Day 4: “Daughter’s quest raises more questions”

By Jim DeBrosse

Day 4: “Daughter’s quest raises more questions”

By Jim DeBrosse 

Dayton Daily News (OH) – Wednesday, February 28, 2001

The story so far: During World War II, the Allies are trying to break the Nazis’ seemingly impenetrable Enigma code, which uses a 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, falls most heavily on a single Dayton engineer at NCR: Joe Desch , whose efforts to lead 1,000 workers to build the machine extracted a terrible personal toll. 

His work has remained so secret since the war that even his daughter, Debbie Anderson of Kettering, only learned a few years ago how her father helped win the war. 

For previous installments of this series, go to 

MAY 10, 1990 

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. “I was girded for a frisk, but they didn’t frisk me,” she said. 

The guards packed everything back into her bag “and everyone started to relax,” she said. 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 Fort 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 s taff person who had operated NCR’s secure telephone and telegraph lines to Washington, D.C., during the war. 

Hottenstein had worked closely w ith 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. 

All her 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.’ ‘ 

Thursday: Getting close to the answer.