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Cold War Warriors

NSA ... The Early Years

Commander John Murphy, USN Ret.

"Welcome to the NSA … you are going to be a codebreaker."

These were the first words I heard at NSA when I reported for duty in January 1957. I did not know what they meant, but I would soon learn. I was part of a group of Army, Navy, and Air Force officers who reported to NSA at that time. The nation had made a conscious decision to beef up its communications intelligence (COMINT) effort against the Soviet bloc in the 1950s. A large, modern, headquarters began construction at Fort Meade, Maryland in 1952. A dream was about to become reality for those in the communications intelligence business. An Agency that "grew like topsy" after World War II was spread out in temporary sites in the Washington D.C. area. An organization Washington insiders liked to jokingly refer to as "No Such Agency" was about to become much more visible.

I finished college in 1955 and planned to become a lawyer. I had been accepted at Albany Law School in Albany, New York. Then I received what World War II vets called a "Greetings letter" from Uncle Sam. Whether I liked it or not, I was going into the military. The Selective Service System that had been set up in World War II was still up and running. First for the Korean conflict and now, it appeared-for the new war… what everyone was calling the Cold War. Uncle Sam needed me for something or other.

My older brother had just graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and I decided to apply for the Navy’s Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island. To my surprise I was accepted almost immediately. I was ordered to report to the U.S. Naval Station at Newport, Rhode Island in June 1956 to enter the Navy Officer Candidate School, Class Nr. 28. After four months of pretty rude treatment (e.g. early rising, marching, calisthenics, inspections (e.g. uniform, locker, bed making, showers and toilets etc.) studying naval warfare, jumping off 50’ towers into the sea, ship handling drills, navigation training, naval gun training etc. If we survived, we were declared ready to become "officers and gentlemen". Before we got too cocky, our instructors reminded us, " You guys are so bad that it takes an Act of Congress to make you a gentleman."

Towards the end of OCS we started receiving "orders" to our future duty stations. I was hoping to receive orders to be the Commanding Officer of a destroyer at least. They looked so impressive as they sailed up the channel behind us into Narragansett Bay. Cruisers and aircraft carriers could come later. Most of my classmates were receiving assignments to combatant ships or Naval Stations in the U.S. There was a small group of us however, that were told "You’re going to Washington D.C. for further assignment. They will tell you what your job is when you get there". This was all pretty disappointing for folks who had been "in processing" for over a year. Then, after commissioning, they added insult to injury by assigning us to a three month Naval Communications "Officer Short Course" at Newport. We asked "Why are you sending us to a communications school?" Again, the answer was " You will find out when you get to D.C."

On New Year’s Eve 1956 seven of us showed up at an address in Washington D.C. that was in our orders- 3801 Nebraska Avenue, N.W. – right across from American University. We saw nothing that remotely resembled a military installation. After driving past a place that looked like a college two or three times- we stopped at a small parking lot with the words "3801 Nebraska Ave. N.W." on it. We found a U.S. Marine guard in a small gatehouse. He welcomed us to the Naval Security Station, time-stamped our orders (to show we had reported for duty) and told us to come back the next day. Well at least we were there - wherever we were. Now maybe we were going to learn where we were going to be assigned.

During initial orientation I finally got to ask the question "what is it we do here?" I got an answer of sort. "We hope you’ll become a code breaker." I asked "why me?" The answer came back "You are a musician and recent studies have shown that two kinds of people make good code breakers-mathematicians and musicians!"

Well, there it was. At last, after 15 months of processing, I had broken the code! I was going to become a government codebreaker because I had played trumpet in the University of Notre Dame band! Welcome to the wonderful world of cryptology and codebreaking.

Assignment to NSA

I was briefly assigned to the Naval Security Group Headquarters at the Naval Security Station on Nebraska Ave. Just when I was starting to like it there; I was reassigned to the National Security Agency at one of its locations in the Washington D.C. area. I was assigned to "Tempo X" (Government Temporary Building X) at the site of the current RFK Stadium in Washington D.C. It was a typical World War I temporary building. I was used to living in such buildings because that was all we had in Newport.

I learned that the major components of the new National Security Agency were located at a place called Arlington Hall Station or the Naval Security Station. I was to be assigned to the Office of Training at Arlington Hall Station in Virginia. Like the Naval Security Station, it was a former women’s college. A campus like setting with ivy covered brick buildings hidden by rolling lawns, and mature shade trees. Shortly after arriving we were told: "Don’t get too used to this place, because sometime this year we will be moving to a new Headquarters building at Fort Meade. Maryland".

NSA felt more like a military agency than a civilian government agency. The agency was officially created in 1952. We were told that another agency known as the Armed Forces Security Agency (AFSA) had existed for a brief period, but did not work out for some reason. We were told that both Army and Navy communications intelligence organizations had played a large role in Allied successes during World War II. That the NSA that I joined in 1957 was made up largely of Army Security Agency, Naval Security Group and newly created Air Force Security Service personnel. They, along with a sizable component of civilian NSA staff, made up a new agency that was bursting at the seams with enthusiasm. We would soon all be together in one modern building.

In my early days at NSA, I had many conversations with men who worked in the Navy’s famed "Rooftop Gang". These men had their introduction to military cryptology in 1941 in an old World War I temporary building on Constitution Avenue. In a shack "on the rooftop". What enthusiasm and dedication to duty. These were real codebreakers! I walked in their shadow. These were the men that actually broke the Japanese "Purple Code" that became a decisive factor in victories over the Japanese in the Battles of Coral Sea and Midway.

During the spring of 1957 I had the good fortune of getting to know some of the real heroes of World War II cryptology. Men such as Lambros Callimahos who worked in an office right next to me at Arlington Hall Station. Also, Captain John M. Lietwiler, USN ("Honest John") who commanded the Naval Security Group Detachment on Corregidor when it fell in 1942. After World War II Capt. Lietwiler was the first Commander of my parent command, the Naval Security Group. As a Lieutenant on Corregidor in April 1942 he commanded the 21-man Naval Security Group detachment known as the "Monkey Point Militia" that barely escaped alive aboard the submarine USS Seadragon.

Captain Lietwiler and NSA Staff Officer Course Trainees

The Cold War gets hot and the NSA gets going

I did not realize it, but the Cold War took on ominous overtones after the Soviets tested their first nuclear device in the Fall of 1949. Also, Soviet troops quelled revolts in East Germany in 1953; the Warsaw Pact was created in 1955; the Soviets were testing ICBMs and earth satellites called Sputnik and had launched the first nuclear submarine, which they call Leningradskiy Komsomolets. We were in a real arms race.

A new, modern NSA building began construction in 1952. Other sites such as Fort Belvoir and Fort Knox were considered. For a variety of reasons, Fort Meade was selected even though it was considered too close to Washington to survive a nuclear attack on the capital. Some agency elements moved into temporary quarters at Fort Meade in 1956. The major move of the NSA COMINT organization began in 1957 shortly after I reported for duty. I did spend part of 1957 working in "B Building" at Arlington Hall Station. Sometime in the summer of 1957 I received "additional duty orders". A military euphemism for "do your day job plus anything else that we ask of you."

I reported to the Army’s Military District Washington as an "Officer Courier" and boarded a khaki colored, 18-wheeler truck with a 45-caliber pistol strapped to my side. One of my first assignments was to move the classified material from my old Tempo X building. I will never forget seeing Tempo X on that first run - there were large holes on the second floor. Cranes were lifting heavy, steel safes filled with classified material out of the building and lowering them into our trucks. Next stop? The new headquarters building at Fort Meade Maryland. I was involved in this courier duty for three or four weeks.

Once the Agency transfer from Washington DC was completed I was ordered to report to a new office in the Fort Meade headquarters building. It was an exciting time. I also was ordered to move into Bachelor Officer quarters at Fort Meade. Here I was living in a very Army world. A fascinating experience. Especially since I was living with the crPme de la crPme of the operational Army- the First Armored Cavalry that had just returned from duty along the "FEBA" (Forward Edge of the Battle Area) in Germany. The real front lines of the Cold War. They had been facing the Soviet Armies that were expected to invade Europe at any time. Fort Meade itself was defended by new experimental Army Air Defense batteries - today I think they are called Patriot Missiles.

Sometime in the fall of 1957 I reported to a bright, shiny new desk on the first floor at the new NSA Headquarters building. Right next door to the prestigious ADVA 03 organization that housed the nations top Codebreakers. I was not a code breaker… Yet! But maybe their talents would rub off on me somehow?

I have vivid memories of my first day in the new building. Our Marine Guard Detachment was standing in the long corridors in Dress Blue uniforms. They were standing about 300 feet apart and saluting as you passed. I was not used to this. Saluting indoors. Army types did salute indoors whether they were covered (i.e. hat on) or not. But the Navy tradition was to never salute indoors, especially if you were uncovered. After a few days the Marines switched to fatigues and stopped all this saluting business. We were "settling in".

Another thing that stuck in my mind from the first days in the new building, were the snack bars. At the end of each major corridor. All the comforts of home within easy walking distance. Pretty plush! And they had a real, modern coffee machines. Unlike those dinosaurs that we had in Arlington. Another image that stuck in my mind from these early days were the 3 by 4 inch, concrete plugs that had been drilled out of the new floor. They were scattered all around the new office areas. They soon became paperweights on everyone’s desk. The holes created by these plugs allowed technicians to draw electrical cabling to our desks for typewriters, printers and various types of consoles include, first-generation computer screens. It all looked, and felt so new and different. Space-age stuff before the space-age had begun. More importantly was the fact that the agency finally had all of its organizations together in one building.

NSA headquarters as it appeared in 1958 (above) and today (Below)

My job in the new building

I majored in business and marketing in college, so I jumped at the chance to run a new orientation course for senior officers reporting to NSA. It was called the NSA Staff Officers Course. Each course was to last three months. I was to set up briefings and tours for the officers in all of the major elements of the agency. Not an easy job when we were spread out over Washington D.C. Much easier now that we were in one facility. I particularly enjoyed it when we visited PROD 04 - The hub for all communication intelligence operations worldwide. If World War III were about to happen, the Prod Watch were the ones that were supposed to be alerting the White House the President of this fact in near real time. This was the very essence of the NSA charter.

While other major intelligence organizations such as CIA focused on the slower moving world of human intelligence - NSA was in the world of near real time reporting based on communications intelligence operations worldwide. A couple of my OCS classmates were working as Prod Watch Officers. At times I envied them - they were in the middle of it all. They assured me that it was not all fun and glory. "Lots of boredom, followed by brief moments of excitement and terror. Also there’s lots of responsibility here. If you put out a bad report - you are gone! This is a high-stakes place to work. There is no forgiveness if you screw up!"

I decided I had a pretty good job after all. At least it never got boring and I was getting a big picture education as to what NSA was all about. That had to be worth something in the long run. It was.

Marriage and Language School

By the time that the snow started melting in 1958, I decided I really liked this codebreaking business. I wanted to make it a career. I could get out of the Navy in two years, and go back to law school, but that looked pretty boring to me after working at NSA. I was assured by my NSA colleagues that language training was an important credential to getting into the real operational side of the communications intelligence business. That it led to the world of Cold War warning sites that were being set up along the periphery of the Soviet Union and the Communist bloc. In England, Germany, Turkey, Japan, and places in between. Pretty exciting stuff to a 25-year-old!

I married my hometown sweetheart, Joan Marie Mans in June 1958 and applied for Russian language school. I received a lightning set of orders to the old Naval Intelligence School in Anacostia, Maryland. Joan’s and my life we’re about to change dramatically. We bade our farewells to friends and colleagues at NSA and moved to the area where the Anacostia and Potomac rivers join. We didn’t know it then, but within a year we would call Istanbul, Turkey home. We were trading Fort Meade and the Potomac River for the Black Sea and the Bosphorus. Only 120 miles from the Soviet Union and the real Cold War.

Cold War here we come!

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