Recognition at last for unsung war heroes

Account: A book asserts that code-breakers were decisive in the Allied victory in World War II.

November 01, 2003|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

As a U.S. Army private in England in the final years of World War II, Hervie Haufler could think of few things more boring than code-breaking.

He and the others in the 6811th Signal Security Detachment felt, at times, like mere stenographers. In a drafty stone manor house in the London suburbs, they listened to blips on a radio receiver and copied down German secret code until their hands cramped, their eyes hurt and they longed for a pint at the local pub.

"I was constantly battling weariness," he recalls. "I can remember having to fight to keep awake."

More than a half-century later, Haufler, 84, has come to a radically new understanding of his wartime work. His first book, Codebreakers' Victory: How the Allied Cryptographers Won World War II, to be released Tuesday, makes the provocative argument that code-breakers were the decisive factor in the Allied victory - more important than any MacArthur or Eisenhower or Nimitz.

The book, an accessible account of the role of cryptographers on all the major fronts, is a bid to raise code-breakers to what he sees as their rightful place in military history. But on a deeper level, the book reads as a valentine to his Army buddies, unsung heroes gagged by secrecy orders who are finding recognition only at the end of their lives.

"The generals and admirals could begin to trumpet their triumphs the day after the war ended - and often before," he writes in the introduction. "The cryptologists, on the other hand, were sworn to silence."

Yesterday, Haufler, who lives in Vermont, and about 20 other members of three Army Signal Corps units gathered in Maryland for the first day of a weekend reunion. As they toured the small cryptologic museum outside the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, several told stories of glory denied.

Known as the "Ultra Americans" for their role in Britain's code-breaking program, "Ultra Secret," most are in their 80s, all white-haired, some leaning on canes.

Not until the early 1990s did these veterans learn of one another's existence. Robert Frederickson, 80, a retired schoolteacher from Greensboro, N.C., advertised in newsletters, networked through veterans groups and combed phone lists to reassemble the units.

Asked about his friend Haufler's book, Frederickson said, "It's very gratifying to know that what we did had some meaning."

Haufler was a graduate of the University of Michigan and editor of its student newspaper, and enlisted in the Army Signal Corps in 1942. By 1944, London and Washington had reluctantly set aside their mutual suspicions to collaborate on signals intelligence. Haufler joined a force of 500 "Ultra Americans" working with British code-breakers.

But the mistrust lingered. The British cloistered the Americans in a crumbling manor house, Hall Place, in Kent on the southeastern edge of London. Haufler recalls that that Teletype operators sent all the American intercepts to a place they knew only as Station X. It would be three decades before they learned that Station X was Britain's legendary code-breaking center, Bletchley Park.

Haufler's youthful fantasy of cracking enemy codes and rushing them to grateful generals bumped up against a grimly tedious reality. An enlisted cryptographer, it turned out, was little more than a file clerk.

"The outfit settled into the routine of handling endless yards of gibberish and making sure that each unit of it was accurately filled in and correctly identified as to time, network and frequency, without ever knowing the content of it," he writes.

To keep from losing faith or collapsing - one soldier committed suicide, others developed nervous ticks - they clung to the belief that somewhere in that cacophony of blips was information that could save lives.

The reports of large numbers of Allied casualties at the Battle of the Bulge put that faith to a painful test. Haufler lost two college friends. He and his fellow cryptographers hung their heads and wondered whether their work was just a big charade. They didn't know then that Hitler had ordered his troops to rely on motorcycle couriers and not discuss plans for the battle over radio.

When Haufler was demobilized in 1946, he signed a pledge not to talk about his work. He married the next year, raised two sons and began a career at General Electric, writing annual reports and in-house newsletters for 30 years before starting his own public relations firm.

He had long before dismissed his military service as trivial. Then, in 1974, the British authorized Fred Winterbotham, an official at Bletchley Park, to tell the story of The Ultra Secret. The book became a best-seller. For the 500 Americans and 10,000 British code-breakers who were part of "Ultra," a veil had been lifted.

"I saw that I was a cog in this huge, successful machine," he recalls.

He began reading everything he could get his hands on. The declassification of hundreds of thousands of secret documents in recent years fueled the publication of several books on World War II cryptography.

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