Day 6: “WAVES roll in to work on top-secret project”

By Jim DeBrosse

Day 6: “WAVES roll in to work on top-secret project”

PHOTO: WAVES march from their quarters at NCR’s Sugar Camp to their assembly work at Building 26.

By Jim DeBrosse

Dayton Daily News (OH) – Friday, March 2, 2001

MAY 1943 

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. “I always said I was busy raising kids, that sort of thing.” 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 Desches’ 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 u p 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. 

Little did they suspect that, before returning to England in early 1943, Turing would blast the NCR Bombe design in a secret memo to Navy officials. 

Saturday: Close, but not close enough.