Getting The Word

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The code clerk was scanning the document she had just decoded into lumpy English. The Japanese had surrendered.

On Monday morning I could hardly make my way into the legation through the throngs of reporters and photographers crowding the front lawn. All through that day the wait continued, every telephone call charged with tension. Before I went home on Monday evening, Fritz had an opportunity to take me aside and tell me: “You know I’ll be recalled to Bern soon after this is over. When I can send for you, will you come?”

“I don’t know—I wish—” I gasped. “Let’s talk about it later.”

After reading bedtime stories to my children, I slept little that night. Our phone rang at 6:00 A.M. with the terse message from Max Grassli: “We are receiving a message. A car will pick you up within the hour.” I had barely finished dressing before the big diplomatic car pulled up in front of our little house.

But the coded message was not the one we were waiting for. Once again we drifted about the offices, with Fritz trying to fend off the ever more impatient newshounds.

Finally Fritz and Grassli appeared at my office door and simply nodded toward the upper floor. I went up the steps to the lonely desk where the code clerk sat, perspiring in the August heat. She was scanning the last page of the document she had just decoded into lumpy English. The Japanese had surrendered. The war was over.

We read the entire message quickly, and I had only one question: “What’s an imperial ‘recript’?” No one knew. I grabbed the nearest English dictionary, but the word was not to be found.

Back at my desk I took deep breaths and started typing on the heavy, embossed “Légation de Suisse” stationery. When I reached the unfamiliar word, I took a lucky guess and inserted an s figuring “rescript” must mean some sort of document.

There must not be a single typo in this message. In those days carbons meant time lost in erasures on each copy—and the schnell Frau Leonard’s reputation was on the line. I quickly proofread the final result before giving it to Grassli for signature, and he and Fritz Real took off for the White House to make personal delivery.

As soon as the news hit the wires, I commanded a free line from the legation switchboard and told my waiting family. Said my mother: “Johnny’s going next door, taking pots and pans and spoons. He and the Chinese boys will parade their own drum corps up and down the street!”

As soon as our diplomats returned, the whole staff began to celebrate. There was music, and singing, and laughter, and indeed much champagne. A reporter from the Washington Post cornered me for an interview, and a photographer snapped my picture.

Finally Fritz and I were alone.

“Just think,” I said. “That memo I typed will remain in the official Archives of the United States as the final surrender note of World War Two.”

He took my hand and said gently, “I must tell you something, so we can make a slight correction in our files.”

“What—what did I do?”

Liebchen , who were you thinking of when you wrote Joseph F. Byrnes as Secretary of State? It’s all right- the files will be changed—but who is this Joseph?”

I moaned. “I don’t know! The only Joseph I can think of is—Stalin?”

And he laughed and laughed until at last I could too.

No, I didn’t follow him to Switzerland, though his cables and letters (some of them addressed to me as his “Dear Joseph”) were very compelling. Fritz went on to become the Swiss ambassador to Poland, India, and other faraway places. And I tucked my children under my arm and went in the opposite direction—to California and eventually a different, long-lasting love. But it was a sweet romance while it lasted, with no regrets.