Dayton’s WWII role no longer a secret

Deborah Anderson with her father, Joseph Desch's. Presidential Medal of Merit that President Truman awarded him in 1947 for his work on the bombe code-breaking machine. TY GREENLEES / STAFF

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Deborah Anderson with her father, Joseph Desch's. Presidential Medal of Merit that President Truman awarded him in 1947 for his work on the bombe code-breaking machine. TY GREENLEES / STAFF

Work at NCR’s Building 26 helped lead to war’s end.

For the past year the newspaper has documented the stories of America's "Greatest Generation" and the veterans who fought in World War II. See exclusive photos and videos online at myDaytonDailyNews.commilitary.

Betty Robarts didn’t know for 50 years she and hundreds of other Navy WAVES working in World War II in Dayton assembled top-secret decoding machines that would spell the end of the Nazi U-boat secrecy under the Atlantic.

She finally learned in 1995 at a WAVES reunion in Dayton, nearly a lifetime since she and 600 other Navy service women built the bulky machines — each called a bombe — in secret in Building 26 at National Cash Register.

“I cried for three months,” Robarts, 92, of Sylvania, Ga., said about the revelation. “We were quite … well, we were shocked, really.”

Women in the military today stand on the cusp of breaking down the last barriers to serving in combat. Within months, the Pentagon may open thousands of infantry and special operations roles to female service members, just as two soldiers last month were the first women to complete arduous Army Ranger training.

But as Roberts’ experience illustrates, in World War II the role of women was no less crucial: Almost 350,000 American women served in the military in roles from pilots ferrying planes to medical caretakers treated wounded soldiers.

Today, Sept. 2, marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II when Japan formally signed the document of unconditional surrender aboard the U.S.S. Missouri battleship in Tokyo Bay.

For Robarts — and the others — the war was over, but the secrecy about what they did stayed for decades, even among those who built the decoding machines at the secretive and heavily guarded U.S. Naval Computing Machine Laboratory inside NCR.

Building the Bombe

NCR electrical engineer Joseph R. Desch led the Navy project in a race to decipher the German Engima code under intense wartime pressure, said his daughter, Deborah A. Anderson, 64, of Kettering.

The German Navy encrypted radio messages to Nazi U-boats that prowled the Atlantic and sunk thousands of U.S. and Allied merchant vessels and warships.

Desch never told his daughter specifically what the Navy project was about.

“He never broke his oath,” she said. “He was very, very conscientious. He wanted to, but he didn’t. And I’m not sure I would have believed him anyway. It’s such a fantastic thing for your father in Dayton, Ohio, to tell you.”

Robarts said she never asked questions about what she and the other WAVES — short for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service — were building in Dayton on the second floor of the now demolished Building 26.

Armed Marines guarded the doors.

“Two years and 10 months and never asked any questions,” she said. “They said it was secret, shut up and don’t talk about it.”

One reason Desch was selected was because of his and NCR’s work on inventing the first electronic calculator, said Jim DeBrosse, a former Dayton Daily News reporter who co-wrote the book “The Secret in Building 26.”

Vannevar Bush, who led the nation’s war research work, had made a priority to find the brightest scientists and engineers to bolster the nation’s war technology, DeBrosse said.

The British had broken the Engima code when it used a three-rotor machine, but when the Germans added a fourth rotor, Allied deciphering machines failed.

When first given the task, Desch had never seen an Engima machine or knew exactly how it worked, DeBrosse said.

“He did not have a complete understanding of the Engima,” said DeBrosse. “That was probably his biggest challenge.”

“For a single scrambled letter, there were more possible settings for the Engima machine than there are atoms in the known universe,” DeBrosse said. “That was the essence of the Enigma machine because the Germans thought it was unbreakable.”

The bombe’s high-speed alphabetized rotors broke the German’s unbreakable code.

“His machine was the equivalent to 16 Engima machines working at high speed in reverse,” DeBrosse said. “Desch’s machine outperformed the British (codebreaking machine) in speed, efficiency, and reliability.”

Solving a puzzle

Anderson filmed the documentary “Dayton Codebreakers: Top Secret-Ultra” with producer/director Aileen LeBlanc a decade ago about the role of Desch, and the Navy WAVES in the nation’s defense.

Anderson spent years trying to solve the puzzle of what her father did during the war. She traveled to the National Archives and the National Security Agency on a hunt for clues.

“It was in stages,” she said. “I compared it to an onion and there’s still some layers to be uncovered.”

After her father died 1987, she found documents and letters and photographs in her parents’ home “that told me it’s something very unusual and important looking had involved my parents.”

Desch lived under a constant state of scrutiny — and stress. A naval officer lived in his Oakwood home during the war and he was told by Navy leaders every day that more U.S. sailors were dying, Anderson said.

“He said they kept telling him men were dying because he couldn’t get the machine working properly,” she said.

The pressure of the project and those deaths haunted him, she said.

Desch worked to break Japanese naval codes, too.

But he wrestled with ethical questions about the conduct of both the United States and Japan in the Pacific war as the death toll mounted, the documentary said. He walked away from the program in 1944, but came back to the project within weeks, Anderson said.

“It was the stress and the exhaustion and seven-day weeks for months at a time can take its toll,” she said.

In 1947, President Harry Truman awarded Desch the Presidential Medal for Merit, the highest civilian honor for his wartime work.

President Bill Clinton’s order to declassify a trove of information more than 25 years old opened the safe to a long-hidden mystery, Anderson remembered.

“So finally, the wheels began to turn,” she said. “By the time of the reunion, (the WAVES) knew the machine had been responsible for a number of victories in Europe.”

Joining The WAVES

In 1943, Robarts, a national champion swimmer, took a break from Butler University in Indianapolis and her sport to enlist in the Navy.

“I was sick of school,” she said. “I was sick of swimming.”

In April 1943, the then 20-year-old Robarts arrived at Sugar Camp, the place where the WAVES stayed in 60 cabins at NCR’s Dayton campus.

Working at a long table in Building 26, she soldered 26 wires to the alphabetized rotors. Soldering was a skill she learned first from her father, who supervised iron ore mines in northern Minnesota.

“I didn’t have to be taught,” she said. “I knew how to do it.”

A bombe rolled on wheels, weighed two tons, and measured two-feet wide, seven-feet tall and 10-feet long. NCR sent the machines to Navy headquarters in Washington, D.C, where the WAVES went to work to help decode secret Nazi communications.

Decades later, Robarts downplays her contribution to the war.

“It’s hard for me to take any honor,” she said. “I’d rather give the honor to the ones that were in the thick of it.”

Sugar Camp was an escape, she remembered. “It was fun,” she said.

In the recreation hall, the WAVES might sing along to a piano, play cards or even baseball.

“We lived like queens,” she said.

Desch and his wife, Dorothy, tried to make the transition easier on the WAVES, who arrived from across the country, inviting them to their Oakwood home on weekends for a home-cooked meal.

“Most of the girls when they first arrived, they were homesick,” Anderson said. “Mom and dad would cook the foods that the girls missed the most.”

One of them liked the vegetable kohlrabi, a turnip cabbage. “Dad had not only never grown this, he had never even heard of it,” Anderson said.

The next year, the Deschs grew the vegetable.

“The girl who was homesick really appreciated it,” Anderson said. “It was kind of typical of the things that people did for each other being away from home and all the stress of the war.”

Stress faded to euphoria when the United States defeated first Germany and then Japan, ending the long, bloody struggle.

“A number of WAVES came to my parents’ home,” Anderson said, “and they threw a party that apparently is legendary and ended with champagne and dancing on the front lawn in their bare feet.”

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