In the fall of 1941, a young U.S. Navy Ensign, Richard McNees, had time on his hands while he waited at the San Diego Naval Base to be shipped to Hawaii for duty. Originally from Salem, Oregon, then Washington State, Dick had just completed his training at the navy’s boot camp in Great Lakes, situated in northern Chicago. Restless, he spent his three weeks back on the West Coast reading navy regulations on how to handle top secret information. Boredom was directing his future.
Dick was fascinated by cryptography, board coding and decoding. Communication between the naval departments was getting heavy and they needed willing hands and agile minds. So, as the three weeks flew by, he eagerly amassed the knowledge of the codes. Then on the six day trip aboard the USS Tangier to paradise, the young sailor continued his studies until he arrived at Pearl Harbor on November 3, 1941. He took a required test and was given top security clearance.
He was assigned to a brand new air station at Kaneohe, which was being referred to as the “Country Club of the Navy–all new and beautiful.” Dick had a two room suite with bath in between, all to himself. The base was half empty. Life was good.
Being a Sunday, at 7:00 a.m. the morning of December 7, 1941, most of the sailors were still in bed. Dick and three others were in the mess hall enjoying their breakfast as the duty officers were returning from their scouting missions in their PBY’s. They had canvased the southern portion of the island and were back to give their reports. The first two pilots sauntered in, relaxed, it had been a beautiful sunrise with the ghost of the full moon suspended over the Pali Mountains. But then the third scout arrived breathless. Ensign Bill Tanner, commander of a PBY, had patrolled the shore to the north of Pearl Harbor and spotted a submerged submarine. He dropped a depth charge which brought the sub to the surface, and radioed in his findings. (Later it would be discovered that the USS Ward, patrolling nearby, received the transmission and sunk the Japanese Ko-hyoteki class two-man midget submarine as it was attempting to enter Pearl Harbor.)
“Are we at war?” Bill asked the few men gathered at the table. And then all hell broke loose.
Dick heard airplanes and was the first to rush out the door as a Japanese Zero came straight for him firing deadly bullets. He ducked as chips from the strafing pounding the building fell on him. Armed with a wooden spoon and pan, he ran into the BOQ, Bachelors Officer Quarters, to rally the men. In just a few moments their lives had changed forever.
McNees would continue to use his top security clearance at Pearl Harbor, where due to his specialty, one early morning, he was charged with delivering an important package at 2:00 a.m. to Admiral Nimitz, shortly after the Nimitz took over for Admiral Kimmel.
“He came out of his bedroom wearing a white channel robe. Took the package and then told me I was dismissed.” Dick beamed at his brief encounter with the man who would lead the U.S. to victory in the Pacific Theater.
As a fighter pilot, Dick led formations in several battles. He survived the battles of Midway, Tinian, Le Shima, (now Lejima), Iwo Jima, where his brother was going ashore as a navy seal, and Okinawa, to mention a few. His career spanned 35 years and he flew over 40 different types of planes.
I had the honor of going to Boeing’s Museum of Flight with Captain McNees and watch his eyes brighten as he spoke of the various aircrafts he had flown and taught generations of pilots to maneuver.
There is no replacing such a man who constantly sought knowledge and gave back to his community so generously. He was a soft spoken gentleman, a hero and one of the true “Greats” of that generation. I will forever hold dear the time and stories he shared with me, and of course, continue to give thanks for his bravery and love of America.