Getting The Word

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The gray stone mansion that housed the Swiss Legation in Washington was a virtual Tower of Babel in the week after the atomic bombs exploded over Japan. Everyone knew that war’s end was imminent and the official surrender note from Emperor Hirohito would come through our mission at any hour. French, German, Italian, and English dialogues rattled the eardrums.

As Minister Charles Bruggmann’s private secretary for English correspondence, I had high hopes that the honor of typing the final message would rest with me. But I wasn’t sure. The minister himself was in Bern for conference, and his chargé d’affaires, Max Grassli, had an efficient Swiss secretary with long seniority in their foreign service.

But two points were in my favor. Besides being equally efficient, I was the only American on the staff, and this was an opportunity for diplomatic recognition. Furthermore, First Secretary Fritz Real, whom I was dating at the time, spoke in my behalf. I heard him tell Grassli in Schwyzer Dutsch, the German patois the Swiss from Bern or Zurich often spoke to one another, “ Fraulein Helfenstein? Ist gut, aber ist neut so schnell .” (She’s good, but not as fast.) And everyone knew that as soon as the coded message arrived, speed was of the essence. The world was waiting. I was told to be ready at a moment’s notice.

The divorced mother of two small sons, I decided shortly after Pearl Harbor to flee a government secretarial pool for a job with better hours and pay. My mother had moved in with me, but she, too, was working, and juggling child care and living expenses was no easy task.

Through a friend at the State Department, I heard that the Minister of Switzerland was searching for an American secretary to help with English correspondence, and I immediately applied. With the cockiness of youth, I boasted that I was “a proficient grammarian” and made passing reference to the fact that I had studied French. I signed my name, “Ruth Leonard,” with a flourish. Dr. Bruggmann, a serious man, was impressed enough to send for me. In our interview he explained the important role of his neutral country as a go-between for the warring powers, and I was intrigued.

By 1945 my older brothers were both in service—one already in the Pacific and the other stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington, awaiting shipment to Japan. For us, as for millions of others, surrender could come not a minute too soon. Now, finally, I might be able to make my own small contribution.

Friday night, August 10, the Swiss Federal Political Department in Bern (the equivalent of our State Department) was reported to have cabled Grassli that the Japanese were willing to surrender, provided their emperor’s “prerogatives would remain undisturbed.” This message was conveyed to U.S. Secretary of State James F. Byrnes, and on Saturday acceptance by the Allied powers was cabled back to Bern by Grassli.

All these messages were transmitted in code. One elderly clerk presided over a mysterious machine in the attic of the legation. Her decoded messages were translated into a rough English approximation, which it was then my job to polish into the stilted language of the diplomatic service: “The Minister of Switzerland presents his compliments to The Honorable, The Secretary of State,” et cetera, et cetera.

Now we waited, secretaries rotating shifts at the switchboard on twenty-four-hour duty. Even I, a technological misfit except for my typewriter, was pressed into service at the tangle of plugs and wires on Saturday, August 11. I was horrified for fear I would cut off either Minister Bruggmann calling from Bern or, worse, the office of the Secretary of State. The only one I actually unplugged was my heroic mother, drafted into child guardianship at home, calling to ask if I would be home for dinner. I called her back to apologize and say no.

Sandwiches were ordered from a caterer on nearby Connecticut Avenue. We stoked up the coffee urn and took turns serving. One of the young Swiss secretaries went home for her accordion and entertained us with music; several of the group began to yodel in the finest Alpine tradition. Fritz Real dashed to his apartment a few blocks away and returned with several bottles of wine to lift our spirits.

Finally Max Grassli sent for a mattress from the minister’s hillside home next door to the legation and decided to sleep on the floor of his office, telephone at his side. He sent the rest of us home, all but a skeleton crew of top aides and the code clerk. I was to be sent for if the final surrender message came through, but otherwise I could have my Sunday at home.

I was twenty-five years old and felt at the center of the universe. I tried to explain to my six-year-old, John, that Big Things were happening—the war was about to end at last—and I promised he would be one of the first to know, right after President Truman and the Secretary of State. Next door to us lived two of his young friends, Kay-Fa and Kay-Na, whose father worked at the Chinese Embassy. John asked if he could tell them too, and I said, “Not till I phone and give you the word.” Solemnly, John swore secrecy.