3 code-breakers honored for World War II efforts

Deceased trio inducted into NSA's Hall of Honor for work against Japan

April 18, 2000|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

Three cryptologists who toiled for years in bleak offices across the country without expectation that anyone but a few military officers would know they helped win World War II were given posthumous honors yesterday at the National Security Agency.

The work of Louis W. Tordella, Joseph J. Rochefort and Agnes Meyer Driscoll was instrumental in breaking hundreds of Japanese naval codes, most notably the Japanese dispatches leading to the Battle of Midway, a turning point in the war.

As part of a continuing effort to put a face on the agency, NSA officials gave the deceased trio a space in the NSA Hall of Honor, though a lot of what they did will remain classified for decades.

Still, it is more than any of them would have expected. As they once told colleagues, given the nature of their work, they doubted anyone would ever know their names.

"If they were here today, they would have been disquieted that their work has been made public," said John E. Morrison, president of the National Cryptologic Museum Foundation. "But these days it's necessary for us to be a little more open if we want to have the backing and support of the American public."

The NSA director, Lt. Gen. Michael V. Hayden, who vowed to change one thing a day at the agency for his first 100 days when he came to the post less than a year ago, said honoring those from the past is critical to helping people understand the agency. Yesterday's event was the second of its kind in the agency's 50-year history.

"I've been preaching transformation for the past nine months," Hayden said after the presentation. Now, he said, he wants to "remind people of the heritage we come from."

Rochefort began his code-breaking work in 1918, when he joined the Navy. His career was nondescript until he began studying Japanese and was sent to Hawaii to lead efforts at breaking the extensive Japanese coding systems during World War II.

In grueling days that lasted well past midnight, Rochefort and his team pored over mathematics tables and algorithms. Several months after the December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, they hit the cryptological jackpot and by spring 1942 were able to provide 140 detailed intelligence reports a day to the highest-ranking U.S. fleet commanders.

Late that spring they saw their first Japanese cables describing a planned attack on Midway Island. With that information, the Navy sent three aircraft carriers, which crushed the Japanese Pacific fleet and gave the allies their first significant victory in the Pacific.

The success of Rochefort's team would not have been possible without the work of Driscoll, who pioneered the efforts to break Japanese codes in the 1920s. In the 1940s, she made critical inroads into the German Enigma machine and the Japanese fleet's operational codes, which the Navy exploited throughout the war.

Driscoll was the first to use machines to help break codes and by the end of her 30-year career had cracked three full Japanese encryption systems.

Tordella, who was to become the longest-serving deputy director of NSA from 1958 to 1974, also was a naval cryptologist during World War II and was the first to push for a giant machine called a supercomputer, which he argued could help break codes.

His initial efforts and decades-long belief in technology were credited with putting NSA on the leading edge of signals intelligence well into the Cold War.

"Your relatives may have been just mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters to you," James Newton, assistant deputy director of support services for NSA, told the crowd that included relatives of the honorees. "But to us and a grateful nation, they are our heroes. They kept us out of war, shortened the wars we were in, and saved thousands of lives."

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