Day 3: “Intense scrutiny, feelings of guilt were heavy burdens for Desch” 

By Jim DeBrosse

Day 3: “Intense scrutiny, feelings of guilt were heavy burdens for Desch” 

PHOTO: Cmdr. Meader with Desch’s wife, Dorothy

By Jim DeBrosse

Dayton Daily News (OH) – Tuesday, February 27, 2001


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. 

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. 

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.