Bryan R. McCarthy
Lieutenant Commander – U.S. Navy
World War II (1942-1946), Navy Reserves (1946-1950) and
Korean War (1950-1952)
Bryan R. McCarthy is a senior father of one of Marin’s oldest law firm, Freitas, McCarthy, MacMahon & Keating, LLP. In 1954, he joined the firm. He always considered himself as a bit of an “Irish Rebel,” but it may have been the fact he took his military experiences and training so seriously, which launched him to be one of our county’s most prominent attorneys.
Bryan R. McCarthy was born on December 7, 1918 in San Francisco, California. He grew up in San Rafael. His father was in the coffee business in San Francisco and his mother was a homemaker. McCarthy always liked the Navy because while he was a teenager the Navy came to the San Francisco Bay for an Open House. Displayed at the open house were the Saratoga and Lexition, two of the biggest ships ever built by the Navy. McCarthy recalls, “They anchored off shore, because they were too big to dock. They had a shore boat that took you out to the carriers. I liked to wander around the carriers. They really impressed me, and that is why I wanted to be a part of the Navy.” After the attack on Pearl Harbor, which he claims really changed the course of the war for America, he applied for a commission. McCarthy was married at the time and enrolled in Boalt Law School at the University of California, Berkeley. He went through a series of hearings and was granted the commission into the Navy. His wife and family were all very happy for him, except for his mother who he said, “was a little leery of me going away to war, but she got over that alright.”
McCarthy served in World War II for four years. In 1942, he went to basic training in Arizona, at the University of Arizona in Tucson. He recalls taking classes day and night, and when he was not in class instruction, he learned how to march. As he reminisces about this time McCarthy states, “They for some reason put me as right guard of the marching unit, and I had never done that before. It is a little scary, because you are out in front with about 500 men behind you, have to stay on a line, and that is a little difficult to do, but I enjoyed it.”
After his basic training, he went through a more specialized training at a communication school in Los Angeles for radio work. McCarthy started his career in the military as an Ensign man and ended as a Lieutenant Commander. He was sent on his first assignment to Bainbridge Island in Washington. “This was an established Navel base, and my living quarters and food were very good. It only went down hill from here.” McCarthy said, as I then went to the South Pacific. This was untimely a code breaking unit. Bainbridge Island used a radio station where the United States would send intercepted Japanese radio signals from the Pacific to be decoded, translated and relayed back to the Navy. McCarthy remembers, “The Japanese were never tipped to the fact we had broken the code, and we were reading their messages, and we were then having knowledge of what their fleet activities were basically.” This was paramount to our military. McCarthy’s unit was able to send the Japanese activity and locations to the US fleets and submarines. In addition to his code-breaking unit, McCarthy was also involved with a long-range direction finding. He would listen to radio signals, and when he heard an enemy’s signal, he would plot it on a map. He would use cross bearings to determine where the message originated.
McCarthy’s first assignment with this was on Bainbridge Island. He was new and had not had enough training as of then. He remembers, “One night a message came in locating a Japanese aircraft carrier, and it plotted on our plots north of Alaska. So after debating it, I went to the senior officer of the unit I was in, and we decided to send out a message that this Japanese carrier was up near the Aleutian, which would be dangerous to us because, at the Aleutians of course, are where we had bases.” But unfortunately, he learned the next day that the carrier was actually off the coast of Japan. McCarthy suspects he may have stirred up the defensive fleet off the coast of Alaska. The bearings he took did not have enough cross bearings. He regrettably had mostly horizontal bearings, which gave him an inaccurate location. He soon learned the US had direction finding units in the Pacific to help attain major cross bearings for more accurate reads. He regrettably did not know about that at the time and learned the hard way.
McCarthy’s missions were Ultra Secret, Ultra being the most top-secret of missions. One time, McCarthy recalls, he was going on leave on an oil tanker that was traveling from New Guinea to Australia. After dinner, he would go up on the deck. One night he was talking to the Captain, who had been a Skipper of a US Submarine. He mentioned to McCarthy that he recalled, every now and then, his submarine would get messages telling his crew where there was a Japanese merchant ship. He remembered, “We would come up, and there they would be.” Of course, McCarthy could not tell him that it was his unit that was sending him these messages. This information may have tipped him off that the US had broken the Japanese Navy Code. If anyone knew this information, it could leak back to the Japanese, and then they could change their code. The Navy could not take that risk, so McCarthy’s fellow Navy officers could not even know what his duties were. “By the time the war was over, we had sank most of the Japanese Merchant fleet” McCarthy recalls.
McCarthy was then sent to Melbourne Australia; here he did not do as much code breaking. The codes were already broken, and he was changing the message in to the US code and relaying the information his unit received to US ships. After this, he went to Brisbane Australia and did much of the same. Next, he went to Port Moresby, New Guinea. This put him closer to where the US ships and Air Force were. This enabled his unit to send the information directly to the ships and air force. McCarthy then he returned back to Brisbane and continued with his work relaying information to the Air Force and Navy.
After Brisbane, he was sent to Hollandia in North New Guinea. During the war, McCarthy’s unit was usually in the same general location as General McCarthy and the army. His unit was constantly coordinated with the Air Force and Army as they did much of the work. As a side note, McCarthy explains that although the public considered General McCarthy a great hero, he has a different opinion. General McCarthy was not well liked by the military in the South Pacific; he was a bit of a “fat head”. He had quite a public relations campaign continuously promoting himself. Last, Lieutenant Commander Bryan R. McCarthy was sent to Leyte Gulf in the Philippines. At the end, for all of McCarthy’s unit’s efforts during World War II they were presented a Unit Accommodations Award.
During his tenure in 1943, McCarthy’s unit was also indirectly involved in the death of General Yamanoto, the main architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor and at Midway. One of Japan’s biggest errors was they thought their code could not be broken. Japanese would often send messages of where they were going and sometimes where their leaders would be. General Yamanoto was planning an inspection tour of the South Pacific near the Solomon Islands. Washington intercepted his itinerary of where and when General Yomomoto would be during this tour. U.S President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave orders to “Get Yamamoto.” The Navy did not have jets at the time that they could send, but the Air Force had P38’s with twin boons that they could put wing tanks on in order to get near the Solomon Islands. McCarthy’s unit was able to tell exactly when he was to land and when his airboat was coming in. Thanks to the precision of both the Japanese and United States Air Force, the P38’s arrived, opened fire and shot him down. This was a turning point in the war and had a big affect on the Japanese war effort as they lost their leader.
From 1946-1950 Bryan R. McCarthy served in the Navy reserves. He returned to Law School at Berkeley with a wife and child, and he was able to earn some extra money by attending weekly Naval meetings in San Francisco. He also worked on Skaggs Island in Vallejo, doing much of the same radio and code breaking work he had done over seas.
In 1950, McCarthy entered the Korean War and served our country until 1952. He was sent to Yokosuka, Japan, a very large Navel base that builds and repaired ships. Here, McCarthy primarily intercepted the Korean messages, decoded them and sent the messages to submarines. For his unit’s work with the Korean conflict, he was also presented with a Unit Accommodations Award.
McCarthy made some lifelong friends during his service. One of his best friends that he met at his first Navel training school and still keeps in close contact with is Jerry Mayer. “Jerry was an interesting sort of person,” McCarthy says fondly. Jerry’s father and Uncle, ran Meyer Goldman Meyer (MGM Studios) out of Hollywood. McCarthy still likes to visit him when he is in the Los Angeles area.
In closing, McCarthy was happy to return to normal civilian life upon his discharge. He became a partner in his law firm and raised his family with his wife in San Rafael. His unit does not get together for reunions, primarily because the nature of the Ultra Secret work they did. He was a member of the American Legion for a while, but due to the demands of his law practice, he was not able to keep up with the meetings. In closing, he enjoyed his time in the Navy and felt the structure and life style of the military was a positive experience in his life. He was happy to have served his country at a time of need.
Interview by Peter Jake Daniels on July 23, 2012.