Amateurs Cracked Codes to Help Win WW II


Fifty years ago--and more than a year before Pearl Harbor--Americans scored one of their most brilliant victories of World War II.

The commander was a Russian immigrant and sometime geneticist named William Frederick Friedman. The nature of the battle might be suggested by Friedman’s intense interest once in the 50,000-word novel “Gadsby,” which Ernest Vincent Wrigh wrote without using the letter “e.” Friedman’s troops were a motley assemblage of academics, math wizards and puzzle freaks. With a left-handed assist from William Shakespeare.

Together, after 18 baffling months of dead-end days and floor-walking nights that temporarily collapsed Friedman into a mental ward, they broke the Japanese diplomatic code.

Their collective genius did not foil, of course, the sneak Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that brought the United States actively into the war. Crossed and sometimes disconnected wires in American intelligence enabled that. But code breaking by Friedman, et al., laid the groundwork for the pivotal victory of the U.S. fleet at Midway in June, 1942. Indeed, code breaking was an essential ingredient of the Allies’ ultimate triumph.


Let us begin the tale with John Quincy Adams. As secretary of state in 1817-1825 he hired the first U.S. code clerk. Code breaking and/or making was not a pressing concern at the State Department for years, not even when Herbert O. Yardley, 24, signed on as a $17.50-a-week code clerk in 1913.

Yardley had been an indifferent student back in Indiana but had a flair for math. Today he would be a computer hacker. Back then he was a Morse code hacker. And, at State, bored. So bored he began cracking incoming code traffic. He deciphered a message to President Woodrow Wilson from his top aide, Col. Edward M. House, in but two hours. He joined Army intelligence in World War I as a lieutenant and cryptographer.

The Army had another such lieutenant, Friedman. He had been born near Odessa, Russia, in 1891, was brought to America by his postal worker father to escape anti-Jewish rioting and eventually graduated from Cornell University as a geneticist.

As Friedman was settling into a postgraduate career of fruit flies and Mendelian imperatives, a letter arrived at Cornell. It came from George Fabyan, a wealthy cotton broker and world-class eccentric who was looking for a “would-be-er, not an as-is-er” geneticist to help improve the flora and fauna on the farm at his Riverbank Laboratories outside Chicago.


The colonel, who kept a pet gorilla and drove about in a carriage drawn by two zebras, had another, non-mammalian passion: to prove that Sir Francis Bacon and not Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. He had only to decipher the code he believed Sir Francis had encrypted in “Troilus and Cressida” to prove Bacon’s authorship and thereafter bask in the world’s acclaim. His code breaker was a similarly convinced proper Bostonian, Elizabeth Wells Gallup. She in turn hired an assistant, Elizebeth (her mother spelled it without an “a” so no one would call her daughter Eliza) Smith.

When Friedman arrived at Riverbank in 1915, he brought with him an interest in photography. Gallup asked him to photograph some Shakespeare folios. He thereupon became fascinated with a) Smith and b) cryptanalysis (a word he coined) and married both for life.

“When it came to cryptology, something in me found an outlet,” he was to say. “Just an inherent curiosity to know what people were trying to write that they didn’t want other people to read.”

While Sir Francis’ hidden messages kept eluding Gallup, the Army began sending cryptograms and coded messages to Riverbank for deciphering. Friedman broke one, keyed from a book, without even knowing what the book was. Impressed, the Army enlisted him into its primitive code apparatus when World War I broke out.


After the war, Friedman, convinced that Fabyan was rather an oddball, nonetheless reluctantly returned to Riverbank. The Army sent out a ciphered message it considered absolutely undecipherable. Friedman cracked it and sent back a letter to Washington in the same cipher. The Army hired him in 1921 to work up its codes. Elizebeth Friedman eventually worked for the Coast Guard, cracking codes of Prohibition rumrunners. And her husband wrote some seminal works on cryptology.

Yardley, meanwhile, had been set up in secret in mid-town Manhattan with Army and State Department slush funds to run a code breaking operation he called the Black Chamber. His first coup was to crack the codes the Japanese delegation was using at the 1921 Washington Naval conference to limit construction of capital ships.

Not to be outdone, the Navy in 1924 appointed Lt. Laurence F. Safford to head a new Research Desk in the Code and Signal Section. In the finest tradition of interservice rivalry, Safford’s unit in Room 2646 of the Navy Building never communicated what it was doing to the Army Building next door on Constitution Avenue in Washington. Lack of communication among communications spies was to remain a problem all along the road to Pearl Harbor.

It did slowly change, however, in the face of a technological revolution: radio.


Radio direction finding--pinpointing the source and destinations of coded messages through triangulation by eavesdropping receivers--had entered the arsenal of modern warfare.

In 1925, the Navy began installing radio monitors at Guam, the Philippines and Shanghai. Two years later, the U.S. cruiser Marblehead, porcupined with antennae, shadowed the Japanese fleet maneuvers.

Less visible sailors with civilian safecrackers stole code books from Japanese consulates, even in Washington where the party-loving naval attache, Lt. Cmdr. Kiyoshi Hasegawa, dallied with a lady agent while his safe was rifled. The results were deciphered with the assistance of Dr. and Mrs. Emerson J. Haworth, he a former Quaker missionary and professor at Tokyo University.

Code breaking had become an intense activity, so much so that Yardley’s Black Chamber had broken the codes of 19 nations by the time Henry L. Stimson became Herbert Hoover’s secretary of state in 1928. By then State was financing Yardley exclusively. Stimson, a jewel in the high hat of the Old School, was aghast. A dedicated peacemaker, he said: “The way to make men trustworthy is to trust them.”


Even though Japanese militarists were already clashing with Chiang Kai-shek’s soldiers in China and were murdering dovish ministers at home, Stimson closed down the Black Chamber with one of the most famous quotes in all cryptography: “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.”

In reaction, the Army created a new Signal Intelligence Service under Friedman (who by oversight never got a security clearance) with a staff of six to prepare codes, locate enemy radio stations and break ciphers. And Friedman began talking with Safford.

For his part, an angry Yardley told all in a 1931 best-seller, “America’s Black Chamber.” His book was his last, greatest and wholly unintended gift to American cryptology. It persuaded the Japanese to start using encrypting machines.

These were nothing new. Thomas Jefferson had invented one. His had wheels which turned in a sequence so that a, for instance, went in one end and came out z at the other. The key to deciphering was to find the key to the encipherment, the system used to turn the wheels. Introducing electricity over a century later meant the wheels could turn infinitely faster producing millions of possible combinations.


Yet a basic of decipherment remained: The frequency letters appear in a given language. The letter e is the most common in English, hence Friedman’s absorption with an e-less novel.

An electrical enciphering machine named Enigma was sold for commercial users in Germany after the first war. In 1927, the Army Signal Corps bought one for $144. It became the Nazis’ Achilles heel throughout World War II. They complacently believed Enigma unbreakable. The British, with the help of some brilliant Poles, cracked it, giving the Allies a fateful advantage.

The Japanese had the same confidence in 97-shiki O-bun Injiki--Alphabetical Typewriter 97. The Americans called the machine Purple after a color in the spectrum. They had already broken a Japanese machine they called Red.

The Navy had cracked Red with the help of an accommodating woman provided by the Office of Naval Intelligence who tarried in bed with Lt. Toshikazu Ohmae while agents rifled his briefcase. Then, a much more sophisticated machine, Purple, began to be intercepted by the Navy’s listening radios.


Capt. Jinsaburo Ito of the Japanese Navy had developed No. 97. “Let America and Britain solve this cipher if they can,” he said.

Friedman’s staff of 19 code breakers was given the challenge.

Code breakers, to say the least, do not come in tidy packages. Winston Churchill was to say of the grab bag of geniuses who cracked Enigma: “I told you to leave no stone unturned in your recruiting. I did not expect you to take me so literally.”

America’s cryptographers included stamp collectors, chess masters, a naval officer who accepted a tennis date knowing nothing of the game but learned it overnight from a book and Agnes Meyer Driscoll, who was a devotee of cryptic puzzles and taught many the tricks of the trade. And Friedman, a golfing family man with an alert, kindly face who could see patterns where others saw only chaos.


The small, parochial world of cryptography of the 1930s exchanged enciphered Christmas cards, held round-robin restaurant parties at which guests had to solve a cryptogram at the appetizer eatery to tell them where to go for the fish course. Purple, in a world edging toward war, was something else.

Purple was for use only in the major Japanese embassies. On Feb. 18, 1939, Tokyo signaled these outposts Purple was going on line. It made the fatal error of sending parallel messages on the Red machine to lesser consulates. Comparing the two, Friedman’s crew decrypted 25% of the cipher in a few weeks. Thereafter: a brick wall.

Little steps, nonetheless, could be taken. The Japanese, a formal people, stick to proper and unvarying ways of address. Diplomatic messages, encoded, could be compared with the same messages when delivered to American diplomats in translation--if they were the same messages. Messages sent in Red were compared with Purple intercepts made about the same time.

Night after night, Elizebeth Friedman, who could not be told why, could hear her husband pacing back and forth in their kitchen.


“Naturally, this was a collaborative, cooperative effort,” William Friedman later said. “No one person was responsible for the solution.”

There were Safford’s people who kept up a steady flow of radio intercepts. Japanese diplomacy sometimes came via American commercial cable companies instead of by radio. Rights to privacy notwithstanding, cable managers would pass on copies and times of transmission. (But the scrupulous cable managers in Honolulu did not give the FBI copies of Japanese messages, some of which were Pearl Harbor spy reports, until a week before the attack.)

Then, sometime in August of 1940, Harry Laurence Clark, one of Friedman’s young cryptographers, had an insight that came to him in the night. He came to work the next day ecstatic.

“I wonder if the monkeys did it that way?” he is quoted by Friedman’s biographer, Ronald Clark. “That way” was to use telephone stepping switches in the Purple machine, not electric wheels.


Friedman’s crew began scrounging switches from telephone companies, even five-and-dime stores. By guess and by God and by genius and by inspired calculation they began piecing together a copy of the machine none of them had ever seen or ever would see and which was talking in a language few of them knew.

It buzzed and sparked and wasn’t lovely, but on Sept. 25, 1940, America’s Purple machine decoded its first full message. Washington, again, could read Tokyo’s hand.

As the Japanese Empire inexorably collapsed in on itself in flames, Purple machines were smashed into bits as embassies closed, garrisons surrendered or, more often, fought to the last man. One machine, partially intact, was captured on Guam. Of its hundreds of wired connections, only two were different from the sight-unseen Purple machines of William F. Friedman and his crew.

Even after the war was over, the Japanese refused to believe what the Americans had done. No, they said, they must have stolen a Purple machine somewhere.


They had. Out of the air.