Recognition at last for unsung war heroes

November 01, 2003
By Ariel Sabar, SUN Staff

As a U.S. Army private in England in the final years of World War II, Hervie Haufler could think of few things more boring than code-breaking.

He and the others in the 6811th Signal Security Detachment felt, at times, like mere stenographers. In a drafty stone manor house in the London suburbs, they listened to blips on a radio receiver and copied down German secret code until their hands cramped, their eyes hurt and they longed for a pint at the local pub.

"I was constantly battling weariness," he recalls. "I can remember having to fight to keep awake."

More than a half-century later, Haufler, 84, has come to a radically new understanding of his wartime work. His first book, Codebreakers' Victory: How the Allied Cryptographers Won World War II, to be released Tuesday, makes the provocative argument that code-breakers were the decisive factor in the Allied victory—more important than any MacArthur or Eisenhower or Nimitz.

The book, an accessible account of the role of cryptographers on all the major fronts, is a bid to raise code-breakers to what he sees as their rightful place in military history. But on a deeper level, the book reads as a valentine to his Army buddies, unsung heroes gagged by secrecy orders who are finding recognition only at the end of their lives.

"The generals and admirals could begin to trumpet their triumphs the day after the war ended—and often before," he writes in the introduction. "The cryptologists, on the other hand, were sworn to silence."

Yesterday, Haufler, who lives in Vermont, and about 20 other members of three Army Signal Corps units gathered in Maryland for the first day of a weekend reunion. As they toured the small cryptologic museum outside the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, several told stories of glory denied.

Known as the "Ultra Americans" for their role in Britain's code-breaking program, "Ultra Secret," most are in their 80s, all white-haired, some leaning on canes.

Not until the early 1990s did these veterans learn of one another's existence. Robert Frederickson, 80, a retired schoolteacher from Greensboro, N.C., advertised in newsletters, networked through veterans groups and combed phone lists to reassemble the units.

Asked about his friend Haufler's book, Frederickson said, "It's very gratifying to know that what we did had some meaning."