Stephenson Tales

Col. Myers, gentleman

The various divisions of the 849th Signal Intelligence Seervice had their own discrete missions and, as I noted elsewhere, no one outside of one's own unit, had any idea what the mission was of any other unit. Next to our office in the Villa Porfidia in Recale, was the office of the head of our unit, full colonel grayish, sixty-sh, a thorough gentleman, Col Myers. He had no secretary as the secretary in our office did all the typing necessary. He actually had very little to do as we underlings did all the work. He merely read, and sometimes edited, the letters which I had written and submitted to him to sign. So he sat there all day, all alone in an office as large as ours. I know he got lonely, for several times a week he would stroll in on the pretext of asking me about messages that had violated our strict rules of cryptographic procedure and security, and about which I had written "burn letters" of reprimand which went to the offending cryptographic team over his signature. Before anyone could notice him, leap to attention and shout "tej-hut!," he would calmly say, "As you were." Then he would stay a few minutes chatting with Cap. Gilden (my boss) or the two Lieutenants, Blasko and Paige, or our secretary, Private Henry Greenberg, or me. He did not say much. He obviously just wanted some company.

There are two incidents that are etched in my memory.

1. Each enciphered message had two five-letter "code groups" at the top. The first was the Systems Indicator which told the recipient which of our various cipher machines had been used to encrypt the message which followed. The second was the Message Indicator which guided the operator to the key which guided him how to set up his machine for the deciphering process. These five second letters were to be chosen at random, and never repeated because the more often a key is used the key to those messages would be exactly the same and the liklihood of breaking the cipher would be proportionally greater. One must always assume that the enemy is right on the brink of breaking the cipher system!

One day one of the 30 (or so) men who deciphered the messages sent to our office by the combat troops for analysis came rushing into my office. He was pale and his hands were shaking as he handed me a sheaf of about twenty messages that he had deciphered for analysis.

"Look at this, Sergeant!"

To my horror every one of the pile of messages had exactly the same message indicator: "OPRED." I saw at once what had happened. The machine that was used for "secret" (Later expanded to "Top Secret," "Most Top Secret," and Most Top Secret, Indeed. "Eyes Only") messages was our most sophistocated cipher device: the SIGABA. In the top left corner of the machine were five buttons in a row:
1. O -- OFF/ON
2. P -- PRINT
and the soldier who had been given the task of readying the message for transmission had violated a basic rule of cryptographis security. I thanked the corporal who had brought me the messages. I leaped up and went to Col. Myers' door which was right behind my desk. I knocked and he called for me to come in. He could see that I was highly agitated. Without a word, I handed him the messages. His eyes widened in disbelief as he saw what the cryptographer had done. He looked at me in a way that I can only desccribe as loving and avuncular.

"Well, Jim Bob, you'd better write him a very stern reprimand."

"Yes, Sir."

I started to go. He said,"Oh, Jim Bob, keep it as dispassionate as possible."

He had a laconic way with words--and no wonder. In civilian life he had been a full professor of English at some university in the east.

2. I often had so much work pile up during the day, as my crew deciphered hundreds of secret messages that I had to read, that I had to come back in the evening in order top keep up. One night, my whole desk top was piled with messages that with reading other messages and writing burn letters I simply had not had time to examine. So I went back to my office after supper to try to catch up. As I walked in to my office I noticed that there was a light showing under Col Myers' door. I worked for about half an hour. It was quite dark. The light was still on. I got up and knocked on the door.

"Come in."

I did. Col Myers was sitting at his desk. His small desk lamp was the only illumination. On his desk was a half-empty whiskey bottle.

"Are you all right, Sir?"

"Yes." (long pause) "Jim Bob, I probably know more about the use of the comma than anyone in the whole European Theater of Operations....and who the hell cares?"

I felt very sorry for him.

Composed on 12 December, 2008

© Jim Bob Stephenson 2008

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