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Eavesdropping On The Rising Sun
A young man from Queens jumps into the thick of World War II intelligence activities by translating secret Japanese messages
Fall 2009 | Volume 59, Issue 3
After that night and those first hectic weeks, work in New Delhi settled into a more or less normal pattern, and everything had a feel of anticlimax. If we were no longer stimulated by the daily grind, there was always the adventure of India itself to combat "desk fatigue." India was overwhelming: the ancient forts and temples, the unfamiliar architecture and decorations, the pungent smells from restaurant kitchens, the variety of incomprehensible languages. I saw in Calcutta the most shattering poverty I have ever witnessed—families conducting their entire lives in the streets, sometimes without even the wretched shelter of a few square yards of cloth stretched over sticks. Sixty-five years ago, extended travel was technologically and financially possible for only a few who traveled by ship. Yet here was the war picking us up and dumping us by the thousands and hundreds of thousands in exactly such places, to gawk and be gawked at. As much as anything, this mighty, swift, and temporary scattering of Americans around the globe— which we were the first to experience on such a scale—linked our own youth to the birth of the current era in which, like it or not, we all truly live in one world.
The scene changed again for me at the end of November 1944 when I was dispatched to Kunming to join
the small signal intelligence detachment in the rear echelon headquarters of the China theater—severed from CBI in a high-level political realignment. Once again I set to translating accumulated backlogs of shipping traffic. The work was not trivial, being of considerable use to our China-based bombers, who continued the methodical destruction of Japan's merchant marine, or at least those parts of it plying China's coast and logistically supporting Japan's huge occupying army. But it definitely lacked the zing of reading daily bulletins minutes removed from Japanese headquarters in Burma.
The war continued to run its course. From halfway around the world we followed the bulletins describing the final dissolution of the Third Reich and cheered the arrival of V-E Day, but we did not anticipate much if any change in our own near futures. It would take a long time to move the millions deployed in Europe to our side of the world and mount the invasion of the Home Islands. The swift end to the war in slightly less than four months after Germany's surrender came as a dazzling and, of course, welcome surprise. I cannot say that any of us expressed a single qualm about the use of two atomic bombs On crowded cities, though the ghastly extent of that destruction and loss of life wasn't fully known yet. I'm now a nuclear abolitionist, but I was not so on that August night, which happened to be the eve of my 23rd birthday, when the Armed Forces Radio announced to us that Emperor Hirohito had agreed to terms of surrender. Pandemonium broke out on the post, bottles squirreled away for just such a moment were produced, work stopped, and a jubilant and very drunken evening followed, with no regrets or reprimands. After a couple of toasts I chose to sit up all night in relatively solemn thought, guarding the classified documents in our office in company with one of the enlisted men.
In mid-December 1945 I steamed under the Golden Gate Bridge, choking up to see the message WELCOME HOME. WELL DONE! painted in white on rocks in the harbor. Then a transcontinental train trip, a reunion with my family before New Year's Day, and finally orders to report to the separation center at Fort Dix. There, while going through the routines of discharge with thousands of others from this vast, various nation, I was once more struck by the magnitude, the sheer vastness of the process that had collected us all from every corner of the United States, scattered us over so many known and little-known parts of the great globe itself, and was now methodically sorting us out and returning us, in many cases unrecognizable to our former selves, from whence we came.
World War II came as close as a war can ever come to being necessary if the world was to be spared an evil as radical as war itself. And I wouldn't have missed my part of it for anything.