    Great read about a mighty warrior, thanks, Ken!

    Tuesday, June 11 Report this

  • KellyOReilly

    Thank you for sharing Ken's story of WWII service and for the wonderful photos. Very interesting and I'm inspired by the fact Ken seems to be thriving as a centurion. Great news!

    Tuesday, June 11 Report this

  • BubbaLitt

    Great article and pictures recognizing an outstanding veteran and Olympian citizen. Thank you!

    Tuesday, June 11 Report this

  • Shirley - such a fantastic story! Love to hear more about Ken.

    Tuesday, June 11 Report this

  • JasonS

    Thanks for this wonderful article. His is a life truly well lived. One grammatical correction: the text should read "rocket barrage" and not "barge".

    Tuesday, June 11 Report this