breaking of Germany's World War II 'Enigma' code is widely known today.
But there's an untold story: How NCR engineers in Dayton, led by
Oakwood resident Joe Desch, worked in secret to develop the machines
that helped break the code.
How Joe Desch, based in Dayton, beat the Nazi code and helped win the war
By Jim DeBrosse
Debbie Anderson knew in the summer of 1986 that time was running out for her 79-year-old father. After a series of small strokes and then a broken hip, Joe Desch, a man of iron independence, was forced to recuperate in a Kettering nursing home. There he took with him the painful secret he had kept coiled inside for most of his life.
"He seemed still to be fighting battles that should have been settled years ago," Anderson said. "There were little things that would set him off on tirades."
Anderson knew only that her father's pain and anger were tied to the World War II codebreaking research he had done at Dayton's National Cash Register Co. — the work that had driven him to a nervous breakdown, but which he had never been able to talk about, not even to explain the Congressional Medal for Merit he had received for his war service.
But then, one morning that summer, Anderson thought she had found a way to help her father unburden his heart. There was an article in the paper about the late Capt. Joseph Rochefort, who was receiving a posthumous medal from President Ronald Reagan for cracking a World War II Japanese code and providing the key to one of the U.S. Navy's greatest victories at the Battle of Midway.
"I went out in the morning," Anderson said, "when he was brightest, and cheerfully handed him the clipping and asked, 'Dad, did you know this guy? See, they're giving him a medal like yours — but posthumously.' "
Desch burst into a stream of invectives "that could have been heard all over the state," she said. "He immediately tensed up and yelled, 'They've probably found out I'm in here and have this place bugged — afraid I'll spill the beans. Don't you ever dare bring that up again!' "
Anderson didn't. A year later, her father would be dead from a massive stroke.
Jesse, her younger boy and a fourth-grader at Holy Angels, had to write a family history for school. Jesse wanted to profile his grandfather, Joseph R. Desch, an electrical engineer and executive at NCR, who had died two years before. The boy was fascinated by his grandfather's personal things — scads of old photographs, papers and memorabilia boxed up in the basement of her Kettering home.
Anderson and her son started digging through her father's items. She happened upon two thick transcripts she had seen before but had never bothered to read. They were Desch's interviews with Henry Tropp, a historian from the Smithsonian Institution, dated Jan. 17 and 18, 1973.
This time Anderson began skimming the 300-plus pages of questions and answers in earnest, finding mostly technical stuff about Desch's role in the development of the modern computer. But beginning on page 111 of the first-day's interview, and continuing to page 119, the text had been slashed through with a felt-tipped pen. In the margin was written: "Delete from tape and manuscript."
The redacted words spoke of "an electronic cryptanalytic machine," of classified code names, British scientists and of top-secret equipment dumped and buried in the middle of the night.
Anderson devoured the words, hardly believing her eyes. Here at last was a glimmer of her father's top-secret work during WWII.
"He always said it had to do with codebreaking, and he wouldn't say anything more," she said.
As a teen-ager and young adult, Anderson never pressed him on it, either. She knew her father had gone on to head the military research division at NCR during the 1960s, and that's all she cared to know. "I was a true child of the '60s. I was embarrassed that my father was part of the military-industrial complex," she said.
Desch had burned the most crucial NCR war documents — but somehow had left the transcripts, and those eight pages intended to be stricken from history, at his home in Kettering. Now here they were, in Anderson's hands, like a thin ray of light pointing the way to treasure deep inside a cave.
For the next decade, Anderson would try to illuminate her father's mystery, often finding herself at odds with national intelligence officials and skeptical historians. But in doing so, she would discover the historic role that her father — as well as NCR and Dayton — played in shortening the world's most horrible war.
In 1942 and 1943, Desch had headed a top-secret program at NCR to develop a high-speed deciphering machine, called a Bombe, to crack the Nazi submarine code. The project was second in priority only to the Manhattan Project that built the Atom Bomb, and perhaps second only to the bomb in hastening the war to an end.
Joseph R. Desch died on Aug. 3, 1987, at age 80, with his story untold — until now.
With the help of Anderson and Colin Burke — a University of Maryland history professor who first unearthed the details of the NCR project — as well as newly released information from the NCR archives and dozens of interviews with the men and women who built the NCR machines, the Dayton Daily News will recreate those crucial months in Dayton leading up to the production of the NCR Bombe.
JUNE 5, 1943
McAuslun's Avenger dive bomber was armed with four depth bombs. Rogers' Wildcat fighter bristled with high-caliber machine guns. But in the blind-man's game of hunting enemy submarines, the pilots had something else just as important as their weapons — reliable intelligence information locating a line of 17 German U-boats in the area, lying in ambush for a westbound Allied convoy.
The pilots' mission: Find and kill the subs. The pair was on the last leg of a five-hour patrol, 70 miles from their escort carrier U.S.S. Bogue, when McAuslun spotted U-217 cruising placidly on the surface about seven miles to their right.
McAuslun signalled Rogers, who banked his Wildcat and dove, strafing the sub's deck. "He just tore off and left me in his smoke," McAuslun, now 81, recalled from his Henderson, N.C., home.
McAuslun followed in his tubby Avenger and released his four depth bombs at 75 feet, just as the sub began to dive.
But the crew of U-217 was too late. The four bombs exploded on either side of the sub's hull, lifting it out of the water and splitting the hull. The sub sank in just 33 seconds, with Rogers blasting at it one last time to send it on its way.
It was the first time the U.S. Navy had sunk a Nazi submarine in a purely offensive action. The day before, using the same intelligence, pilots from the Bogue had damaged and scattered three other U-boats. Naval historians say those two days marked a turning point in the Battle of the Atlantic.
The Navy pilots had no idea that the information guiding their mission had originated from Building 26 at NCR in Dayton, where an intercepted German message had been cracked just days before. Naval intelligence had relied on a high-speed decrypting machine called a “Bombe” — designed and manufactured in a top-secret program at NCR. So secret, in fact, that NCR's key role in the Allied intelligence effort known as Ultra would not come to light until half a century later, when a 1992 directive by then-President Bill Clinton released many classified documents.
Since the early 1970s, much attention has been given to the early Polish and British successes in cracking the Enigma code. The Poles called their first decoding machine a "Bomba," perhaps after the brand of ice cream cones favored by the codebreakers. Operating from the famed codebreaking school at Bletchley Park outside of London, the Brits refined and further mechanized the device, based on the theoretical work of mathematician Alan Turing. They dubbed their device a "bombe."
But by the spring of 1942, the German navy was again operating in total secrecy and with a vengeance, thanks to an upgrading of their Enigma machines. With the British Ultra effort stumped and the Germans dispatching ever more submarines to the Atlantic, the Allies feared they would lose ships to the wolfpacks faster than they could be replaced.
North Atlantic sinkings more than quadrupled in the last half of 1942 compared to the last half of 1941 — from 600,000 tons to 2.6 million tons. "And each of the nearly 500 ships sunk in those six months," wrote military historian David Kahn in Seizing the Enigma, "meant more freezing deaths in the middle of the ocean, more widows, more fatherless children, less food for some toddler, less ammunition for some soldier, less fuel for some plane — and the prospect of prolonging those miseries."
The Enigma was like a typewriter that encoded messages by scrambling each keystroke through a series of rotors. It could generate billions upon billions of possible letter combinations.
But unbeknownst to the Germans, the Poles and the Brits had been able to crack the three-rotor Enigma machine, relying in part on captured German documents. But when the German Navy added a fourth rotor on Feb. 1, 1942, the number of possible combinations for producing any one letter overwhelmed their decrypting abilities.
Under increasing pressure from the U.S. Navy, which had been kept in the dark while soaring numbers of its ships and sailors were lost to the wolfpacks, the British finally relinquished their control over Ultra and told the Americans to give it a go.
What was needed, and in a hurry, was a high-speed decoding machine that could run through all the possible Enigma combinations at heretofore unheard-of speeds — a machine that the British had been working on since late 1941 without success.
Navy theoreticians at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology envisioned an all-electronic machine many times faster than the British bombe. But only two companies in the United States had the technical capability at that time to produce such a marvel — IBM and Dayton's NCR. The obvious choice for the Navy was NCR, where chairman of the board Col. Edward A. Deeds had a long working relationship with MIT as well as the Navy's top brass. It also had idle capacity — NCR, unlike IBM, had been ordered by the War Production Board to stop making its major product, cash registers, for the duration of the war.
In the end, the weight of the Navy’s demands, and the nation's, would fall most heavily on one man’s shoulders — those of Joe Desch. A modest but brilliant engineer, at age 35 he headed NCR's electrical research laboratory. Desch had already contributed to the war effort, unknowingly at the time, by inventing an electronic counter capable of operating at 1 million counts per second — at least 100 times faster than anything achieved before — for use in developing the first atomic bomb.
Unlike the Navy's theoretical engineers, who were mostly graduate students and professors at MIT, Desch was a floor-trained industrial genius, as savvy about front-office politics as he was knowledgeable about state-of-the-art electronics.
The MIT engineers "had a very different orientation than a practical engineer like Joe, but he was able to handle them all and get the job done. He was adored by these guys," said Colin Burke, former historian-in-residence at the National Security Agency and author of Information and Secrecy, the first book to detail NCR's attack on the Enigma Code.
In fact, when Desch took his wife, Dorothy, to Boston to meet the Navy personnel at MIT, she was completely thrown when people at the welcoming cocktail party started greeting her husband as "Dr. Desch."
"Dad said that people who mattered knew better, but that it was incomprehensible to the graduate students there that a man of his importance wouldn't be a Ph.D.," Debbie Anderson said.
Born in 1907, four years after the Wright brothers' first flight, to a German immigrant mother and a long line of Dayton area wagonmakers, Desch capitalized on his keen intelligence, and his fascination from an early age with the budding technology of radio, to rise above his humble beginnings in Dayton’s Edgemont neighborhood. He worked his way through the University of Dayton and graduated with honors in electrical engineering.
Prior to the war, Desch had built a national reputation for his work in designing miniature, fast-firing gas tubes — the "microchips" of the 1940s and the basis for electronic calculators at the time. The Navy was betting that if anyone could build a new generation of super-fast deciphering machines, it was Joe Desch.
The Bombe project would not only prove to be the biggest technical challenge of Desch’s career, but an overwhelming emotional drain. For the next two years, it would mean working 14-hour days under mounting pressure from Navy officials. It would mean severing relations with his German immigrant relatives. It would mean being placed under 24-hour surveillance, with his supervising officer quartered in his own home.
For the duration of the war, his life would be pinned under a microscope. And before it was over, he would suffer a nervous breakdown.
"They kept the pressure on, kept the pressure on and poor Joe took it very seriously," said Bob Mumma, the NCR business manager who reported directly to Desch and took over for him after his breakdown. "It destroyed Joe's health."
Mumma, now 95 and a resident of the Otterbein Home in Lebanon, scoffed at the suggestion that he and others involved in the Bombe project were heroes who shaved months from the conflict and saved hundreds of thousands of lives.
"We were just trying to win the war," Mumma said.
The Navy Bombe would rely on tens of thousands of the miniature, fast-pulsing tubes Desch himself had invented — pushed to the limit of their capabilities. After all, the foe they were attacking seemed almost invincible.
When the German military purchased all rights to the Enigma Cipher Machine first conceived by Dutchman Hugo Koch in 1919, and added several of their own innovations, they had every reason to think their coding system was impenetrable — even if the machine were captured.
In essence, the Enigma was an electrical typewriter that scrambled each keystroke through a series of alphabetized rotors, so that the text seemed generated at random. When a key was depressed, it tumbled the first rotor and, after a complete revolution, a second and a third rotor — just like the odometer on a car. But on the Enigma, each rotor scrambled the alphabet in a different way.
The operator could set each rotor at a different starting position as well, changing the line-up of the rotors. A notched ring on one rotor controlled the rotational behavior of the rotor to its left. As an extra security measure, the machine contained a plugboard that transposed individual letters (a for e, for instance, or h for m) to further confuse anyone trying to crack the code.
To unscramble the text, the receiving Enigma operator would be sent the original rotor positions, in code, as part of the message. He would also have a chart instructing him in that day's plugboard settings. Only an officer could change the line-up of the rotors inside the machine, based on frequent orders from command headquarters.
With all those variables in use, the possible number of Enigma encipherings for each character was staggering — 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 — or 10 to the 23rd power. And when the Germans introduced a four-rotor machine in early 1942, the possible combinations grew to 10 to the 26th power. (By comparison, the number of all atoms in the observable universe is 3 to the 80th power.)
Indeed, the Enigma might have been impregnable, except that even the Germans did not always follow proper communications security. Lapses and laziness, such as not resetting the wheel positions between dispatches and using predictable greetings and sign-offs, would create "cribs" (strings of known or suspected plain text) that would give Allied codebreakers the wedge they needed to decipher intercepts.
Nor did the Germans know that the British had secretly captured Enigma code charts and the machines themselves by raiding unwary German weather ships and boarding abandoned U-boats that couldn't be scuttled by their crews in time.
The NCR Bombe would basically work like an Enigma machine in reverse. By feeding it a "crib" of known or suspected plain text from an intercepted message, the Bombe would crunch through all the billions upon billions of possible rotor combinations on the Enigma machine until it arrived at the rotor sequence that had enciphered the text. Once the positions of the four rotors were known for any part of the cipher, the remainder of the scrambled text could be easily broken by running it in reverse through a captured Enigma machine.
But the more Desch went over the Navy plans, the more his practical side bumped up against a major stumbling block — an all-electronic machine would require far too many gas tubes (70,000 in all) and generate too much heat to operate reliably.
But what would Desch tell the Navy intelligence officers who had put so much faith in his engineering skills?
A complex man chosen for a complex and urgent mission
Joe Desch had to look back to see ahead
The story so far: NCR engineer Joe Desch has been given the seemingly impossible task of creating a high-speed machine that will quickly read the Nazis' Enigma code. He has begun to see the problems ahead, as the war grinds on.
While Joe Desch agonized over a practical machine that could break Enigma, the secret Nazi submarine code, the German naval high command knew exactly what it had to do to win the war: sever the lifeline between the industrial powerhouse of America and the plucky resistance of the British — the last hurdle in the total domination of Europe.
The German wolfpacks were wreaking havoc in the North Atlantic, the number of kills rising every month as British intelligence and U.S. Navy escorts floundered without clues. A workable Bombe, as the codebreaking machine was called, was needed in a matter of months, not years.
"We were losing ships like mad. That's how this whole (project) got started," said Bob Mumma, an NCR manager who worked with Desch. "Of course, Joe had been in ROTC and had been assigned to a unit. . . . He felt guilty, I think, because he wasn't active. That's what bothered him."
Prior to heading the Bombe project, Desch had been commissioned as an officer in an Army ordnance unit. But when the Navy learned it might lose his technical expertise to the front, it pulled his orders, Anderson said. It was a guilty favor he would remember for the rest of the war.
Like the machine he was charged with building, Desch was a complex man: a deeply religious Roman Catholic with a strong sense of ethics, and yet someone who could unleash an inventive stream of curse words in the privacy of his office. He smoked Chesterfields, two packs a day, and when the work day was over, he liked his Scotch and water neat.
He had a surprisingly sentimental side, too. Letters to his wife, Dorothy, were always addressed to "Sweetie-pie" and ended with strings of X's for kisses and the signature "Icky Boo." On a business trip to New York in 1938, three years after their marriage, he sent her two letters on the same day, one wondering if she had seen the moon as he had seen it when his train had pulled out of the station early that morning.
Those who worked closest with Desch describe him as a technical genius who also was blessed with management skills. He was self-possessed and self-confident, without being cocky. "We were a good team. I took care of the details, he took care of the front office. He knew how to talk to those people," Mumma recalled. "And we both knew a hell of a lot about electronics."
Desch loved to garden, loved to dance, especially waltzes. He was an excellent ballroom dancer, Kettering's Debbie Anderson said of her father. "Mom said more than once they cleared the floor" at the Biltmore Hotel, a popular Dayton nightspot at the time.
Desch's background was a far cry from the Ivy League types at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who had come to trust in his industrial know-how. He had lived the idyllic childhood of an early 20th century Huck Finn, canoeing and camping along the banks of the Great Miami River, shooting craps in the back alleys of Edgemont, hawking newspapers in the morning and ushering at nights at the Victory Theatre for his spending money. He was an altar boy and straight-A student at Emmanuel Elementary School, but enough of a troublemaker to have punched one of his Marianist instructors, and knocked him down, in a dispute over a math solution.
"He was a bit irreverent when he had to be," his daughter said. "But he got a scholarship to (the University of Dayton) prep school, so I guess the Marianists weren't too mad at him."
Unlike many of his young friends, Desch took no interest in hunting. He couldn't bring himself to kill, not even the rabbits his father had asked him to raise, Anderson said. "He loved taking care of the rabbits and building the hutch and all, but then when it came time to do what he had to do with them, he couldn't do it," she said. "I don't know if he sold them or not, but he gave them to a friend instead."
Much of Desch's technical knowledge was hands-on and self-taught, beginning in childhood. His father, grandfather and uncles were all master wagon-makers who knew how to work both with wood and metal and could fashion just about any tool for themselves.
"Dad learned how to tinker at a very early age," Anderson said. "He saw his first operating radio downtown when he was 11, and he was fascinated with it. He couldn't afford a new one, so he built his own. That's what determined the rest of his working life."
As a teen-ager, he started making his own vacuum tubes in the basement of his parent's house on Kirkham Street — launching his lifelong devotion to the field.
After graduating with honors from UD in 1929, he went straight to GM's radio division, where he supervised the testing of radios. Nine years later, he was hand-picked to run NCR's new electronic research department. His assignment: design the first electronic adding machine.
Desch's focus was designing smaller, faster and more reliable gas tubes for computation. As America's entry into the war neared, his successes would lead to military contracts for a variety of useful weapons. By the time the Navy approached Desch with its Bombe plans in the spring of 1942, the Army already had entrusted him with a project to design a "proximity fuse" — a radar-controlled shell that would automatically explode as it neared airborne targets. And as part of the Manhattan Project, he was designing a high-speed electronic counter needed for developing the atom bomb.
But all that work would be swept aside for the Navy's highest priority — breaking the Enigma Code.
In a tersely stated letter to the National Defense Research Committee on Aug. 17, 1942, Desch wrote: "We have other work of higher priority rating on which we can usefully place our engineers, but once they are started on such other work, they cannot be withdrawn . . . for some time to come."
By mid-summer, two of the Navy's bright young theoreticians were in England learning all about the British bombe and sending reports back to the States. Desch received at least some of that information, enough to persuade him that he needed to take a direction different from both the British and the U.S. Navy if he were to turn out a machine in time.
After weeks of agonizing, Desch decided on a major technological leap — backwards. He proposed an electromechanical device that wouldn't be pretty, wouldn't be elegant, but would accomplish the job through sheer brute force.
"We never had any doubt about it. We knew what (the machine) had to
do," Mumma said. "It was just a matter of time, but time was of the
Intense scrutiny, feelings of guilt were heavy burdens for Desch
The story so far: As World War II grinds on, the Allies are trying to break the Nazi's famously difficult Enigma code, which uses a special rotor-driven machine to create billions of possible letter combinations. The British capture a machine and crack the code, but the Germans modify it and regain the upper hand. In 1942, the U.S. Navy turns to Dayton's National Cash Register Co. to create an electronic machine that can quickly read Enigma. While Allied shipping is being sunk by U-boats and lives are being lost, the effort to make a "Bombe," as the code-reading machine was called, fall on the shoulders of a single Dayton engineer at NCR: Joe Desch, whose efforts have remained so secret since then that even his daughter, Debbie Anderson of Kettering, only learned a few years ago how her father helped win the war. But the effort was long and hard, and took a terrible personal toll on Desch, a sensitive, self-taught man.
In mid-September, Joe Desch went back to the Navy brass with a revised plan for a decoding machine that could approach the performance, if not the elegance, of the Navy's all-electronic design. Desch's Bombe — part electronic but mostly mechanical — would crack the German Enigma code through sheer size and speed. And more importantly, as the war raged on, his Bombe could be produced in a matter of months rather than years.
Trusting in Desch and the solid reputation of NCR, the Navy promised everything and anything he needed to get the job done as quickly as possible — millions of dollars in funding, hundreds of trained personnel and a top-secret priority second only to the Manhattan Project and the development of the A-Bomb.
"It was so important that requests to the White House were processed within a day and cost overruns of incredible size were accepted without question," historian Colin Burke wrote in Information and Secrecy. "The jump from an estimate of $2 million to one of $4 million in a few months did not threaten the program."
But part of the bargain was that Desch's own life would come under intense scrutiny. He spent three days in Washington, D.C., under relentless interrogation before getting his security clearance. His inquisitors hurled insults and accusations, trying to break him down. It became so abusive that Desch told the Navy he didn't want the job — at which point they told him he was cleared and should return to Dayton to begin his assignment.
"He told me once he had had it up to here with their bull," said Debbie Anderson, his daughter, who lives in Kettering today. "But he must have calmed down, because he got the job."
The Navy was particularly concerned about Desch's German relatives. His mother, Augusta Stoermer, had emigrated from Germany at age 13. She had worked her way from Liverpool, England, to an uncle's home in Pittsburgh, where she made cigars, and finally to Dayton, where she met Edward Frank Desch and married him in 1906. The elder Desch died in 1937.
Homesick even in her later years, Desch's mother had kept in touch with relatives in Europe and had even gone back twice to Germany before the war. But even worse, Desch's half-cousin, Augusta "Gusty" Zimmerman, had a father still in Germany who was active in the Nazi Party, and a husband in Dayton who had tuned into Hitler's broadcasts before the war.
Desch was allowed limited visits with his mother and two younger sisters, but only if the family avoided all contact with Gusty and her husband. "There was a lot of bitterness with (Gusty)," who didn't understand why she was being shunned during the war, said Desch's sister, Mary Williams, 86, now a resident of Largo, Fla. "But it all came out afterward, and Gusty came around."
Desch was never out of sight of his Navy "shadows" — plainclothes guards who sat in parked cars outside his home and office, waiting to tail him around town. Years later, Desch would gleefully tell his daughter what fun it had been in the beginning to take the guards on wild goose chases. One evening he drove miles out of his way into the country to the old Belmont Dairy, only to return to his driveway. The guards ignored his greetings when he stepped out of his car.
Hardest for Desch to swallow, the Navy commander in charge of the project, Lt. Cmdr. Ralph Meader, was quartered in Desch's Oakwood home to keep an eye on him. The arrangement in the two-bedroom Tudor cottage at 413 Greenmount Blvd., which Desch had built just two years earlier for himself and his young bride Dorothy, was often tense.
"This Captain Meader . . . practically slept in his bed," said Bob Mumma, an NCR manager who worked with Desch. "I'll tell you, day and night, he couldn't get rid of him. Joe just about lost his mind."
Security at NCR was super-tight. Building 26, formerly NCR's night school at Stewart Street and Patterson Boulevard, was converted into a top-secret assembly plant, with machine gun-toting Marines watching from the roof. The guards were wounded veterans who had seen action early in the war, and they could be skittish, as Lou Sandor, one of the chief engineers on the Bombe project, discovered. Sandor, now 86, lives in Columbia, S.C.
"I had a habit of slamming the door to the restroom whenever I went in," Sandor recalled. One day he startled a Marine who was shaving in a restroom sink. "All of a sudden, I was staring into the barrel of a .45. I don't know who was scared more — me or the Marine who almost shot me."
Practically overnight, Desch's research department at NCR grew from a staff of 20 to more than 1,000. The Navy would give him just about anything he asked for, but Desch said later he got little direct help from the British.
"It was a one-way street," Desch told a Smithsonian historian in 1973. "The British came over and visited me and looked at everything I was doing, but I could never see anything they were doing."
Burke said better sharing of information about the Enigma between the two Allies "would have saved (NCR) at least three to six months" of crucial development time. But he said the British weren't entirely to blame. A U.S. Naval delegation was invited to tour Bletchley Park, the British Ultra codebreaking operation located outside of London, in 1941. "But when they came back (to the States), the information didn't get to the right people" — including Desch.
In December 1942, Alan Turing, the genius behind Ultra, visited NCR to offer advice, but ended up zinging much of what he saw in a scathing memo. Turing found fault with everything from the machine's gearing to its wheel sizes, but was especially snippy about an automatic feature that Desch and the other NCR engineers were proud of — the machine's ability to brake at high speeds and reverse itself to the exact sequence of rotor positions that had broken the code.
"They say the whole machine is being built sufficiently strong to withstand such strain," Turing wrote. "Possibly the real objection to this method is that the time taken over each stop is fairly considerable . . . 15 seconds, and of course it seems a pity for them to go out of their way to build the machine to do all this stopping if it is not necessary."
The Navy brass decided not to pass the memo on to Desch, for fear it would destroy his morale. Even so, Desch would pay a heavy emotional price in the months that followed. Developing a workable, reliable Bombe would take months longer than anyone had suspected. Through it all, Meader kept the pressure on.
Even the usually even-tempered Desch began showing signs of the strain. After one especially tense meeting with Meader and top-ranking Navy officials, "Dad came out and got up on a table and started shouting that everybody had to start working harder and working faster and get this machine out," Anderson said.
Meader had found an effective, and ultimately devastating, tool for motivating Desch — his guilt.
"Joe told me privately after the war that Meader said he was going to be responsible for the deaths of a lot of American boys if he didn't get the job done — that was a tremendous amount of pressure for anyone, but especially for Joe," said Carl Rench, 79, a former NCR engineer and vice president who became Desch's closest friend soon after joining the company in 1946. "Let me put it this way, he was a very religious man."
Anderson said her father told her long after the war that he had felt so much anguish over the sailors who were drowning in the Atlantic that he believed his very soul was in jeopardy. "This was the Catholic in him — he felt like he was in a constant state of mortal sin, so he stopped going to church."
The race to perfect the NCR Bombe, in many ways, was a race against Desch's own mounting burden of guilt.
Daughter's quest raises more questions
Debbie Anderson was having a late breakfast with her husband Darrell, chairman of the theater department at the University of Dayton, when a story in the Lifestyle section of the Dayton Daily News caught her eye.
It was about a special exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution on the development of the modern computer, called "The Age of Information."
Part of the exhibit was a decrypting machine built by Dayton's National Cash Register Co. during the war. Bill West, then the archivist at NCR, credited Anderson's father, Joe Desch, and his assistant, Bob Mumma, with building the machine.
It was the first time Anderson had ever seen anyone publicly give credit to her father for the NCR Bombe.
"I had a migraine that morning . . . so I didn't trust what I saw. I reread it several times," she said. "And then I was kind of miffed. Here this machine goes to the Smithsonian and it was built by my dad, and nobody even bothered to call me." Anderson decided to travel to Washington, D.C., with her family. "I told my husband, 'Darn it, we should go down there and see this machine. The kids should see it.' "
Her next move was to contact the Smithsonian curator quoted in the story to see if she could find out more. The curator, in turn, referred her to a historian at the National Security Agency.
"I think he (the NSA historian) was stunned when I called," Anderson said. "I don't think anyone was supposed to give out their names and phone numbers there."
The historian agreed to meet with her, suggesting they do so informally at a coffee shop. But when Anderson said that she possessed documents, possibly classified ones, that she hoped to have explained, "there was a pause and he said, 'Oh, you'd better come directly to us.' "
JUNE 23, 1990
The Anderson's Astro Van was routed to the rear of the bunker-like NSA headquarters — a massive concrete structure at Ft. Meade, Md. — where they were greeted by armed guards and told to remain in their vehicle.
Moments later, when the historian who had arranged to meet Anderson arrived at the guard shack, she emerged with her Lazarus bag filled with documents. But when her two boys, ages 14 and 11, also started to exit the van, hoping to stretch their legs after the drive from their motel, they were told to stay inside.
It was just Anderson the historian wanted to see.
"So Darrell (her husband) drives off and here I am surrounded by all these men," she said. "I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, what have I gotten myself into?’ "
The contents of her bag were emptied and inspected, and Anderson was put through a metal detector before she was permitted to enter the building.
Anderson spent the next six hours inside the NSA headquarters, where she did nearly all the talking.
"The day was spent looking through the stuff I brought," she said. "People would come and go, and not one time in six hours did they make a comment. They're good at that."
There was one reaction, however. "A younger guy came in, close to my age, and I don't remember what he was looking at, but all he said was, 'Wow. Can you wait a minute while I show this to somebody?' He went away and came back, but he never said a word about why he was so excited."
When it was time to leave and Anderson started gathering up her father's things, the historian said to her, " 'You realize, of course, I can't let you take these out of the building,' " she recalled.
He said the documents had to be closely examined, to make sure all the material had been declassified. If so, her things would be returned to her by mail.
Anderson protested, but had no choice. She did, however, insist on an itemized, signed receipt. The material she left behind was returned, by third-class mail, three months later.
Anderson left that day disappointed. She had come to the NSA hoping to get some answers about her father's secret. Instead, she had only fed the secret with the little bit that she knew.
Parts of the NCR machine may still be secret, and although NSA officials won't say why, some experts believe it's because some of the same technology was used against the Soviets during the Cold War, and may still be in use today.
NCR "continued to be a major contractor for the government (after the war), and Joe (Desch) continued to sit on the advisory board" to the National Security Agency, said historian Colin Burke, author of Information and Secrecy, the first book to detail the development of the NCR Bombe. "But the documents aren't out there" to confirm NCR's Cold War involvement.
Patrick Weadon, an NSA public affairs officer, said, "We can't comment. The closer you get to present day, the less we can discuss."
JUNE 24, 1990
After years of trying to imagine what had consumed her father during the war, Debbie Anderson's first look at the NCR Bombe surprised her. "I was amazed at how huge it was," she said. "It was much bigger, much more imposing than what I had expected."
Her next reaction was frustration. The 7-foot-tall, 11-foot-long, 5,000-pound electromechanical decoder sat behind a waist-high partition at the Smithsonian, with no mention of her father's name in any of the plaques or brochures.
"Here I was at the end of a pilgrimage. I felt a connection to this thing and I wanted to go up and touch it, but I couldn't," she said. "There was a stream of people waiting and we just had to keep moving on."
The label describing the machine "said it was manufactured at NCR, not designed there," Anderson said. "I really wanted to smart off about it to somebody, but I didn't." It was what Anderson had come to dub "the standard one-line reference" to NCR's role in breaking the German Enigma code. The history books she had read and the few documents that she had thus far been able to obtain from the National Archive gave NCR credit for building the 120 Bombes and nothing more — as if the enormously complex machines had been stamped off an assembly line like so many widgets.
"It was so frustrating," Anderson said. "I knew there had to be more to the story, but no one would talk."
The lone remaining NCR Bombe would later be transferred from the Smithsonian to the NSA's National Cryptologic Museum at Ft. Meade, Md., where it is now on permanent display under the watchful eyes of NSA officials.
On their way back to Ohio that summer, Anderson and her family stopped at the Pennsylvania home of Esther Hottenstein, a Navy staff person who had operated NCR's secure telephone and telegraph lines to Washington, D.C. during the war.
Hottenstein had worked closely with Desch during her years in Dayton "and was very, very fond of Dad," Anderson said. Although she had been a schoolteacher prior to the war, Hottenstein had really wanted to be a physician, just as her brothers were, even though few women were encouraged to do so at that time.
At the close of the war, Desch advised her to "follow her instincts," Anderson said. "She went on to medical school and became a family doctor,, and she was always thankful to Dad for that."
For many years after the war, she kept in touch with Desch by mail and, after his death in 1987, with Anderson.
Anderson was looking forward to at last meeting Hottenstein in person, and although her visit sealed their friendship, it proved useless in her quest to learn more about her father's work.
questions were answered with the same polite reticence she had received
at the NSA, Anderson said. "It was always, 'Well, gee, I can't tell you
about that.' "
The enemy codes crack, but not Joe Desch’s folks
MARCH 19, 1943
As one of the first technicians assigned to the top-secret NCR Bombe project, Phil Bochicchio, a Navy engineer from New Jersey, arrived in Dayton with orders to report to the U.S. Naval Computing Machine Laboratory, no street address given.
But when Bochicchio alighted at Union Station, he couldn't find a listing for the laboratory in the phone book or even anyone who had heard of the place. He walked around downtown, to the police and fire stations and then the Navy recruiting office. None of them had heard of the lab, either.
Finally, at the Dayton Municipal Building, a man at the Chamber of Commerce offered to drive Bochicchio out to NCR, where the Navy had several other projects in progress. But at NCR, the Navy liaison officer seemed clueless as well, Bochicchio recalled.
"He looked at my orders and said, 'I don't know what to do with you.' I said, 'Well, great. Just give me something to do.' "
Bochicchio did building maintenance at NCR for two weeks before he learned anything of the project that had summoned him to Dayton — and only after he had undergone a thorough background check.
"I got a letter from my Dad saying call home as soon as I can. When I called, my dad said, 'What kind of trouble are you in, boy? The FBI has been here, Naval intelligence has been here. All the neighbors are wondering.' "
Bochicchio wasn't in trouble, but he was in for a lot of hard work. As floor manager of the Bombe project in NCR's Building 26, he was in charge of setting up and debugging the mammoth decrypting machines. The Desch Bombe was a marvel of engineering — but, like all complex, unproven machines, prone to glitches.
Bochicchio said a big part of Desch's headache was trying to please both the Navy theoreticians, who designed the logic of the machine and insisted on speed, and the Navy cryptologists, who wanted something reliable and easy to maintain.
"The mathematician thinks one way, the cryptologist thinks another. And you're sitting in the middle and you have to try to figure out how in the hell to give them both what they needed from the machine," Bochicchio said.
The original NCR Bombe housed 16 four-wheel sets of Enigma analogs, or commutators, linked by miles of wiring. (Each machine was the equivalent of 16 Enigma machines, working in reverse.) To test the hundreds of thousands of possible combinations of Enigma rotor positions, each wheel contained 104 electrical contact points and had to be perfectly aligned when they touched the copper-and-silver sensing brushes.
That was a big order, especially when the first wheel of the machine spun at close to 2,000 rpms. At such speeds, keeping the wheels in balance and in their original shape was a daunting task.
To solve the problems of heat and distortion, Desch had wanted to use two smaller wheels, instead of one large one, as the first and fastest of the commutators. The Navy nixed that idea. Two wheels would add too much time and too many parts to codebreaking operations, since the wheels would have to be replaced before each run.
The machine also was prone to sparks and short circuits that ruined decoding runs, and oil leaks that created maintenance nightmares. Sensing brushes had to be kept oil-free. Power had to be evenly delivered through a complex of motors, shafts and clutches.
In short, the NCR Bombe was like a high-performance race car engine being pushed to its limits — before anyone even knew for certain it would work.
The original contract calling for the first Bombes to be delivered to the Navy in February 1943 was totally unrealistic, and Desch probably knew it from the start, intelligence historian Colin Burke said.Desch still hadn't produced a workable machine by March, when the German U-Boats were expected to strike Allied shipping in an all-out effort to turn the war.
After six months of intensive development, all Desch had fashioned were two temperamental prototypes, dubbed Adam and Eve, that leaked oil and broke down after two hours of operating at the speeds demanded by the Navy. The intense heat and centrifugal force warped and chipped the machine's fast-spinning wheels, made from a heat-resistant plastic called Bakelite.
In the meantime, Lt. Cmdr. Ralph Meader, the Navy commander in charge of the project, was constantly on Desch's back, reminding him of the American sailors who would die if the new machines didn't come on line.
"We were not actually aware of that," said Lou Sandor, part of the engineering team working for Desch. "We knew that (the machine) was for a decoding activity, but we just didn't know the details of it. . . . But I'm sure Joe was aware."
Debbie Anderson of Kettering, Desch's only child, believes Meader never suspected the full impact of his guilt-lashings. "Now I understand why Dad was really conflicted and angry most of his life," she said. "The Joe Desch I know carried a lot of anger around. I know it wasn't about me and Mom. And I wasn't sure it was about NCR, either."
Still, Desch didn't often lose his cool, at least not with his employees. "He was an amazing person to work for, very even-tempered," Sandor said. "Almost everyone I knew got mad (during the project). But I never saw Joe get mad and he had an awful lot of reasons to."
Instead, he internalized the pressure and guilt, took it home, let it fester through the long hours of the night. When he could get away for an hour or two, Desch liked to retreat to his garden plot off Wilmington Avenue, where he grew everything from corn to kohlrabi. And he loved to whistle, Anderson said, mostly Sousa marches and snatches of classical music and old romantic movie scores, perhaps to keep the demons in his life at bay.
As Dayton's steamy summer days approached and tempers began to flare, Desch and his engineers relied on old-fashioned tinkering. They found better ways of protecting the Bakelite wheels against the heat. Bochicchio served up a few tricks of his own, including soaking the machine's leather seals in oil before installation, to prevent leakage, and installing a circuit tester that checked for opens and shorts prior to running the machine. He also helped refine a circuit to filter out the "electronic noise" from the machine's wire sensing brushes as they bounced along the spinning surfaces of the rotors, thus reducing the number of false "hits."
The frustration at NCR was always with design, never with production. The engineers and technicians were amazed at how quickly they could get anything they needed from subcontractors. "From an engineering standpoint, it was wonderful," Sandor recalled. "Instead of waiting weeks and months, we had what we wanted in a few days. It was an absolute priority."
In the end, the NCR Bombe was too late to be the only decisive factor in the Battle of the Atlantic. Small escort carriers, converted from old freighters, were already doing that by providing air coverage for convoys.
Even so, the NCR Bombes — along with new radar that enabled pilots to hone in on U-boats — enabled the Allies to become the hunters, rather than the hunted, in the North Atlantic, said Bob Cressman, a historian at the Naval Historical Center in Washington, D.C. "Initially, we would send our convoys around where we thought the submarines would be," he said. "But later on we had enough knowledge from the (deciphered) German codes that we could pinpoint where the submarines were going . . . and we started going after these guys."
Using U-boat transmissions cracked by an NCR Bombe prototype, pilots from the escort carrier USS Bogue located and sank the first German submarine in a purely offensive attack on June 5, 1943.
Certainly, it wasn't too late for the NCR Bombe to help pave the way for the D-Day invasion and shorten what promised to be a long, brutal war — if it could be made reliable and produced in great enough numbers in time.
"The alternative methods that the British were using had failed" against the German's four-rotor Enigma, Burke said. And even though the Brits later produced a four-wheel bombe in the summer of 1943, it was never as reliable as the American machines. "The only thing that could keep things moving as far as (Enigma) intelligence was the NCR Bombe."
May 1943, enough of the bugs had been worked out of the NCR machines
that the Navy decided to push ahead with full-scale production. That
called for a massive infusion of skilled manpower — or in this case,
womanpower — to get the job done.
WAVES roll in to work on top-secret project
After boot camp in the Bronx and two weeks of training and background checks in Washington, D.C., the WAVES were told only that they were being shipped west to work on a top-secret project — and to keep their mouths shut. As newly enlisted members of the U.S. Navy women's auxiliary, they would be joining another 400 or so civilian employees at NCR.
Their commanding officers in Washington "specifically told us they would shoot us at sunrise if we talked about what we were doing," said Evelyn Hodges Vogel, now 75 and a resident of Tucson, Ariz. The plucky Missouri native had lied about her age to enlist in the Women Appointed for Voluntary Emergency Service at age 18. Recruits were supposed to be at least 21, but Vogel's father, a Navy man himself, had signed the papers against her mother's wishes.
"And we did keep our mouths shut," Vogel said. "Men always think women have big mouths, but we didn't. We were so proud to be serving in the armed forces and doing something that women had never done before."
In all, 600 WAVES would pass through Dayton to assemble Bombes at the U.S. Naval Machine Computing Laboratory at NCR, where their skills were desperately needed to offset the wartime shortage of men. Few had an inkling of the significance of their work until nearly a half century later, during a reunion here in 1995.
"I never even told anyone I was in the service until the last few years," said Evelyn Urich Einfeldt, now a 78-year-old resident of Oklahoma City.
The WAVES were quartered at Sugar Camp off Schantz Avenue, once a training center for the NCR sales force. They bunked eight to a cabin. Sixty of the Adirondack-style structures sat on a wooded hilltop overlooking Carillon Park.
During peak production, the bunks never grew cold: one shift of women worked while another slept. Shifts ran eight to 12 hours long, 24 hours a day, and were rotated weekly.
To maintain discipline and esprit de corps, the WAVES marched — to meals, to classes, to work. "We were marched all the time, no matter what the weather," said Catherine Convery Racz, 79, a Boston native who married a sailor from Dayton. She still lives here.
Each morning, 200 WAVES marched in full uniform from Sugar Camp — north on Main Street and west on Stewart to Patterson Boulevard — to NCR's Building 26, which overlooked the Great Miami River.
There they wired, soldered and assembled different parts of the massive Bombes — in separate rooms, so no one could identify a whole machine. To further keep secrecy, one WAVE was given the wiring diagram for one side of a commutator wheel, while a second WAVE soldered the other side of the same wheel. "I always said I was the best solderer on this side of the room," Racz quipped. "We got to be perfect."
The work could be tedious and exacting. WAVES who were less adept at soldering made wire harnesses, said Phil Bochicchio, who was floor manager of the NCR project. The 78-year-old retired engineer now lives in Ellicott City, Md. "We laid out plywood boards with nails, and each wire had a color code that went to a particular nail. Then they had to lace all those wires together with wax string. Finally, the girls that were adept at soldering nested those lacings into place."
"There was no room for mistakes. Now I understand why," former WAVE Jimmie Lee Long of Texas said in a letter to Debbie Anderson, daughter of the project's chief engineer, Joe Desch. Anderson helped organize the WAVE reunion here in 1995.
Intelligence historian Colin Burke said it was a testament to the WAVES' skills that the machines eventually proved so reliable: sloppy soldering was a major problem for other early computer prototypes, but not the NCR Bombes.
Once their shifts ended, the WAVES were free to enjoy themselves. Sugar Camp had a swimming pool, baseball diamond and recreation hall. Movies and skits were regularly shown in the auditorium, and the camp's cafeteria was renowned. "The food was excellent," Racz recalled. "I know we had a lot of good beef — things people on the outside didn't have during the war."
Dorothy Firor remembers the special advantages of living close to the Sugar Camp pool. "We went skinny-dipping in between the times the night watchman made his rounds."
For those WAVES who craved more excitement, downtown was jumping with after-hour spots — including restaurants and ballrooms at the Biltmore, Van Cleve and Miami hotels, as well as Lance's Merry-Go-Round, with its famous revolving dance-floor chandelier — where they could spend some of their $21-a-month stipend from the Navy. The women had an easy time getting around Dayton, even though the camp's transport — an old Woody station wagon — often broke down and had to be pushed.
"Wherever we were going, people would stop and ask us if we would like a ride," Vogel said. "Of course, in those days, nobody ever harmed us. The Age of Innocence was still intact."
Vogel, a small-town Missouri native, found plenty to do downtown back then. "It was a lot like Kansas City, which was the nearest big city where I was brought up," she said. "It turned out to be a wonderful duty station."
In the midst of the fun, the WAVES never forget their duty. If anyone asked about their work at NCR, they were instructed to say they were training on adding machines. "People must have thought we were pretty stupid to be there all that time learning how to run adding machines," Einfeldt said.
Several WAVES recalled how Joe and Dorothy Desch, older and more sophisticated, had floated in and out of their lives at Sugar Camp for Sunday dinners and other festivities — and always in the company of the couple's watchdog and unwanted house guest, Lt. Cmdr. Ralph Meader.
"We were all in awe of Joe and Dorothy, because they were beautiful people in appearance — like movie stars. And always dressed so fashionably," Vogel said. "Dorothy was more accessible. I don't mean that Joe was unfriendly, just kind of aloof."
Vogel said she realizes now that Desch must have been preoccupied with the project. "I know darn well he was," she said. "I found out later that it quite upset him to have Commander Meader in their home. I know it would have upset me."
The WAVES viewed Meader as a "fatherly type," Vogel said. "He was easy to talk to. He always called us 'his girls.' We weren't in awe of him as we were of Joe."
For many of the WAVES, the months at NCR passed almost like a dream. In fact, until top-secret documents were declassified in the early 1990s, it was as if the WAVES hadn't been here at all.
"There was no record I was ever in Dayton," Racz said. "For years, I couldn't understand why. All the important people who were there, and we still didn't know what was going on."
The notable visitors to NCR included Cmdr. Edward Travis, head of the British Ultra operation at Bletchley Park; Capt. Joseph R. Redman, director of U.S. Naval Communications; Alan Turing, the mathematical genius who masterminded the British bombe; and top Navy intelligence officers, including Howard Engstrom and Joseph Wenger.
All, with the exception of Turing, appear in a July 1943 photo taken outside the Desch home at 413 Greenmount Blvd. Most often, visiting VIPs were put up at the couple's two-bedroom cottage in Oakwood, the one high-security location in town other than NCR's Building 26. Armed security guards were parked in cars outside the home throughout the night.
"High-level people (from England) came over quite frequently," Desch recalled in a 1973 interview with a Smithsonian historian. "Admirals and even members of Parliament and Lords of the Admiralty and, Lord, I always ended up with them in my house."
Anderson said her father told her "these guys would literally sleep on the living room floor. . . . (Alan) Turing was one of them." Turing "was always charming and polite — typically British, I would guess," recalled Bob Mumma, Desch's top assistant during the war.
they suspect that, before returning to England in early 1943, Turing
would blast the NCR Bombe design in a secret memo to Navy officials.
A hit, a miss, then a parade of successes
MAY 24, 1943
IN A SECURED INNER ROOM in NCR's Building 26, not long after lunch, Phil Bochicchio was conducting a test run on "Adam" — one of two prototype Bombes — when its high-pitched whine suddenly died and the machine shut off. At first, he thought it was just one more electrical short in the temperamental device.
But then, as it was designed to do, the Bombe came back to life and began slowly to rewind. That could mean only one thing: it had scored a "hit" on part of an Enigma message fed into the machine.
When a hit occurred, a complete circuit surged through all 64 of the Bombe's fast-spinning "commutator" wheels — possible only if it had arrived at the positions of all four rotors on the Enigma machine that may have created the message. The surge set off a braking mechanism that stopped the Bombe's wheels within four to five revolutions, then rewound them back to their hit positions and printed out the rotor sequence.
That's exactly what happened, but Bochicchio, the floor manager on the project, still was skeptical. He had a fellow engineer run the same encrypted message through "Eve," the other prototype. It shut off in precisely the same rotor positions.
Bochicchio gave the print-out to Lt. Cmdr. Ralph Meader, the Navy official in charge of NCR's massive Nazi-codebreaking effort. Meader wired the results to Naval intelligence in Washington, D.C. Codebreakers there could hardly believe their good fortune. The rotor positions enabled them to unscramble a series of intercepted German radio messages over the next two weeks, revealing that the Germans were moving 17 submarines to attack westbound Allied Convoy GUS-7A. The convoy's escort carrier, the USS Bogue, sent its pilots to hunt down and scatter the wolfpack — sinking one sub and damaging three others.
Bochicchio wouldn't learn until June 5 how important that inaugural hit was, when Howard Engstrom, head of the Navy's machine decoding section, sent an encrypted teletype message to NCR informing the engineers that the May 24 hit alone "had paid for the entire cost of the NCR project."
But there was no time to celebrate. Even at this late stage of development, the NCR engineers were struggling with the machine's most basic part. "Those large rotors seemed destined to overheat, lose their shape and create faulty electrical signals," historian Colin Burke wrote in Information and Secrecy. "The metal sensing brushes also seemed to have been meant only for slow and dependable tabulators. As quick-fixes were made to those parts, more oil leaks developed on the prototypes. Those problems raised such fears about the production model's design that assembly was halted. The situation was so grave that all message processing at Dayton was suspended."
And the news would grow worse for Joe Desch and his team before it got better.
JUNE 18, 1943
The order from Naval intelligence seemed unreal. The Navy wanted a whole new Bombe design, with an automatic method of switching rotors and greater machine speeds — and with no delays in production.
Desch was stunned. In effect, the Navy wanted a machine approaching the complexity of a modern computer.
Leading theorists knew even then that electronic digital processing would become the basis for modern computers, but more practical types like Desch, who knew the limits of industrial production, also realized that it would take years to put such a machine into operation.
Desch had been right. "There was no practical, high-speed substitute for the many hard-wired rotor wheels that could be rearranged on the Bombe's drive spindles," Burke wrote. "Thousands of tubes in very dense circuits would be needed to imitate all possible rotor wiring on the 64 wheels on a Bombe."
Desch also realized that the miniature electronic tubes at the time, unlike today's microchips, simply weren't reliable enough to do the job.
He protested to Meader, who usually went along with whatever his naval superiors wanted. This time, Meader supported Desch. He dashed off a rejection letter, telling the Navy brass "that too much money had already been invested, too much precious material had been used and that the first model was too close to production to be thrown aside," Burke wrote.
The Navy had little choice but to renew its faith in Desch and hope that his 100 machines, when they finally reached Washington, would do the job.
By the last week of July, 15 Bombes had been assembled at NCR — but none would work properly for long.
It was perhaps Desch's darkest hour. The Navy was ready to scrap the project: a year of intensive work and millions of dollars were about to be declared a waste. But Desch relied again on his practical bent to save the day. "At the very last minute, he made a discovery that revived hope," Burke wrote. "Running the Bombe's Bakelite code wheels at extreme speeds was again causing invisible distortions, leading to false electrical contacts. Desch predicted that careful storage, handling and refurbishing would solve the problem."
Again, the Navy trusted in his judgment, and the project was spared.
Although no one knew for certain that the NCR Bombes would work in the long run, Desch's optimism — and a mounting fear of the Nazi submarine wolfpacks — led Meader to ship the first of 120 machines to Washington before testing was complete.
A covered annex was added from the rear entrance of Building 26 to the railroad tracks, where the machines were loaded on flatcars in the dead of night. In Washington, they were unloaded at a top-secret complex on Nebraska Avenue near Tenley Square, once the campus of a prestigious all-girls' school. Inside deceptively quaint old dormitories of ivy-covered brick, the Navy ran the massive codebreaking effort it had taken over from the British.
Many of the WAVES based in Dayton, including Catherine Racz, went along as operators. Racz was one of the four-person teams assigned to each of the 120 machines, lined up in long, noisy rows in Building 4. The teams got "menus" from Naval intelligence, with beginning rotor positions and plugboard settings and a string of encrypted message whose plain text either was known or suspected. Each Bombe was the equivalent of running 16 Enigma machines in reverse at extremely high speeds. The more urgent a message, the more Bombes were assigned to crack it.
Whenever a machine scored a hit, "a bell went off and all the big shots showed up" to retrieve the print-out of the machine's wheel positions, Racz recalled. "Evidently it was something important. But we didn't even know then what we were doing. We just did what we were told."
Despite the earlier problems with the machines, they were eventually tweaked to the point of reliability, said Bochicchio, who set up the Bombes once they reached Washington. All the machines continued to leak small amounts of oil, he said, but by using thicker lubricant and reducing the oil pressure inside the machines, the problem was minimized.
"We knew we could do it," Bochicchio said. "You try one way, then another. It just takes time."
By December, when all 120 machines were operating, the Desch Bombe was proving itself worthy of the Navy's investment. Consider that in June 1943, when the first machines were under development, it took an average of 600 hours to decrypt an Enigma naval message. From December 1943 until the end of the war, when all 120 machines came on line, it took an average of just 18 hours.
"As important," Burke wrote, "Desch's Bombes proved to be very, very reliable. After their first shakedown runs they could be used 24 hours a day."
Even though the final product wasn't as fast as had been hoped — the speed of the Bombe's main wheel had to be slowed from 3,600 rpms to 1,725 rpms to keep it from warping and breaking apart — the Desch design sported several striking innovations, including "a digital electronic tracking and control system that astounded the Navy's engineers," according to Burke.
Desch's automatic braking and reverse feature, though pooh-poohed by British codebreaking pioneer Alan Turing, worked reliably and enabled the operator to restart the search for consistencies within the message without delay once a hit had been made.
"Despite all the false starts, delays and problems," Burke wrote, "Desch had built one of the most complex machines in the world."
The NCR machine was 200 times faster than the original Polish Bomba and at least 20 times faster than the Turing Bombe. The Desch design ran 30 percent faster than even Britain's 1943 version of a four-wheel Bombe, with a number of other advantages, including the ability to run more than one test per run.
The Brits at last recognized their effectiveness, as well as the abilities of U.S. Navy codebreakers, and handed over most of the deciphering operations in the Atlantic to the Americans.
differ over how much the Bombe shortened the war. But by even the most
conservative estimates, the Ultra codebreaking effort, including the
NCR Bombe, lopped at least a year off the fighting, sparing hundreds of
thousands of lives on both sides of the conflict, Burke said.
Success comes, but at huge cost to Desch
U.S. Navy submarines, seeking revenge for the savage kamikaze attacks in the Battle of Leyte Gulf just weeks before, would be lying in ambush, ready to send the troop ships and their escorts to the bottom of the Philippine Sea.
The gentlemanly rules of engagement Desch had learned so well as a young ROTC cadet at the University of Dayton had lost their meaning during the war. Surprise and vengeance had been the name of the game since Pearl Harbor. It seemed to Desch the madness and cruelty would never end.
He snapped. After long months of 14-hour days and impossible production deadlines, he handed the deciphered intercept to Hottenstein, told her to send it by secure telegraph line to Washington, then walked out of NCR's Building 26 determined never to come back.
Tailed by his security "shadows," Desch drove to a friend's farm outside Xenia, where he set himself to a simple, thought-numbing task: splitting wood.
"He knew it was war, and he had a sense of duty, but I think he had been on the edge for quite a while from all the stress of his work," Debbie Anderson said of her father. She said he talked to her only a few times about his breakdown, once after her mother had died of throat cancer in 1971 and again after Anderson, who lives in Kettering, had become a mother herself. "It was very hard to get him to talk about anything related to the war," she said.
For the next six weeks, Desch drove out nearly every day to the farm and chopped wood — until a Navy intelligence official from Washington approached him there and pleaded with him to return. He told Desch that his country desperately needed him. Only Desch had the expertise to tackle some problems that had arisen in cracking Japanese codes. He had to come back.
Desch complied, but on the condition that his hours would be limited. And he insisted that Lt. Cmdr. Ralph Meader — the officer placed by the Navy in Desch's own home, to keep a security eye on his activities — be sent to live someplace else.
But on that, the Navy wouldn't budge. Meader would stay in Desch's cottage until early 1946, well after the war had ended, and he would leave his beat-up Nash Rambler in the driveway for Desch to dispose of on his own.
Desch recovered enough from his breakdown to finish the Japanese codebreaking work, but his assistant, Bob Mumma, was put in charge of the U.S. Naval Machine Computing Laboratory for the remainder of the war. Later, Desch continued his vacuum-tube research at NCR and eventually become an assistant vice president. Whether he ever headed another top-secret project is anyone's guess.
Even so, his expertise in electronics and cryptanalysis was respected enough that he was named a consultant to the National Research Council on submarine warfare and sat on a special advisory committee to the Secretary of Defense for several years after the war. For at least two decades, he was part of the advisory board to the National Security Agency.
Desch also got the Congressional Medal for Merit — the highest award given to civilians for exceptional service to the country. Because of the nature of his work, he received the award privately at the Navy Department in 1947.
Just as privately, like millions of other American men and women who gave their all during the war and survived, Desch forever carried the emotional scars of his service. "It was truly tragic, the pressure they were under" in the top Navy intelligence circles, Anderson said. "But other guys got killed. It was just a different form of sacrifice."
Soon after the war, Desch learned that nearly every member of the Army ordnance unit in which he had been commissioned had either been killed or wounded in action. But Desch had been pulled from the unit before he could be shipped out — to serve what the Navy had felt was a more important duty.
In his darkest moments, Anderson said, her father used to say, "I would much rather have been with them."
MAY 7, 1945: V-E DAY
"Commander Meader said we (WAVES) were all free to leave camp and go downtown and join the celebration, but to remember our manners," Vogel said. "Anyway, we all went downtown and I had never seen such a scene. Rain all over, but people were shouting and laughing and, of course, open bottles were being passed around."
Vogel ran into some other WAVES downtown, and they headed back to the closest thing they knew to their family home — the Desch's cottage on Greenmount Avenue. "They seemed glad to see us when we got there," Vogel said. "But I'm sure everybody took their shoes off because they were all muddy."
It's hard to know how much Joe Desch savored the victory that night, and whether he had properly gauged the significance of his contribution to ending the war. Certainly, he knew the battle in the Pacific would carry on, with even more loss of life. Although he had already withdrawn from military work to conduct his own research at NCR, Desch would be part of one of the most brutal and decisive acts of the war — without even realizing it.
The atom bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki late that summer were developed with the help of high-speed electronic counters he had designed earlier in the war. Desch had built the counters for the University of Chicago, personally delivering them to Edward Teller, who — unknown to Desch — was directing the top-secret Manhattan Project at the time.
But for the young revelers at the Desch home that night, all they really knew was that the fighting in Europe had finally ended and that they would soon be seeing their loved ones.
"We danced on the front lawn in the rain until midnight," Vogel said. "And we did forget our manners."
Later, in the same movie, Desch, his mother and his two sisters dine in celebration around the dining room table, the estrangement of the war years long forgotten.
"I remember it was always really hard for Dad's family to relax with us — except for that day," Anderson said. "Everything went right and everybody was in a good mood."
Anderson would learn later it was also the day that her father had received the Blessed Sacrament for the first time since 1943, when, in the midst of his guilt and frustration over not being to perfect the Bombe, he had quit going to church.
Desch reconciled with his faith just days before Anderson's First Communion, after he had given his confession to Father George Steinkamp, who had been his religious mentor at Emmanuel Elementary School.
Steinkamp, in his 70s and in poor health by the late 1950s, was the only priest with whom Desch felt close enough to unburden his soul.
"Dad called him up personally and asked him if they would make a special arrangement for Dad to go to confession," Anderson said. "Father Steinkamp was so frail at this time he couldn't walk from the rectory down into the church. So Dad picked him up and carried him into the church and set him in the confessional. Remember, this was the 1950s. You had to use a confessional."
Carl Rench, 79, a former NCR engineer and Desch's closest friend after the war, said that, by the late 1950s, Desch had found a measure of peace within himself, as well as a deep religious conviction. Often in those days, he and Desch would debate each other's interpretations of the New Testament.
"He was a Catholic and I was a Protestant, and we had a lot of fun doing that," Rench said. "We went through everything Mark, Luke and John ever wrote about. We even compared some of the stories, I remember."
Rench said there was no question that Desch was a different man in 1958 than he was in 1946, when Rench first began to work for him. "We were both trying to behave the way Jesus would want us to behave," he said. "Joe was very satisfied with his feelings about the church and the Bible. And I got the sense that he was very proud of what he had been able to accomplish, finally, during the war."
Yet none of the men and women who had worked so hard on the NCR Bombe has ever sought credit or recognition for their contribution, including the four NCR engineers most intimately involved in its design — Joe Desch, Bob Mumma, Lou Sandor and Vince Gulden. "We worked hard and we worked long hours but I wasn't out anywhere where I was being shot at," said Sandor, 86, a resident of Columbia, S.C. "Those were the guys really out there doing the tough job."
SEPT. 14, 1995
"It was so much fun. We would wait for them to come in the door and, after all these years, it was like nothing had really changed," Einfeldt said.
Not true for Dayton, however. Evelyn Vogel noticed, sadly, how much downtown had changed since the war. "It was a vital, exciting city back then — a ‘going Jenny,’ to use a Missouri term, back in 1944 and '45 and '46. And then to see it in 1995, deader than a mackerel — you couldn't help but shed a few tears."
Vogel, and many of the other 65 WAVES who had returned to Dayton, also were saddened to see that so much of NCR and Sugar Camp had vanished since the war. "The (NCR) buildings along Main Street — almost all of them were gone. You just don't expect that to be," she said. "And the historical value of Sugar Camp, as far as I was concerned, was almost lost. There was only one cabin left" among the 60 the WAVES had shared during their stay in Dayton.
“I thought to myself, ‘Poor old John Patterson would have wept also if he had known that everything had been taken down,’ ” Vogel said.
A big reason Debbie Anderson organized a reunion of the WAVES — with help from Carillon Historical Park, the Air Force Museum and NCR — was to call attention to what was left of the NCR war experience before all traces of it were gone.
"AT&T had taken over NCR at the time, and a lot of people were mortally afraid they were going to destroy the (NCR) archives as a cost-saving measure," she said. AT&T acquired NCR in 1991, only to spin the company off on its own again in 1996.
"I don't know what made me think the WAVES might want a reunion," Anderson said. "I didn't know a single WAVE at the time."
But once again fate intervened, this time in the form of a phone call from Dayton Daily News reporter James Cummings, who had seen a brief mention of NCR and the WAVES during a Nova special on PBS called The Codebreakers.
Cummings interviewed Anderson and NCR archivist Bill West about the WAVES and mentioned the plans for organizing a reunion in Dayton. With the article's publication in April 1994, scores of former WAVES all over the country came forward to be counted. In all, 65 WAVES would make their way back to Dayton, along with another 150 or so family members.
Speakers at the four-day event included Jeff Greenhut, a Naval intelligence historian; Margaret Fiehtner, assistant chief of staff, Naval Security Group Command, based at the Nebraska Avenue complex in Washington, D.C., where the NCR machines had done their decoding work during the war, and Colin Burke, former historian in residence at the National Security Agency who first detailed NCR's struggle to break the Enigma Code in his 1994 book Information and Secrecy .
The NCR Bombe was an American industrial triumph, Burke said, in a city that gave birth to aviation and many other technological innovations. "You have a hell of an important place there in Dayton." As more government documents are released, Burke said, the contributions that NCR and Joe Desch made toward abbreviating World War II will eventually find their way into the mainstream of historical knowledge.
To help give it another push, the WAVES are planning a second reunion in Dayton for this October. Einfeldt, one of the organizers, expects a small but very dedicated turn-out. "So many of us are older and don't get around as much anymore," she said. "But we'll be there."
Once the world knows more about NCR's contributions to the Ultra effort, the question becomes, will anything be left standing in Dayton as memorials?
NCR has retained one of the 60 Adirondack-style cabins in Sugar Camp that housed the WAVES, as well as the dining hall and auditorium. All three wooden structures are used for storage and office space. "There are no plans to remove them or do anything else with them," said NCR spokesman John Horrigan.
But the fate of Building 26, where the NCR Bombe was designed and built, is another matter.
NCR is reviewing the status of its real estate holdings worldwide. So far, no decision has been made about Building 26, Horrigan said.
"Certainly, the building doesn't look anything like it did during the war," he said. All that remains of the original exterior is the rear wall and entrance. The front and sides of the old building are now enveloped by additions, and most of the interior space has been reconfigured as well. Still, Horrigan said, NCR officials are aware of the building's historical significance and have been discussing how they might recognize it.
Anderson and local members of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers are in the process of obtaining a plaque designating the building as a milestone in the development of the modern computer. But more than that, the one thing that would speak volumes for Dayton's contribution to the war is an actual NCR Bombe. What became of the more than 120 Bombes that were designed and built in Dayton? Is it true that all but one have vanished?
The four Bombe prototypes were the first to disappear, dumped and buried somewhere near the NCR complex during the war. Some say in an old canal bed near the Montgomery County Fairgrounds. Others say underneath the parking lot near Building 26. Desch himself told his daughter they were underneath the pavement of Patterson Boulevard. There are no records to support anyone's claims.
Naval and intelligence officials say the working machines that reached Washington, D.C. were dumped at night into the Chesapeake Bay. But Phil Bochicchio, the floor engineer in charge of setting up and maintaining the machines in Washington, said he was ordered to ship six Bombes to a Navy warehouse in Mechanicsburg, Pa., soon after the war.
NSA officials insist they know of no other Bombes except the one now on display at its National Cryptologic Museum in Ft. Meade, Md.
The machines sent to the naval warehouse "were probably just excessed and destroyed. A lot of things up there were excessed and destroyed," said Jack Ingram, curator of the museum. "We don't have any records on it."
The lone NCR Bombe was first displayed in the NSA lobby in the 1980s, then exhibited at the Smithsonian in 1989 before being moved to the cryptologic museum, which the NSA had opened near its headquarters.
If, by any chance, there is another NCR Bombe out there somewhere, Dayton would like to have one for its still-unnamed regional history museum, set to open inside Memorial Hall in late 2004. NCR's role in developing the modern computer "will be one of the main attractions (of the new museum)," said Brian Hackett, executive director of the Montgomery County Historical Society. "Certainly, a Bombe would be the jewel in that crown."
Debbie Anderson recalled the way her father, glancing back at the nursing home on his way to the car, "stuck out his jaw and said, 'Not many people walk out of that place.' He was very proud he'd been able to do that. He really wanted to die at home." He spent his final months there contented and active. Friends and family dropped in frequently, and he spent many hours talking on his ham radio.
On Aug. 3, 1987, when Anderson called her father and got no answer, she knew something was wrong. She and her husband drove to his home. His morning paper was still in the driveway. They found him on the floor beside his bed — partly paralyzed and speechless from a stroke.
Anderson and her husband spent the day with her father at Kettering Medical Center, where he would die that evening in intensive care.
"That's exactly how he wanted to go," she said. "He wanted to be in his own home and he wanted to go quickly."
But Anderson said she couldn't help feeling cheated by his death. "I know this is selfish and petty, but I can remember thinking once or twice that day, whatever happened during the war, he knows, he still knows, and we're not going to get a thing," she said. "I thought, damn it, it's going to be lost. He never told anybody. He never wrote it down."
Just before he died at 5:30 that evening, "I could sense he was trying to speak," Anderson said. When his time came, "he didn't fight it," she said.
Anderson would go on to poke and prod at the walls of secrecy that had been put up around her father's place in history. She would find her own reconciliation with her family's contribution to the war. But she still doesn't know for sure what kind of peace her father had found.
His death, like so much of his life, was cloaked in mystery.
"I don't think at the end he figured it all out. Who does?" she said. "But he had accepted it just the same."
• Contact Jim DeBrosse at 225-2437 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org