History highlight: Not a job for a nervous man

  • Published
  • By Akhirah Padilla, NSA/CSS Public Affairs Officer

President Trump recently declared November as National Veterans and Military Families month. During the month of November, the National Security Agency will feature a short history that highlights the contributions of some lesser known cryptologic heroes. Check back here each Wednesday as we feature a new story, often derived from content in our oral histories archives. We hope you enjoy learning more about these veterans who often risked their lives in service to our Nation.  This week, we are featuring the story of an intercept operator from World War I. 


In World War I, the Radio Intelligence Service placed military intercept operators in bunkers along the front lines. One of these operators would crawl under barbed wire, through "No Man's Land," and get close to German trenches. The operator would place a copper "mat" about two feet square into the ground and run wires back to American lines. This device would pick up the pulses of enemy transmitters using the principle of induction. The process later was called "ground return intercept."

One veteran, with wonderful understatement, remarked that this was "not a job for a nervous man."

The intercept operators worked in eight-man teams, four on duty at a time. They reported directly to General Headquarters and were not subordinate to their local division. This had good and bad aspects.

The independence from division control freed them from many of the tedious chores imposed on infantrymen in camp. However, it also meant they frequently did not receive hot chow and often did not get warnings when the American lines were contracting.

The men learned to keep listening, even to sleep through German artillery barrages when off duty.
One intercept operator noted in retrospect that "we had plenty of everything but food; plenty of rats and cooties and lots of shelling and gas."

One operator, Sergeant Eugene Peterson, was in the U.S. First Division area. He asked some infantrymen in a nearby bunker to let his division know if a retreat was ordered. The infantrymen, serving in a rear guard unit, let Peterson know that the sound of their machine guns would be the alert for any ordered retreat. What actually happened was that Peterson and his fellow operators learned of the retreat because a frontline infantry unit passed them during a fast getaway from an enemy advance! 

In addition to the threat of unknown friendly retreats, Peterson and his team mates also faced the threat of German gas attacks. Because of the frequency of these attacks, the frontline intercept operators kept their gas masks close by. During one attack, the four men on duty donned their masks; Peterson saw that the infantry were moving to positions where the wind would take the gas away from them, and beckoned his team mates to follow. Unfortunately, they were separated in the confusion, and, after an hour, Peterson realized that the others had not followed him. As he started back to their bunker, Peterson passed the Red Cross station: his three buddies were laying on stretchers. They had taken their masks off during a lull in the shelling and failed to get them back on in time when it resumed. The three were sent to the hospital and later declared unfit for additional frontline duty.

Peterson, a corporal, and three privates were later cited by the Chief Signal Officer in April 1918 for their "coolness, steadfastness and resourcefulness" in "trying conditions." I think we would all agree they were most deserving of this citation. 

Next week, we will feature the story of a World War II veteran who served as a living language resource.


To learn more about cryptologic greats, visit the National Cryptologic Museum at the intersection of Maryland Route 32 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway (I-295), adjacent to the headquarters of the National Security Agency. Admission and parking are free. Click here (for hours, directions and other information. You can also follow the museum on Facebook.