Day 2: “A complex man chosen for a complex mission, Desch had to look back to see ahead”
PHOTO: Desch (first row, first left) with naval staff in front of NCR Building 26 during war. Cmdr. Ralph Meader is second from right.
By Jim DeBrosse
Dayton Daily News (OH) – Monday, February 26, 2001
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, said his daughter Debbie Anderson of Kettering. 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 essence.”
Tuesday: Surrendering his privacy for the war.