Hope that Dayton engineer will get recognized for code-breaking

Will the new movie “The Imitation Game” acknowledge Dayton’s role in cracking Germany’s Enigma Code and winning World War II for The Allies?

Local historians aren’t very hopeful.

“The code-breaking machine built at NCR does not in the least get the credit that it should,” said Brady Kress, president and CEO of Dayton History.

He doesn’t expect that to change with “The Imitation Game,” which tells the story of brilliant British computer scientist Alan Turing, portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in a performance that is generating Oscar buzz.

Kress, however, is looking forward to seeing the film, and he hopes it will generate interest in the code-breakers and, ultimately, NCR engineer Joseph Desch and his groundbreaking contribution.

If that happens, Dayton History will be ready. The permanent code-breaking exhibit at Carillon Historical Park is undergoing an expansion that was planned long before museum officials knew anything about the movie. In addition, an anonymous donor gave Dayton History the funds reprint the 2004 Random House book “The Secret in Building 26: The Untold Story of America’s Ultra War Against the U-boat Enigma Codes,” by Jim DeBrosse and Colin Burke.

“There never has been a British film, or a British book for that matter, that acknowledged Dayton’s role in the code-breaking,” observed DeBrosse, a former Dayton Daily News reporter. “The British won’t admit they got any help from us or that there was a period when they were blacked out.”

In 1942, Desch led NCR’s work with naval engineers on an advanced version of Polish and British code-breaking machines, known as Bombes, that deciphered messages encoded by the German Enigma machines. The British machines were rendered virtually useless against U-boat messages when the Germans developed a fourth rotor for their naval Enigma machines.

“The British were not able to build a machine that could break Germany’s four-rotor Enigma code,” Kress said. “That left the Nazis free to sink Allied convoys, and that would have continued if it weren’t for Desch’s work in Dayton, Ohio, to break the four-rotor machine.”

Turing visited Dayton Dec. 21, 1942, to inspect the work being done at NCR. He even slept on the living room floor of Joe Desch’s home in Oakwood — but not because he couldn’t afford a hotel room. “That was for security reasons,” Kress explained. “The Desch home already had uniformed Marine security to make sure it was safe.”

Recalled Desch’s daughter, Debbie Anderson of Kettering, “I’ve always been fascinated by the juxtaposition of their personalities. Turing was so polished and so used to British high society, and here he was meeting Joe Desch who grew up on the West Side of Dayton and was largely self-educated.”

Yet the men connected on some levels, Kress said: “Alan Turing was an interesting character, and not the most outgoing guy by any stretch. They got along on a mathematical level when they spoke that way, but essentially they were working together because their governments told them to do so.”

Anderson was born long after the meeting between her father and Turing, but, she said, “I have been told that Turing drove Dad crazy, and I can see that.”

Anderson doesn’t expect the movie to pay much attention to her dad, but she plans to see it anyway. “I have a crush on Benedict Cumberbatch,” she confessed.

Turing filed a secret report with the British government recounting his visit to NCR. “The plans for the Bombes are on the whole essentially the same as ours, but there are a number of minor differences which should be noted,” Turing wrote.

These brilliant minds argued about complex design components, and Turing criticized some of Desch’s work, Kress said: “Turing was suggesting that Desch do what they were trying to do in England, and none of those attempts worked. Luckily Desch stuck with what he was trying to do, and that worked well enough that we were able to win the war.”

Cumberbatch has won best actor nods from the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild. The real-life Turing didn’t fare nearly as well. He committed suicide by eating an apple laced with cyanide in 1954 — two years after being chemically castrated for the “crime” of being homosexual. Just this past August Queen Elizabeth issued a royal pardon for Turing.

What is truly unpardonable, of course, is the way the British government treated one of its greatest war heroes.

Turing led a tormented life, DeBrosse said: “Maybe that helped to make him a more original thinker, because he was in such a tight place. He had to think outside the box because he was trapped inside a box.”

Sixty years after his death, Turing is finally getting the honor he deserves with “The Imitation Game.”

Let’s hope that same recognition comes one day for Dayton’s own Joe Desch.

Contact this columnist at maryjomccarty@gmail.com.

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