Sunday, December 27, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 221.7: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 7

Robert Gallagher, Wake

The End of Black Jack

When my father sent American messages, he walked from the radio room down the hall to the next room. There, on a bench, sat a machine with five wheels. He used an algorithm supplied by his duty officer to decide how to start. It was always a calculation that began with the first five or ten letters of the plaintext message. Then he enciphered the message and transmitted it.

For deciphering duty, my father intercepted Chinese and Korean radio signals in which every part of the message came to him in five letter chunks. There seemed to be hardly any attempts by the enemy to hide their war communications. Their operators transmitted over a known range of bands. Radiomen of the 126th Signal Service Company took the captured transmissions to an officer who sat nearby.

Often, the officer could put my father's message through the machine, make a few adjustments, and decode the message on the spot. Then the lieutenant, since it was almost always a lieutenant, gave the decoded text to my father to enter in the daily log book.

When there was time, the officers would discuss cipher schemes with my father. During the early months of the Korean War, the lieutenants tried to elevate the skills of their enlisted troops. When the week was too busy or everyone was too tired, as happened more often after the arrival of Captain Black Jack, no one spoke. An enciphered message came in. A plain text message left for the logs and for overnight transmission to the headquarters in Washington, DC.

The overnight transmission was the main way that the U.S. military leadership knew about the Signal Corps. The radiomen on night duty enciphered the Korean messages with American codes and sent them to the relay station in the Philippines. Other radiomen re-transmitted them to California. Finally, at around four o'clock in the morning, the messages reached army headquarters.

Black Jack took the overnight work for granted.

He had continued, as a tough-minded captain, to drill the enlisted men as if they were front line troops. At one point when North Korean forces threatened to overrun the position of the 126th Signal Service Company, Black Jack told his men they would not be following the usual pack-up-and-run procedure.

"If those bastards come for us, we'll burn the code books and fight." The captain made the announcement on his own authority to his assembled soldiers. "We'll fight to the end."

"We only have rifles," hissed a corporeal.

"And you're no damned good with them," said a sergeant.

Late that night, the veteran enlisted men held an emergency session. Could they complain to the colonel? Would other officers impose sanity on Black Jack?

"Listen, Roberts, if the place gets overrun," an older enlisted man took my father aside. "Just stay away from the captain."

"What do you mean?"

"You talk too much with the officers." He meant my father liked learning the cipher methods. "Stay away from them for a few days. If Black Jack tells us to get our rifles, you go get yours but don't come back."


"Wait until you're at the back of the line, get it? Don't get near Black Jack."

My father had just turned eighteen. He didn't understand what they were telling him. An older, more worldly private had to pull him aside later and explain.

"If Black Jack really tries to make us charge the Chinese tanks with our rifles, the sergeants are going to accidentally shoot the captain."


"The lieutenants, too, if they give us any grief about it. And then we're going to pack up the equipment and run just like we should."

As the front approached, the troops didn't see any sign of Black Jack giving up his resolve to fight. He marched his men. He drilled them with rifles. He ran scenarios for defense of the base. He forgot about the overnight block transmissions. For a few days, the radiomen working overtime sent them to Washington headquarters late. Then, after a long all-day march, the captain cancelled night shift. No radioman put in extra hours to send the batch of deciphered Korean messages.

That was too much. Washington called California. California called Guam. Guam radioed the Philippines. The base colonel picked up the phone and swore to his superiors that it would never happen again. He called Black Jack into his office. 

At long last, he shipped Black Jack out.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 221.6: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 6

Robert Gallagher, Wake

The Arrival of Black Jack

Although the signal corps continued strong for months, one of their captains rotated out. The army brought in a replacement. The new man called the other officers 'eggheads.' He said the signal corps looked weak. He saw that the enlisted men didn't go on marches. No one did their morning calisthenics. Since the transcribers worked different shifts around the clock, they didn't meet together as a corps.

The new captain decided to change all of that. He re-instituted regular weapons training. He made the sergeants lead the troops in calisthenics. He took entire squads on marches.

"He thinks he's a fucking marine!" The older men in the corps complained.

"It's worse than that. Black Jack thinks we're all marines." Within a few days, they had assigned him a nickname. My father, still seventeen, thought it was pretty funny.

Even the officers, all of them specialists, were angered by how the captain treated them. They didn't know what to do about it, though, so all they did was complain to each other.

"He can't decode anything!" a lieutenant said and then added the bad news that Black Jack had misplaced the previous captain's reference materials. Those were essential at times. But Black Jack hadn't understood them, so he had decided they were unnecessary. He might have burned them. "He doesn't even know what we do."

The captain started passing out demerits based on improperly worn uniforms, poorly made beds, towels left out to dry in the wrong place, and not using enough boot polish. He punished enlisted men immediately before their transcription shifts, so that more of them made mistakes that resulted in unreadable codes. He took the corps on a march together so that some of the men missed shifts. Others fell asleep during their transcription sessions.

The marches tired my father out more than anything. They could start at dawn and if you had just listened to coded radio all night, it didn't matter. You had to go. He watched the older men and learned from them. He reported to work on time. He turned in correct translations of the radio code signals he'd picked up although it was a struggle.

The junior officers appealed to the colonel about Black Jack hurting the signal corps. He told them to be patient. Black Jack, he thought, was doing what new captains did. Then the colonel called the captain into his office for a talk. Lieutenants and enlisted men put their ears to the wall. The colonel shouted a bit but nothing much came of it. Black Jack was quieter for a couple days. Soon, he returned to his usual tactics.

The privates, corporals, and sergeants started to retaliate against Black Jack's inspections. One of his favorite tricks during those was to have the men stand in parade formation. He'd walk along for a minute, turn, and snatch a rifle from a private's hands. If he could snatch it away, he would give a demerit for holding the gun too lightly.

After a few more parade inspections, the enlisted men saw it coming. One of them in the line ahead of my father clutched his gun. The captain struggled with it and had to resort to ordering the private to let go. He returned that rifle and turned to the next man. He gave the gun a firm yank, expecting resistance. The private let go so suddenly that Black Jack nearly bayoneted himself in the head. For my father, it was easy not to laugh. It would have meant demerits. But the event got funnier and funnier in memory as the enlisted men retold it forever after.

Black Jack stopped using that particular trick. But he kept penalizing the privates and interfering with their code transcriptions while not actually barring them from their jobs. The enlisted men wanted to go on strike but, of course, they were in the army. They couldn't. Any real attempt at a work stoppage would land them in the stockade.

Just hearing the men talk about it made my father nervous. Fortunately, most of the corps regarded him as a kid. He was definitely the youngest radioman and they didn't expect him to do anything except stay out of their way.

The soldiers started their resistance movement in the mess hall. Organizers among them passed out word about what to eat. Sometimes it was, "nobody eat the eggs." Each time an order came, it meant a bunch of something left over. It looked bad on company reports but it didn't seem to bother the captain. So the entire corps skipped lunch, my father too. The soldiers ate double at dinner to create shortages in the ingredients. Finally, an inspector happened by when the troops skipped a meal. He saw the leftover food get thrown out. He checked the books and saw the excessive waste.

The Inspector General called in the colonel, who called in the captain. They wanted to talk about the reasons the men would skip meals. Finally, the troops had succeeded in getting Black Jack into trouble. The problem was, it wasn't enough.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 221.5: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 5

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Simple Codes

For months, my father and the other enlisted men of the 126th Signal Service Company intercepted Korean and Chinese radio communications. They transcribed them, broke the ciphers - when there were any, since both sides sometimes sent in plain text - and transmitted them in batches each night to Washington, DC.

Off shift, the squad mates played cribbage, poker, and other games for money. My father was still seventeen and although he was no longer in danger of being discharged (back in the US, his mother has signed an agreement saying that he could serve), he was rightly regarded as in need of guidance. Older men taught him to play poker well enough to win money from them. They made him play cribbage so they could win it all back.

For most of the year, the intelligence corps made steady progress. The Koreans and Chinese scrambled their codebooks but continued to use substitution ciphers that the enlisted troops or their codebreaking officers could crack. My father learned to identify each telegraph operator by her 'hand.' When the operators in China got rotated or purged, the Americans could tell. The Chinese knew it, too. Some of the women cursed, in their transmissions, about or directly at the U.S. intelligence crew.

At least once, the cursing paid off for the American side. It was a day after the Chinese had switched cipher methods. That was a laborious thing to do since it involved sending North Korean and Chinese operators new code books. It was worth it to keep the Americans from reading the messages on the same day, though. The fact that the Koreans had insisted on new ciphers meant they were planning an offensive. The Americans wanted the details. However, this time the Chinese were keeping their transmissions brief. The U.S. decoders couldn't assemble a big enough sample size to figure out the new cipher method.

"Hey, look at this one." One of the enlisted men brought his message to a decoder at the same time as my father brought his transcriptions. The other operator had written down a coded message. "This is from that woman who changed cities. She curses at us all the time. Her message is the only one that's long."

"So it's got her cursing in it," the officer sat up with a smile. This was making his day. "What does she usually say about us?"

The operator and my father described the types of curses that the Chinese telegraph operator used. In less than half an hour, the code breaker iterated through his math and employed guesses about the words used to break the new code.

"Got it! Complete with cursing!'

The commanding officer passed on his congratulations. The team had done it. They'd beaten the new codebook on their first day against it.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 221.4: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 4

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Remembrance: As a Soldier

At seventeen, my father reported to boot camp. He'd lied about his age to sign up. Naturally he feared being caught. As tough as the training and hazing was, his exhaustion faded each time he received a written summons to see a sergeant or lieutenant. Every encounter had the potential to expose his lie. He knew he could be sent to the stockade, or discharged, or both.

He finished camp. At the end, he took a series of exams that were meant to discover his potential best fit for active duty. He really had no preference but older recruits gave him lots of advice.

"You hate KP. You'll hate cooking."

"Rangers parachute behind the lines. If you join them, you're as good as dead."

"Don't be a clerk. I'm at a desk typing all day and it's awful. Just awful."

Most of the advice seemed well meant but he knew that sometimes it didn't apply to him. His choices would be limited. He had no connections. He might be offered a chance to change his assignment. But probably not. A lot of times, there was no wriggling out of a written command, which had to be done by soliciting another command from someone higher up. When he got his official order to report to the Army Intelligence training school in California, he shared it with his camp buddies, about a third of whom were waiting for their assignments, too. Their response was, 'What the hell is that?' No one had an opinion about whether it was a bad job or not. The travel order included a free go-anywhere train ticket.

Two days later, my father hadn't responded to the order but he received a different one, also in writing: report to the colonel in charge of his army base on the next day, noon.

My father realized there wasn't much that a colonel would want to see him about. Yelling at him for being seventeen was probably at the top of a short list.

So the next morning, as early as he could manage, my father packed up his kit. They were all the possession he had anyway. Then he hiked down to the train station. That was how he joined SIGINT.

126th Signal Service Company

When I was six, my father said, "The army taught me Russian, then sent me to spy on the Chinese." He proceeded to say it again when I was seven, eight, and pretty much constantly for the next forty-five years. So he really meant it.

After World War II, the U.S. needed to downsize its military. That freed up money needed to re-commercialize the economy. It also meant that by the time of the Korean War, the 7th Fleet had one intelligence officer in the Far East Command. Hardly anyone in any branch of service knew Chinese, Russian, or Korean. Also, as my father pointed out, the U.S. mistakenly assumed that the Russians were controlling North Korea. They trained Robert Roberts, among their other intelligence recruits, to understand Russian communications. As soon as he started reading and decrypting the telegraph signals, my father saw that the Koreans were talking among themselves and with the Chinese. They weren't talking to the Russians.

The Armed Forces Security Agency, which was the umbrella Signals Intelligence organization of the time, had no Korean linguists, no Korean language typewriters, nor did it have Korean-English dictionaries at the start of the war. By the time my father arrived, the fighting had been going on for ten months. The AFSA had repaired most of their basic deficiencies. They hadn't fixed them all, though, and they didn't understand all of their problems.

When he arrived, my father trained with the best, fastest telegraph signal reader at the intelligence base. This was a man who could not only read the Chinese signal morse code but could hold sentences or entire paragraphs of it in his head. He only wrote his transcription down when he was sure he had heard the signals correctly. My father saw him listen to an entire coded transmission, pause to think, and then write out the entire text.

"If you want to be good, you've got to do the same," the best transcriber challenged my father. "If you try to translate the message character by character, you'll never make it. You'll get thirty characters in, realize that you heard something wrong at the start, and you won't have time to go back and fix it or you'll miss the rest of the incoming message. Your intelligence won't mean anything, if you're bad. You've got to hold at least a sentence at a time. The more you can hold in your head, the better."

No one had ever caught this particular transcriber in a mistake, not even when he held an entire telegraph message in his head. My father got good but he always said with a wry smile that he never got to the top. He learned to hold a few lines of code in his head and to transcribe them well. His work got the nod first from the code breakers, then from the officer in charge.