U.S. Naval Cryptologic Veterans Association

Chapter I: Capitalizing On the Past

British playwright George Bernard Shaw may have been cynical when he wrote that what we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history. It is certain, however, that we will not learn much from our past if we cannot study records or histories. Individuals might rely on their personal knowledge and memories, but they often vary widely about crucial events and what they mean. Even documents may not tell the full story, of course, and often reflect biases of the originator. Neither may be helpful without the other. In the face of these limitations and cautions, a case can be stated in favor of formal programs to preserve and protect an institutional memory.

On 11 March 2016, VADM Jan Tighe, then-Commander Fleet Cyber Command/U.S. 10th Fleet, wrote in the Navy Live Blog that the Information Warfare community traced a great deal of its 81-year organizational heritage to — and its personnel derived their collective identity as cryptologists from — the Naval Security Group (NAVSECGRU). We are fortunate to have some documentation confirming those beginnings. Nevertheless, much important information from the 1930s era, as well as the times before and following it, has not survived.

Official Documents Preserved Selected Parts of Early U.S. Naval Cryptologic History

Naval cryptologic history actually pre-dates by more than two decades the official 11 March 1935 observance of the Naval Security Group (NAVSECGRU) birthday.

It was selected in 1968 based on the appearance of the “Security Group” term on an old Navy organizational chart. This was important at that time because the newly-activated NAVSECGRU Command needed an official starting date, similar to other Navy commands during the decade of the 1960s, when many of them were also formally established. Our birth date has served its purpose admirably.

Part of what is missing, however, is an essential basic awareness of how U.S. Naval cryptology developed during the period when the Navy transitioned from communicating using visual flag signals to communicating via radio. Sending signals over greater distances became critical to support naval operations as the Navy modernized from wooden sailing ships to steam-powered iron combat ships. Over decades, Navy communications security evolved from using commercial codes to more secure ciphers that encrypted Navy codes. Establishing these foundations of the cryptologic discipline would add worthy traditions that were derived from the dedicated-sometimes brilliant-service by many Sailors, of whom only a few names are still known to later generations.

Valuable History Emerged from Family Records and Personal Memories

Russell L WillsonOne young Navy Lieutenant, Russell Willson, was rescued from historical anonymity by his daughter, Mrs. Eunice Willson Rice. Mrs. Rice had been hired by the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) as a linguist out of Mount Holyoke College in 1935, and as a cryptolinguist by OP-20-G in 1939. During World War Two, she learned Japanese on her own and served as head of the Japanese merchant shipping section at the Washington headquarters. Just before the war, she married Robert Rice, who became a decorated submarine captain in the Pacific theater. When I met her in 2004, she was teaching herself ancient Greek and translating the Iliad and Odyssey to retain her skills — and walked an hour every day to remain active.

WW1 Navy Cipher BoxMrs. Rice persevered in her quest for public recognition of her father’s invention while in her 90s, resting only when his Navy Cipher Box (NCB) from World War One surfaced following a search among artifacts in Pensacola, FL. NCVA members (Chief Petty Officers) had saved it from the trash heap and preserved it as an unidentified treasure until we determined that it was the last of 1,000 such devices fabricated in 1917 – 1918.

Willson and Rice family histories and albums led to several key official documents held in the National Archives and Library of Congress. The report of a Congressional hearing held in 1935 and a subsequent “Red Line” Presidential certificate confirmed Russell’s vital role in Allied victory during World War One. Only a few long-forgotten and inadequately identified items relating to the NCB emerged later from Naval Security Group and other records that were retired to the National Archives in 1995—nearly a century after they were created.

LT (later VADM) Willson’s NCV cryptographic device the lives of countless troops and un-calculated tonnage of ships that carried our fighting forces, arms, and supplies safely to Europe in 1917 and 1918. Enemy forces failed to break the NCB cryptographic system to read the messages and cables communicating ship movements, or vital secret messages of other U.S. agencies encrypted by the NCB. President Woodrow Wilson so valued Russell Willson’s device that he directed communications handling for the Peace Conference be taken from the State Department and assigned to the Navy. A complete Naval communications center-ciphers, codes, and personnel handled every secret dispatch for the United States. Wilson also insisted on having his own NCB and personally used it for encrypting his messages while in Paris. At the end of the war, CDR Willson had earned two promotions and the Navy Cross for deploying his new NCB device and implementing a complex system for securing Fleet and shore communications.

The NCB remained in use during the decade after the war while the Navy evaluated other manual and machine cipher systems. In 1935 during the height of the Great Depression, Congress awarded Willson $15,000 for his invention in lieu of a patent. It was the first such Congressional award for a U.S. cryptographic invention, and set the precedent for several U.S. cryptologists who followed. Russell Willson is now accorded a place of honor in the Wenger Cryptologic Command Display; his story appears in Navy, NSA, and National Archives publications, among others.

A second example of the advantage that records and histories could give us will make the point. Navy and Marine Corps radio intercept operators in the Pacific copied Imperial Japanese Navy communications unofficially for much of the 1920s, until they demonstrated the value of their work to senior Navy officials. Again, their identity was established only when sailors with personal memories and their own documentation pieced together a basic account of what has become known as the On-the-Roof Gang (OTRG). of course, official NAVSECGRU records aided in reconstructing this account, primarily by confirming names of operators assigned to specific stations in the Pacific up to World War II and adding a few other details. But without Pearly Phillips and other surviving operators, the OTRG story would have been lost. Official files simply did not explain their role.

First Navy Communications Intelligence Conference (1912)

first ci conference 1912This grainy image was labeled the First Navy C.I. (Communications Intelligence) Conference by CAPT Linwood S. Howeth in his 1963 study, "History of Communications — Electronics in the United States Navy." The book was sponsored by the Bureau of Ships and the Office of Naval History and published by the U.S. Government Printing Office in 1963. CAPT Howeth served as the 20th head of the Naval Security Group from 1950 to 1952 and was highly regarded as a researcher and author. The C.I. conference was held on board the newly commissioned USS WYOMING (BB-52), Flagship of the Atlantic Fleet, during Fleet exercises in 1912. Although details behind this picture and the caption remain obscure, Fleet Radio Officer, is exhibiting his chart of possible before it took place. Those shown in the photograph from left to right are: LT Caskey, LCDR Sexton, LT McCrary, LT Hooper, Major Catlin (USMC), and CDR Vogelgesang. earned promoted to Rear Admiral in 1938, and retired in 1945.

w f greshamCo-Inventor of First Navy Cipher Machine

CDR William F. Gresham served as the third head of the U.S. Navy cryptologic organization from July 1921 to July 1922. Congress awarded his widow half of $15,000 in lieu of a patent that was paid to Gresham and Mrs. Agnes Meyer Driscoll in 1937 for developing the Navy Cipher Machine during the 1920s. This award followed the example set by Willson, and the CM used sliding alphabets and cryptographic principles of his NCB.

Peace  Conference Code Use

wilson baseball 1916President and Mrs. Wilson at the opening day of baseball season in 1916. Records say they used a compromised 19th century code to exchange cables with “Colonel” Edward House in 1915 and 1916 while he was in Europe trying to mediate peace between the warring Allied and Central Powers.