Day 8: “Success comes, but at huge cost to Desch”

By Jim DeBrosse

Day 8: “Success comes, but at huge cost to Desch”

PHOTO: Joe Desch at work in his private NCR lab after the war

By Jim DeBrosse 

Dayton Daily News (OH) – Sunday, March 4, 2001


Joe Desch knew as he handed the decoded message to Esther Hottenstein, the WAVE in charge of sending secret dispatches to Washington, that its contents would mean the deaths of thousands of defenseless men. The Nov. 14 intercept requested an air escort for two convoys transporting the Japanese 23rd Infantry Division from Manchuria to Luzon. It gave their precise location. 

U.S. Navy submarines, seeking revenge for the savage kamikaze attacks in the Battle of Leyte Gulf just weeks before, would be lying in ambush, ready to send the troop ships and their escorts to the bottom of the Philippine Sea. 

The gentlemanly rules of engagement Desch had learned so well as a young ROTC cadet at the University of Dayton had lost their meaning during the war. Surprise and vengeance had been the name of the game since Pearl Harbor. It seemed to Desch the madness and cruelty would never end. 

He snapped. After long months of 14-hour days and impossible production deadlines, he handed the deciphered intercept to Hottenstein, told her to send it by secure telegraph line to Washington, then walked out of NCR’s Building 26 determined never to come back. 

Tailed by his security “shadows,” Desch drove to a friend’s farm outside Xenia, where he set himself to a simple, thought-numbing task: splitting wood. 

“He knew it was war, and he had a sense of duty, but I think he had been on the edge for quite a while from all the stress of his work,” Debbie Anderson said of her father. She said he talked to her only a few times about his breakdown, once after her mother had died of throat cancer in 1971 and again after Anderson, who lives in Kettering, had become a mother herself. “It was very hard to get him to talk about anything related to the war,” she said. 

For the next six weeks, Desch drove out nearly every day to the farm and chopped wood – until a Navy intelligence official from Washington approached him there and pleaded with him to return. He told Desch that his country desperately needed him. Only Desch had the expertise to tackle some problems that had arisen in cracking Japanese codes. He had to come back. 

Desch complied, but on the condition that his hours would be limited. And he insisted that Lt. Cmdr. Ralph Meader – the officer placed by the Navy in Desch ‘s own home, to keep a security eye on his activities – be sent to live someplace else. 

But on that, the Navy wouldn’t budge. Meader would stay in Desch ‘s cottage until early 1946, well after the war had ended, and he would leave his beat-up Nash Rambler in the driveway forDesch to dispose of on his own. 

Desch recovered enough from his breakdown to finish the Japanese codebreaking work, but his assistant, Bob Mumma, was put in charge of the U.S. Naval Machine Computing Laboratory for the remainder of the war. Later, Desch continued his vacuum-tube research at NCR and eventually become an assistant vice president. Whether he ever headed another top-secret project is anyone’s guess. 

Even so, his expertise in electronics and cryptanalysis was respected enough that he was named a consultant to the National Research Council on submarine warfare and sat on a special advisory committee to the Secretary of Defense for several years after the war. For at least two decades, he was part of the advisory board to the National Security Agency. 

Desch also got the Congressional Medal for Merit – the highest award given to civilians for exceptional service to the country. Because of the nature of his work, he received the award privately at the Navy Department in 1947. 

Just as privately, like millions of other American men and women who gave their all during the war and survived, Desch forever carried the emotional scars of his service. “It was truly tragic, the pressure they were under” in the top Navy intelligence circles, Anderson said. “But other guys got killed. It was just a different form of sacrifice.” 

Soon after the war, Desch learned that nearly every member of the Army ordnance unit in which he had been commissioned had either been killed or wounded in action. But Desch had been pulled from the unit before he could be shipped out – to serve what the Navy had felt was a more important duty. 

In his darkest moments, Anderson said, her father used to say, “I would much rather have been with them.” 

MAY 7, 1945: V-E DAY 

Evelyn Vogel will never forget that evening, how it started raining and wouldn’t stop – and yet the rain couldn’t dampen the spirit of celebration. Thousands of revelers, including WAVES like Vogel, headed downtown to drink, dance and run crazily through the puddles. 

“Commander Meader said we (WAVES) were all free to leave camp and go downtown and join the celebration, but to remember our manners,” Vogel said. “Anyway, we all went downtown and I had never seen such a scene. Rain all over, but people were shouting and laughing and, of course, open bottles were being passed around.” 

Vogel ran into some other WAVES downtown, and they headed back to the closest thing they knew to their family home – the Desch ‘s cottage on Greenmount Avenue. “They seemed glad to see us when we got there,” Vogel said. “But I’m sure everybody took their shoes off because they were all muddy.” 

It’s hard to know how much Joe Desch savored the victory that night, and whether he had properly gauged the significance of his contribution to ending the war. Certainly, he knew the battle in the Pacific would carry on, with even more loss of life. Although he had already withdrawn from military work to conduct his own research at NCR, Desch would be part of one of the most brutal and decisive acts of the war – without even realizing it. 

The atom bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki late that summer were developed with the help of high-speed electronic counters he had designed earlier in the war. Desch had built the counters for the University of Chicago, personally delivering them to Edward Teller, who – unknown to Desch – was directing the top-secret Manhattan Project at the time. 

But for the young revelers at the Desch home that night, all they really knew was that the fighting in Europe had finally ended and that they would soon be seeing their loved ones. 

“We danced on the front lawn in the rain until midnight,” Vogel said. “And we did forget our manners.” 

MAY 1958 

In the color home movie, Debbie Anderson, then a second-grader at St. Albert the Great, is decked out in her First Communion dress and seated between her mother and father on the living room sofa. Her father, a proud smile on his face, leafs through her Communion prayer book. 

Later, in the same movie, Desch, his mother and his two sisters dine in celebration around the dining room table, the estrangement of the war years long forgotten. 

“I remember it was always really hard for Dad’s family to relax with us – except for that day,” Anderson said. “Everything went right and everybody was in a good mood.” 

Anderson would learn later it was also the day that her father had received the Blessed Sacrament for the first time since 1943, when, in the midst of his guilt and frustration over not being to perfect the Bombe, he had quit going to church. 

Desch reconciled with his faith just days before Anderson’s First Communion, after he had given his confession to Father George Steinkamp, who had been his religious mentor at Emmanuel Elementary School. 

Steinkamp, in his 70s and in poor health by the late 1950s, was the only priest with wh om Desch felt close enough to unburden his soul. 

“Dad called him up personally and asked him if t hey would make a special arrangement for Dad to go to confession,” Anderson said. “Father Steinkamp was so frail at this time he couldn’t walk from the rectory down into the church. So Dad picked him up and carried him into the church and set him in the confessional. Remember, this was the 1950s. You had to use a confessional.” 

Carl Rench, 79, a former NCR engineer and Desch ‘s closest friend after the war, said that, by the late 1950s, Desch had found a measure of peace within himself, as well as a deep religious conviction. Often in those days, he and Desch would debate each other’s interpretations of the New Testament. 

“He was a Catholic and I was a Protestant, and we had a lot of fun doing that,” Rench said. “We went through everything Mark, Luke and John ever wrote about. We even compared some of the stories, I remember.” 

Rench said there was no question that Desch was a different man in 1958 than he was in 1946, when Rench first began to work for him. “We were both trying to behave the way Jesus would want us to behave,” he said. “Joe was very satisfied with his feelings about the church and the Bible. And I got the sense that he was very proud of what he had been able to accomplish, finally, during the war.” 

Yet none of the men and women who had worked so hard on the NCR Bombe has ever sought credit or recognition for their contribution, including the four NCR engineers most intimately involved in its design – Joe Desch , Bob Mumma, Lou Sandor and Vince Gulden. “We worked hard and we worked long hours but I wasn’t out anywhere where I was being shot at,” said Sandor, 86, a resident of Columbia, S.C. “Those were the guys really out there doing the tough job.” 

SEPT. 14, 1995 

Evelyn Einfeldt recalled sitting in the lobby of the Marriott Hotel and being amazed that, after 50 years, she could still recognize her fellow WAVES as they trickled in for their reunion weekend in Dayton. 

“It was so much fun. We would wait for them to come in the door and, after all these years, it was like nothing had really changed,” Einfeldt said. 

Not true for Dayton, however. Evelyn Vogel noticed, sadly, how much downtown had changed since the war. “It was a vital, exciting city back then – a `going Jenny,’ to use a Missouri term, back in 1944 and ’45 and ’46. And then to see it in 1995, deader than a mackerel – you couldn’t help but shed a few tears.” 

Vogel, and many of the other 65 WAVES who had returned to Dayton, also were saddened to see that so much of NCR and Sugar Camp had vanished since the war. “The (NCR) buildings along Main Street – almost all of them were gone. You just don’t expect that to be,” she said. “And the historical value of Sugar Camp, as far as I was concerned, was almost lost. There was only one cabin left” among the 60 the WAVES had shared during their stay in Dayton. 

`I thought to myself, `Poor old John Patterson would have wept also if he had known that everything had been taken down,’ ‘ Vogel said. 

A big reason Debbie Anderson organized a reunion of the WAVES – with help from Carillon Historical Park, the Air Force Museum and NCR – was to call attention to what was left of the NCR war experience before all traces of it were gone. 

“AT&T had taken over NCR at the time, and a lot of people were mortally afraid they were going to destroy the (NCR) archives as a cost-saving measure,” she said. AT&T acquired NCR in 1991, only to spin the company off on its own again in 1996. 

“I don’t know what made me think the WAVES might want a reunion,” Anderson said. “I didn’t know a single WAVE at the time.” 

But once again fate intervened, this time in the form of a phone call from Dayton Daily News reporter James Cummings, who had seen a brief mention of NCR and the WAVES during a Nova special on PBS called The Codebreakers . 

Cummings interviewed Anderson and NCR archivist Bill West about the WAVES and mentioned the plans for organizing a reunion in Dayton. With the article’s publication in April 1994, scores of former WAVES all over the country came forward to be counted. In all, 65 WAVES would make their way back to Dayton, along with another 150 or so family members. 

Speakers at the four-day event included Jeff Greenhut, a Naval intelligence historian; Margaret Fiehtner, assistant chief of staff, Naval Security Group Command, based at the Nebraska Avenue complex in Washington, D.C., where the NCR machines had done their decoding work during the war, and Colin Burke, former historian in residence at the National Security Agency who first detailed NCR’s struggle to break the Enigma Code in his 1994 book Information and Secrecy . 

The NCR Bombe was an American industrial triumph, Burke said, in a city that gave birth to aviation and many other technological innovations. “You have a hell of an important place there in Dayton.” As more government documents are released, Burke said, the contributions that NCR and Joe Desch made toward abbreviating World War II will eventually find their way into the mainstream of historical knowledge. 

To help give it another push, the WAVES are planning a second reunion in Dayton for this October. Einfeldt, one of the organizers, expects a small but very dedicated turn-out. “So many of us are older and don’t get around as much anymore,” she said. “But we’ll be there.” 

Once the world knows more about NCR’s contributions to the Ultra effort, the question becomes, will anything be left standing in Dayton as memorials? 

NCR has retained one of the 60 Adirondack-style cabins in Sugar Camp that housed the WAVES, as well as the dining hall and auditorium. All three wooden structures are used for storage and office space. “There are no plans to remove them or do anything else with them,” said NCR spokesman John Horrigan. 

But the fate of Building 26, where the NCR Bombe was designed and built, is another matter. 

NCR is reviewing the status of its real estate holdings worldwide. So far, no decision has been made about Building 26, Horrigan said. 

“Certainly, the building doesn’t look anything like it did during the war,” he said. All that remains of the original exterior is the rear wall and entrance. The front and sides of the old building are now enveloped by additions, and most of the interior space has been reconfigured as well. Still, Horrigan said, NCR officials are aware of the building’s historical significance and have been discussing how they might recognize it. 

Anderson and local members of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers are in the process of obtaining a plaque designating the building as a milestone in the development of the modern computer. But more than that, the one thing that would speak volumes for Dayton’s contribution to the war is an actual NCR Bombe. What became of the more than 120 Bombes that were designed and built in Dayton? Is it true that all but one have vanished? 

The four Bombe prototypes were the first to disappear, dumped and buried somewhere near the NCR complex during the war. Some say in an old canal bed near the Montgomery County Fairgrounds. Others say underneath the parking lot near Building 26. Desch himself told his daughter they were underneath the pavement of Patterson Boulevard. There are no records to support anyone’s claims. 

Naval and intelligence officials say the working machines that reached Washington, D.C. were dumped at night into the Chesapeake Bay. But Phil Bochicchio, the floor engineer in charge of setting up and maintaining the machines in Washington, said he was ordered to ship six Bombes to a Navy warehouse in Mechanicsburg, Pa., soon after the war. 

NSA officials insist they know of no other Bombes except the one now on display at its National Cryptologic Museum in Ft. Meade, Md. 

The machines sent to the naval wa rehouse “were probably just excessed and destroyed. A lot of things up there were excessed and destroyed,” said Jack Ingram, curator of the museum. “We don’t have any records on it.” 

The lone NCR Bombe was first displayed in the NSA lobby in the 1980s, then exhibited at the Smithsonian in 1989 before being moved to the cryptologic museum, which the NSA had opened near its headquarters. 

If, by any chance, there is another NCR Bombe out there somewhere, Dayton would like to have one for its still-unnamed regional history museum, set to open inside Memorial Hall in late 2004. NCR’s role in developing the modern computer “will be one of the main attractions (of the new museum),” said Brian Hackett, executive director of the Montgomery County Historical Society. “Certainly, a Bombe would be the jewel in that crown.” 

AUGUST 1987 

Joe Desch had been living by himself, quietly in his West Kettering home, for several months. He’d moved back there in June after six months in assisted living and nine months in a nursing home, where he’d made a remarkable recovery from hip surgery and a series of small strokes. 

Debbie Anderson recalled the way her father, glancing back at the nursing home on his way to the car, “stuck out his jaw and said, ‘Not many people walk out of that place.’ He was very proud he’d been able to do that. He really wanted to die at home.” He spent his final months there contented and active. Friends and family dropped in frequently, and he spent many hours talking on his ham radio. 

On Aug. 3, 1987, when Anderson called her father and got no answer, she knew something was wrong. She and her husband drove to his home. His morning paper was still in the driveway. They found him on the floor beside his bed – partly paralyzed and speechless from a stroke. 

Anderson and her husband spent the day with her father at Kettering Medical Center, where he would die that evening in intensive care. 

“That’s exactly how he wanted to go,” she said. “He wanted to be in his own home and he wanted to go quickly.” 

But Anderson said she couldn’t help feeling cheated by his death. “I know this is selfish and petty, but I can remember thinking once or twice that day, whatever happened during the war, he knows, he still knows, and we’re not going to get a thing,” she said. “I thought, damn it, it’s going to be lost. He never told anybody. He never wrote it down.” 

Just before he died at 5:30 that evening, “I could sense he was trying to speak,” Anderson said. When his time came, “he didn’t fight it,” she said. 

Anderson would go on to poke and prod at the walls of secrecy that had been put up around her father’s place in history. She would find her own reconciliation with her family’s contribution to the war. But she still doesn’t know for sure what kind of peace her father had found. 

His death, like so much of his life, was cloaked in mystery. 

“I don’t think at the end he figured it all out. Who does?” she said. “But he had accepted it just the same.”