First Lieutenant Ralph Cory

Ralph Cory in 1942. Illustration by John Chalk.

Merle Ralph Cory
Morton, WA
Wife, Mrs. Carolyn (Fardon) Cory
November 8, 1898
May 26, 1942
August 13, 1942
Guadalcanal HQ/5th Marines Language Officer First Lieutenant KIA
Shot and bayonetted. KIA on Goettge Patrol
Purple Heart
First Lieutenant
Scattered on Guadalcanal
New Tacoma Cemetery, University Place, WA
Manila American Cemetery and Memorial

Service Number: 0-010866

Birth and Early Life:
Merle Ralph Cory was born November 8, 1897; his parents, David and Jennie Cory, were farmers in Napavine, Washington. At the age of 20, while enrolled in college, Cory registered for the draft in Tacoma and served in the Army during the Great War. Following his service, Cory returned to the house at 617 North Oakes Street, Tacoma, where his father passed away in 1921.

Cory developed a passion for Japanese culture while in his twenties, and from 1927 to 1928 was tutored in the language at Yenching University in Beijing. He was recruited by the Department of State and joined the Consular Service, spending time in Peking, Seoul, and most significantly Tokyo and Nagasaki, where he perfected his spoken and written Japanese and immersed himself in a culture which, to most Americans of the time, was indescribably foreign.

Some time in the late 1930s, Cory was approached by Army personnel desiring his help with a top-secret project. Relations between Japan and the United States were deteriorating, and the military was working on a device to crack Tokyo’s diplomatic code. Cory agreed and settled in Rockville, Maryland, where he joined an organization known as OP-20-GZ in 1940. Having broken the code – the decoding process was give the appropriate codename MAGIC – the analysts in Washington needed an expert in interpreting not only the language, but the meaning of individual syllables and phrases, and it was here that Ralph Cory – he dropped the “Merle” around this time – could really shine.

Working in decryption was grueling – the men in the office often worked from dawn until late at night – and was both physically and mentally exhausting.  Cory took up sailing on the Chesapeake Bay to unwind, and married his wife Carolyn in a ceremony at St. Paul’s Church. By late November 1941, he was growing tired of the desk job, the long hours, and his 24-hour on-call status. So when he was handed a message by one of the office clerks, he casually scanned the code at first before realizing what he was reading.

The message was not a declaration of war, but came pretty close – Tokyo was informing its delegates of a secret warning which, when heard, meant they were to destroy their confidential code papers. This could only mean that the Japanese expected a total breakdown in diplomatic relations, leading to war. Cory’s translation made its way up to President Roosevelt, and the military began searching for the order in all of its interceptions, to give the country enough time to prepare. The full message was delivered to Roosevelt at 0945 on December 7, 1941. Within hours, the fleet at Pearl Harbor was in shambles and the countries were at war. (1)

The workload at GZ tripled, with many translators staying on 24-hour shifts. Ralph Cory, frustrated that his warning had come too late and fed up with his desk job, made a sudden decision. “I’m going to join the Marines!” he announced to a colleague. “I’m sick of pencil pushing.” His coworker was taken aback. Joining Cory and his wife for dinner shortly before his friend’s departure, he noted

It was a strangely somber evening. I met his wife, and we had some drinks before dinner, but no one had much to say. Conversation lagged. We sat down for dinner in a gloomily lit dining room. Cory pulled himself together and talked a little about sailing on Chesapeake Bay, after which he lapsed into silence. His wife stared intently at him and only occasionally acknowledged my presence. As soon as a decent interval had passed, I thanked them for their hospitality and took my leave. Cory left OP-20-GZ not long after to enter the Marine Corps, and I never saw him again. (2)

Enlistment and Boot Camp:
Ralph Cory was 45 years old when he applied to enlist in the Marines. He was rejected due to his age, but his impressive credentials led to the offer of a direct commission as a lieutenant – the Marine Corps had only a handful of linguists. After being sworn in, Cory traveled to New River, North Carolina, where he joined the intelligence section of the Fifth Marines.

Wartime Service:
Second Lieutenant Cory learned military discipline and protocol with the Fifth Marines in the States and overseas in New Zealand while training for the upcoming Solomons operation. He had his work cut out for him; his entire division had only two men who could both read and write Japanese, and the commanders were desperate for any sort of intelligence they could glean about their enemy. By August 1, 1942, he was aboard a transport bound for Guadalcanal.

Cory’s social circle included combat correspondent Richard Tregaskis (whose book Guadalcanal Diary would become a bestseller and the basis for an award-winning film.) Tregaskis records Cory as being nostalgic and somewhat apprehensive on his way to battle, as were most of the Americans. “I’d like to be back sailing a boat on Chesapeake Bay,” he said at breakfast one morning. “Hell, if I was back there I wouldn’t be out in any boat,” growled a Navy warrant officer, to which Cory replied “That’s right – I’d settle for the White Mountains or Cape Cod.” (3) By August 5, Cory’s breakfast conversation had been reduced to a terse “Two days” – the landings were only 48 hours away.

On August 7, Cory and Tregaskis embarked in landing craft in the second wave and paddled towards the beach. They cautiously raised their heads to peek at the returning boats of the first wave – none of which seemed to have been damaged. Cory shouted to Tregaskis that “perhaps there were no Japs” – he turned out to be correct, at least as far as the landing was concerned, and the intelligence section got ashore without incident. (4)

Within hours of setting foot on Guadalcanal, Cory was hard at work translating everything in sight – from Japanese documents to labels on bottles. Tregaskis wrenched a sign off a hut they passed on the march and brought it to Cory. “It says Unit No. 3, in charge of so-and-so,” Cory told him. Shortly after noon, the first three Japanese prisoners taken on the island were brought to the lieutenant for interrogation. “The Japs were a measly lot,” reported Tregaskis. “[They] blinked their eyes like curious birds as they looked at me. The first in line gaped, a gold tooth very prominent in the center of his open mouth. Lieut. Cory said that he had just interviewed the Japs , and that they had told him they were members of a navy labor battalion. They had been captured in a labor camp which lay just ahead.” When the Americans reached the camp, Cory discovered a fourth prisoner, who was suffering from malaria. (6) Cory’s skill in dealing with prisoners would be remembered by the division’s head of intelligence, Colonel Frank Goettge.

As the regiment’s headquarters settled in to something resembling a permanent camp, Lieutenant Cory set up a tent with Tregaskis and Dr. Malcolm Pratt, the regimental surgeon. As one of only four interpreters in the division (only one other could read and write Japanese) Cory was kept constantly busy until August 12, when he met Warrant Officer Tsuneto Sakado.

Sakado had been captured by a patrol from the 5th Marines. As armed guards hovered around, Cory sat next to Sakado and tried to encourage him to talk. When words failed, a helping of brandy made great headway. Sakado told Cory that a group of rikusentai were just a few miles away, they were leaderless, demoralized, and might be willing to surrender. (6)

When Cory reported his findings to Goettge, the colonel flew into a fit of activity, hastily planning a patrol to capture the enemy troops. Instead of a combat patrol, Goettge insisted on bringing most of his own intelligence specialists – including Lieutenant Cory. His tentmate, Dr. Pratt, volunteered to come along as well. In all, 25 Americans and one reluctant Japanese were loaded into a boat for an overnight mission into uncharted territory.

The patrol landed in the wrong place, despite Sakado’s protests, and Goettge instructed his men to fan out along the beach while he went inland to check the lay of the land. The Americans heard a burst of gunfire and then running feet – Goettge had been killed, and the men with him were running hell for leather back to the beach. Japanese trooped opened fire and pinned the men to the ground.

Date Of Loss:
Within minutes, Lieutenant Cory was shot in the stomach and fell to the ground in incredible pain, unable to move. He may have called for his friend, Doc Pratt, but Pratt himself was killed minutes later while tending to another wounded man.

Nothing could be done for Ralph Cory. He died of his wounds shortly before dawn; the last Marine to escape the trap, Sergeant Frank Few, later told of seeing “a [Japanese] soldier thrust his bayonet into Cory’s body, stretched out on the sand where he had first fallen.” (7)

Next Of Kin:
Wife, Mrs. Ralph Cory

Status Of Remains:
Buried on Guadalcanal

Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, Philippines.
(1) Camp, Dick. “Star-Crossed Translator.” Leatherneck Magazine, 2004.
(2) Edward Van der Rhoer, quoted in Dick Camp above.
(3) Tregaskis, Richard. Guadalcanal Diary. Random House, 1943, pg 17.
(4) Ibid, pg 42.
(5) Ibid, pg 54-56
(6) Johnson, William Bruce. The Pacific Campaign In World War II: From Pearl Harbor to Guadalcanal. pg 218
(7) Camp. Cory’s death, while tragic, was preferable to his capture by the Japanese, who might then have learned of his activity in code-breaking and compromised the entire operation. His inclusion on the patrol – or even his presence on Guadalcanal – was a serious breach of national security. The Japanese were unaware that their code had been broken for the duration of the war.

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