Day 5: “The enemy codes crack, but not Joe Desch’s staff”

By Jim DeBrosse

Day 5: “The enemy codes crack, but not Joe Desch’s staff”

PHOTO: NCR campus in Dayton, Ohio during World War II

By Jim DeBrosse

Dayton Daily News (OH) – Thursday, March 1, 2001

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. 

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. 

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 met hods 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.” 

By late 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. 

Friday: The WAVE invasion.