I have written more than two dozen of these cover stories for this newsletter by interviewing museum members who have had remarkable military careers. It has always been a true honor to meet these veterans that were part of our nation’s history and valiantly defended the freedoms that we Americans too often take for granted. John Bergmann was certainly no excption.
He was referred by several of his friends at the museum who assured me that he had an interesting story to tell. Boy, were they on target! I agreed to meet with John one afternoon at his home and chatted with him for 2½ hours, which seemed like 15 minutes. I was simply in awe of everything he said; and in the back of my mind I kept thinking, “He’s told me enough to write a novel or make a movie. How in the world am I going to put this in a relatively short article for our museum publication?” I’ve done my best…
John was born in Chicago on July 6, 1920. (I interviewed him when he was nearly 97 years old, and yet his mind was as sharp as anyone I have ever met, and his speech and memory were remarkable. He was simply amazing!) When he was only nine years old, John’s father was killed by a drunk driver while he was standing on a platform awaiting a street car. His mother, a Swedish immigrant, had never held a job because she was always a homemaker; so she was lacking skills for finding employment, especially since the nation was just entering the Great Depression.
Until she could support herself and her son, she sent John to Pittsburgh to live with an aunt and uncle (a couple who had no children) - a situation she hoped would be temporary. John’s uncle was a business executive who continued to do well financially throughout the Depression and thereafter. John attended public schools in Pittsburgh and graduated from South Hills High School at age 16. He immediately enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh to continue his love of mathematics. He took every math course available in both high school and college and excelled at them. His goal was to become a CPA, his life’s ambition. He held internships while in college with various CPA firms, which only confirmed his dream of becoming a CPA.
Sometime prior to graduation, John received a special visit from a man from Washington DC. The gentleman told him that he was needed in the military and not much more of a reason than the fact that, while becoming an Eagle Scout, John had mastered Morse code. John was offered a direct commission to Second Lieutenant in the Army. In the middle of 1941, at age 20, John was presented with his bachelor’s degree, orders to report to Ft. Mead, Maryland, and a one-way train ticket there.
On June 1st John showed up as ordered. Upon arrival, John joined 24 other young men just like him – guys with outstanding intelligence and especially exemplary math skills. John was amazed to learn that they were almost clones of one another and had similar talents and interests. Even though these 25 men were commissioned Second Lieutenants, they received no military or basic training. During their first long day of briefings at Ft. Meade, they were told that they were to become the beginning of U.S. military intelligence. This was such a top secret operation that even the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, was not made aware. Earlier Stimson had learned of a clandestine operation in NYC, whereby a group of Americans had broken into a Japanese office there and stolen secret codes. President Roosevelt was told by Stimson that, “Gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail,” which made it abundantly clear that he was opposed to such covert activities. Ignoring Stimson and somehow finding a budget to fund this new group, President Roosevelt began to assemble a team under the code name of “Treetop.”
Their job would be to intercept German and Japanese communications and break the codes. On this first day, each of the 25 “recruits” was ordered to sign an oath of secrecy to NEVER tell anyone what his military duties were. And each of the men was given a cover story to tell people what they did in Washington. Because Bergmann had been an accounting major in college, he was to tell people he did payroll for the military. They listened to briefings, completed wills, got insurance, and signed some other paperwork before being released after only one day to return home for a week’s leave. John went back to Pittsburgh to spend the week with his girlfriend, Lois, who later would become his wife of 55 years. He has a beautiful photo of the two of them with John wearing a makeshift uniform (with one stripe on his sleeve) he had been given while new ones were being tailored. Upon returning to Ft. Meade the team was ordered that under no circumstances were they allowed to have any photographs or snapshots of any type until cleared to do so. John, therefore, has no photos of himself at all during the next four and a half years of his military service.
During their six weeks of training, the team operated in a stand-alone, fenced-in building on the base that was constantly manned by an armed guard at the gate. (These 25 men and their instructors were the original unit that later became the National Security Agency, still headquartered at Ft. Meade, which today has more than 10,000 employees.) Most of their training came from British experience.
The Brits had maintained a large interception and codebreaking operation for a number of years in an ultra-secret operation headquartered in one building at Bletchley Park, England – 50 miles north of London. (By the end of the war, there were nearly 30 different huts on the grounds, each housing an intelligence agency with a different specialty.) Both the Japanese and Germans used similar encoding and decoding devices. The German version was called the Enigma Machine, and the Japanese version was called the Purple Machine. Such machines dated back prior to WWI and were used by commercial banks, businesses, and diplomatic organizations who wished to keep their communications coded from competitors’ eyes. They were “electro-mechanical rotor cipher machines.”
Once a code was entered, a roller containing sets of letters rotated, and with three such rollers (later models had many more rollers) there were 17,000 code combinations available. Each letter was entered manually on a keyboard similar to an old manual typewriter. The message was sent, and the receiving unit would automatically decode it when its rollers had been set using the same code. (Readers can go on the web to learn more about this fascinating equipment.) Of course the easiest way to decode a message was to obtain the enemy’s monthly codes and enter them into a similar Enigma or Purple Machine.
The U.S. could obtain them when ships or subs were sunk, from radio stations, or various types of raids. However, when it was not possible to obtain the code sheets, the minds of these brilliant men would have to scan a tape or message looking for the frequency or repetition of letters to try and decipher a message. John’s training lasted only six weeks, and he was immediately sent to Pearl Harbor in the summer of 1941.
Remember that the Japanese did not bomb Pearl Harbor until December 7th that year, so the U.S. was not yet at war. After a brief stay in Hawaii, Bergmann was flown to Australia (with a stop at Wake Island) and then to Calcutta, India, where John was briefed on a top secret mission he would take part in.
Keep in mind that 2nd Lt. Bergmann had been in the military for less than three months and had never had any basic military or combat training. It was August of 1941, and the Japanese were suspected of planning to invade India. Bergmann, accompanied by 12 Army Rangers was assigned the mission of travelling to the Kachin Hills of far northern Burma (adjacent to China) to find and steal a valuable code setting sheet from a remote Japanese communications relay station high on a hill. This team had no idea how many Japanese troops were at the site, and it was an extremely dangerous mission. As they were crawling up to the station, John is not sure what exactly happened.
Perhaps a trip wire set off a land mine or a percussion bomb. In any case, the resulting explosion caused the loss of Bergmann’s right eye; and the mission was obviously aborted. The team retreated back to a grass landing strip where a C-47 picked them up. The sergeant sitting next to John on the flight back to Calcutta pulled out a small tin box and said, “Well I guess we won’t be needing these anymore.” When John asked the NCO what was in the box, he was told that there were 13 cyanide pills to be taken in the event of capture. The Japanese were notorious for their torture techniques, and nobody wanted the Japanese to learn what John or the other 12 team members knew or what their mission was.
Upon returning to the U.S. John was treated in Valley Forge Military Hospital near Philadelphia with a colonel at his bedside whose sole purpose was to be certain that Bergmann didn’t accidentally say something he shouldn’t in his sleep or under medication. John’s eye socket was repaired by a team of doctors and an artificial eye fitted that had been made by the dental laboratory. (The U.S. had been getting its supply of artificial eyes from Germany, but that supply had been cut off with Germany at war in Europe.) Of course, John thought he’d get a Purple Heart and a discharge from the Army as a result. But that was not to be.
They wouldn’t release John for more than four years, as they still needed his intelligence, expertise, and experience. Part of his new tasking was for John to serve as liaison between Ft. Meade and Bletchley Park, England. He always worked closely with a Brit named Alan Turing, a Cambridge professor who is now widely considered the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence.
Usually twice a year, Bergmann would fly to England and spend several weeks with Turing. Normally Turing was somewhat of a recluse, but he and Bergmann became close friends, almost like brothers, enjoying games of chess or bridge with one another. Bergmann agrees with the belief of many that the work of Turing, Bletchley Park and the Allied codebreaking teams possibly shortened WWII by several years. (Periodically throughout my interview John emphasized that his group was by no means heroic. They were merely doing the tasks assigned to them. They were part of a team effort in the military just as were cooks, truck drivers, secretaries, mechanics, and nurses. Our successes in winning WWII were the result of millions of people performing different, necessary jobs. For all of his accomplishments in life, John remains an incredibly humble man.)
During one of his trips to the UK, Bergmann and Alan Turing were summoned to London. They rode a train to the city and were driven to #10 Downing Street. Not knowing at all why they were there or what to expect, they were escorted to a room in the basement. In that room were two gentlemen, Winston Churchill (smoking a cigar, as usual) and General Dwight D. Eisenhower. After some brief pleasantries, the visitors were told that they were to return to Bletchley Park and mandate that all the Allied countries work closer together, because it seems that some countries had been withholding their knowledge from others. (Many years later, While John, Lois and their two daughters were visiting Gettysburg, their tour took them past the farm where Ike and Mamie had retired near town.
When the tour ended, John drove his family back to the farm and knocked on the door. He explained who he was to the lady who answered the door. She left and returned a few moments later, leading them to a room where Ike was seated at a desk. John told of their meeting in London, and Ike recalled it. He was very gracious with John and his family but had to keep the conversation brief, as he had an appointment waiting.)
While at Ft. Meade for the remainder of his service, he and his team periodically went to the rifle range, just as would any other Army officer. John was told that, if anyone asked how he lost his eye, he was to tell them that his bolt action Springfield rifle had malfunctioned and shrapnel from it caused him to lose his eye. John married Lois in 1943, about half way through his four and a half year stint in the Army. He was discharged as a major on December 7, 1945. He and his 24 classmates were all offered continued service with the Army, but all 25 decided to get out and pursue civilian careers. (Of those 25, John is the sole survivor.)
John returned to Pittsburgh and went to work as an accountant for Peabody Coal Company that later merged with another coal company headquartered here in Columbus. As a result, John and his family relocated here. John had worked his way up the ranks to become an executive with them and had a very successful career doing what he loved. During this period, John was living a lie. Nobody doubted that he did anything in the military during WWII but payroll in DC or the fact that he lost his eye on a rifle range.
For forty years, John was not even allowed to tell his wife or daughters what he had actually done. Finally, in 1985 – forty years after his discharge - he was allowed to tell everyone the truth. He and Lois were deeply devoted to one another, and it was extremely difficult on John not to be able to tell her his actual experiences until then. She and their daughters were aghast when he sat them down at a table and told them his story. Unfortunately, Lois developed Parkinson’s disease. Knowing it would be difficult if not impossible for him to maintain a career and be caretaker to Lois, John retired in 1983 at the age of 63. John cared for her until Lois passed away in 1998.
John has remained extremely active in a number of different organizations. He has been a lifetime member of our museum. He has been vital for many years to running his local American Legion post. He also spends a great deal of time in a community senior citizen center, where for many years, once a month, he has arranged for a veteran to come and speak of his/her military experiences. As a result, he has become friends with dozens of central Ohio veterans. He fondly remembers his friendships with General Paul Tibbets and Lee Hayes. (Hayes had been tasked at the last moment to be radio operator on The USS Pueblo, the U.S. Navy intel-gathering ship that was captured by North Korea in 1968. Lee and the rest of the crew became POWs for the next eleven months.
Meanwhile, reverse engineering of the communications devices on the Pueblo allowed the North Koreans to share knowledge with the Soviet Union, ultimately giving both nations access to the Navy’s classified communications systems.) John has given presentations to schools, civic organizations, and other groups to tell of his own experiences. An avid military historian and reader, John has mountains of books, videos, tapes, and other memorabilia in his home. He is simply a wealth of knowledge, a man I admire deeply. God bless you, John Bergmann! Thank you for your sacrifice.
As a postscript, I would encourage readers to GOOGLE Alan Turing and read the complete story of his life on the Wikipedia blog. And, watch the 2014 movie, “The Imitation Game,” about Turing and what happened at Bletchley Park and to him after the war ended. Incredibly amazing stuff!!! And John Bergmann knew all the players at Bletchley Park during WWII. He says the movie is 95% accurate… It is a remarkable movie, even more so because it actually happened.