The world wonders
"The world wonders" was a phrase used as security padding in an encrypted message sent from Admiral Chester Nimitz to Admiral William Halsey, Jr. on October 25, 1944 during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. The words, intended to be without meaning, were added to hinder Japanese attempts at cryptanalysis, but were mistakenly included in the decoded message given to Halsey and interpreted by him as a harsh and sarcastic rebuke. As a consequence, Halsey dropped his pursuit of a Japanese carrier task force in a futile attempt to aid United States forces in the Battle off Samar.
On October 20, 1944, United States troops invaded the island of Leyte as part of a strategy aimed at isolating Japan from the countries it had occupied in South East Asia, and in particular depriving its forces and industry of vital oil supplies. The Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) mobilized nearly all of its remaining major naval vessels in an attempt to defeat the Allied invasion. The Japanese intended to use ships commanded by Vice-Admiral Jisaburō Ozawa, "Northern Force", to lure the main American covering forces away from Leyte, thus allowing the main IJN forces, "Southern Force" and "Center Force", to attack the invasion force in a pincer movement. Northern Force would be built around several aircraft carriers, but these would have very few aircraft or trained aircrew, and was in reality little more than "bait".
Halsey, in command of the naval forces covering the invasion, fell for the ruse, and convinced that Northern Force constituted the main Japanese threat, proceeded northward in pursuit with the carriers of 3rd Fleet and a powerful force of battleships, designated Task Force 34. This left the landing beaches covered only by a small group of escort carriers from the 7th Fleet. On the morning of the 25th a strong Japanese force of battleships slipped through the San Bernardino Strait headed toward the American landing forces, prompting their commander, Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid, to send a desperate plaintext message asking for support.
When Nimitz, at CINCPAC headquarters in Hawaii, saw Kinkaid's plea for help he sent a message to Halsey, simply asking for the current location of Task Force 34, which due to a previous misunderstanding, was unclear:
Where is, repeat, where is Task Force Thirty Four?
With the addition of metadata including routing and classification information, as well as the padding at the head and tail, the entire plaintext message to be encoded and transmitted to Halsey was:
TURKEY TROTS TO WATER GG FROM CINCPAC ACTION COM THIRD FLEET INFO COMINCH CTF SEVENTY-SEVEN X WHERE IS RPT WHERE IS TASK FORCE THIRTY FOUR RR THE WORLD WONDERS
U.S. Navy procedure called for the padding to be added to the start and end of the message, which were vulnerable to cryptanalysis due to the use of common phrases and words (such as "Yours sincerely") in those sections. The words chosen for padding should have been obviously irrelevant to the actual message, however Nimitz's enciphering clerk used a phrase that "[just] popped into my head".
While decrypting and transcribing the message, Halsey's radio officer properly removed the leading phrase, but the trailing phrase looked appropriate and he seems to have thought it was intended and so left it in before passing it on to Halsey, who read it as
Where is, repeat, where is Task Force Thirty Four? The world wonders.
The structure tagging (the 'RR's) should have made clear that the phrase was in fact padding. In all the ships and stations that received the message, only New Jersey's communicators failed to delete both padding phrases.
The message (and its trailing padding) became famous, and created some ill feeling, since it appeared to be a harsh criticism by Nimitz of Halsey's decision to pursue the decoy carriers and leave the landings uncovered. "I was stunned as if I had been struck in the face", Halsey later recalled. "The paper rattled in my hands, I snatched off my cap, threw it on the deck, and shouted something I am ashamed to remember", letting out an anguished sob. RADM Carney, Halsey's Chief of Staff (who had argued strongly in favor of pursuing the carriers), witnessed Halsey's emotional outburst and reportedly grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him, shouting "Stop it! What the hell's the matter with you? Pull yourself together!" Recognizing his failure, Halsey sulked in inactivity for a full hour while Taffy 3 was fighting for its life – falsely claiming to be refueling his ships – before eventually turning around with his two fastest battleships, three light cruisers and eight destroyers and heading back to Samar, too late to have any impact on the battle.
The padding phrase may have been inspired by both a sense of history and a knowledge of poetry. The day the message was sent was the 90th anniversary of the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Battle of Balaclava. A famous poem about the charge was written by Tennyson, and contains the stanza:
Flash’d all their sabres bare,
Flash’d as they turned in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army while
All the world wonder’d:
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