In Honor of Bernard A. Weisberger: 2nd Lt. in World War IIComments About Historians
tags: Bernard Weisberger
Robert J. Hanyok is a retired intelligence analyst and historian formerly with the Department of Defense. In addition to numerous lectures and articles, he is the author of Eavesdropping on Hell. Historical Guide to Western Communications and the Holocaust, 1939-1945; West Wind Clear: Cryptology and the Winds Message Controversy – A Documentary History; and Spartans in Darkness: American SIGINT and the Indochina War, 1945 – 1975.
The historian’s art is not really some noble (and unobtainable) gesture like “seeking the truth.” Rather, it is the more mundane, yet harder objective: to restore the historical narrative, to tell a story as “it really happened.” At an even more granular level, the ultimate purpose of any history is to restore, in some fashion, the personal histories of the actors within the event(s) being recounting. It is not altogether ironic, then, to find that a historian can have “his story” restored – such as was the case when Bernie Weisberger’s wartime story crossed my path in 2002.
A brief explanation is first necessary: In late 2001, I was working on my Master’s thesis concerning US intelligence in Indochina at the end of World War II. My interest centered on a number of small team of United States’ intelligence officers from the US Army, Navy and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), whose missions took them across China and Southeast Asia. One set of teams belonged to an Allied joint effort known as the Target Intelligence Committee or TICOM. Their mission was to go to Japanese headquarter and communications facilities to collect information about their cryptography (codes and ciphers), as well as their exploitation of Allied communications and codes.
Of particular interest to me was the team that went to Hanoi. In the process of researching that team, I found the reports of the two other TICOM teams that were dispatched to Canton (Guangzhou) and Shanghai/Nanking (Nanjing). I was conferring with historians from the US Army’s Intelligence and Security Command, when I mentioned my find. One of them passed along an email from Bernie Weisberger. Could he get a copy of the report he and his partner, Frank Tenny had written in October 1945? I mailed Bernie a copy of the report*. The following recounts, in the barest fashion, Bernie’s adventure at a place that was simultaneously dangerous, mysterious, boring, and tedious.
In Europe, TICOM teams had operated with great success. Nazi Germany was completely occupied and the TICOM teams freely roamed Europe gathering Axis codes and interviewing personnel about the Enigma and other code and cipher systems. However, the experiences of the TICOM teams in the Pacific and Asia were markedly different. The rapid Japanese surrender in August 1945 had caught the Allies by surprise. Few plans and units were in place for the disarming of Japanese forces, repatriation of POWs, occupation and administration of conquered territory, and the acquisition of records, especially in China. The Allied commands in Kunming and Chungking (Chongqing) had to slap together TICOM teams from volunteers, quickly brief them, and dispatch them by plane, train, or truck to Japanese army headquarters in Hanoi, Shanghai, Nanjing, Chongqing and Peking (Beijing). These teams usually consisted of one or two officers and two or three Nisei interpreters. The team designated to get to Shanghai and Nanjing consisted of two army officers, 1st Lieutenant Francis Tenny and 2nd Lt. Bernard Weisberger, and two Nisei interpreters, T/Sgt Ralph Kidani and Sgt Shizo Takai. Bernie mentioned to me later that he was not quite clear for what he was volunteering, but it was better than sitting around in Kunming.
The territory the team had to travel was fraught with unknown dangers. For one, there was no way to predict what sort of reception the team would receive from the Japanese. Recall that the Japanese army in China and many other places had not been defeated. Even though the Emperor had announced Japan’s surrender, many units were hostile to the idea, and some of the Emperor’s relatives had to be dispatched to various Group and Theater commands to assure compliance with the terms. With the long delay in occupying Japanese territory, local commands had time to destroy relevant and incriminating records, especially secret material and anything to do with atrocities and treatment of Allied POWs. Then there was the rumor-mongering - as one Chongqing newspaper reported, rogue SS “Werewolf” units operating in China. (This was fantasy. A few German military and SS intelligence officers were scattered about China. They were not diehard fanatics.)
There were more mundane issues to overcome. Just getting to Shanghai proved difficult; Bernie and his team did not arrive until 20 September, some 18 days after the Japanese official surrender (and five weeks after Japan accepted terms). There were no vehicles available for them to get around the city. Since the Chinese had occupied the city and assumed control, the team had to rely solely upon the Chinese military administration for local support and transportation. To meet with the Japanese, Frank and Bernie had to go through the local Chinese occupation command. As their report noted, it took six days, including ”three days of false starts and dinners with the Chinese in order to secure one interview,” with the chief of the Japanese 13th Army’s Code Department.
The meetings were conducted with three sets of interpreters, eight Chinese, and five Japanese, all carrying on business “with incredible hubbub.” Meanwhile, the Japanese officers were free to come and go. Under no compulsion from the Chinese, the Japanese stalled responding to the team’s requests for information. They politely bowed and saluted, but largely ignored American requests. The Japanese also played the game of “what’s past is past” and tried to be friends with the American team. But Frank and Bernie saw through these tactics and reported that most records and cryptographic material had been destroyed and the interviewees were not forthcoming. As noted in the report, because of immunity from the Chinese, the Japanese “had no hesitation in lying to us.”
Things were little different in Nanjing. There they managed to interview two Japanese officers under much of the same condition as in Shanghai. Those officers, too, tended to claim ignorance of details of their work in China and asserted what they did was of no importance.
Eventually, Frank and Bernie collected samples of 18 Japanese codes and ciphers, and interviewed over 15 officers and civilians from code and communications departments in Shanghai and Nanjing. As they reported there was little hope of getting substantial information unless the Americans controlled the meetings and their context.
Interestingly, Frank and Bernie also interviewed a number of German and Italian code and communications experts in Shanghai. These belonged to a German military intelligence element known locally as the Erhardt Bureau or Kriegs organization (War organization). Set up in 1942, this small element, composed of Italian and German maritime and civilian radio operators, monitored Allied shipping and air radio communications. Supposedly their take was shared with the local Japanese intelligence, but it is unknown what, if anything was done with the information. Frank and Bernie were fortunate in that they were working alongside an OSS intelligence gathering team, part of the X-2 division, or Counter Intelligence. It was noted that the two teams gathered much information from the Germans. By late October 1945, Frank and Bernie’s team was back in Kunming.
This story came full circle on April 24, 2002. On that day, INSCOM hosted a celebration of the TICOM experience at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and over a dozen former members were invited, including Bernie and Frank, as was I. The INSCOM commander, Major General Keith Alexander, extolled the results and bravery of the teams. Bernie and Frank were rather amazed at the rhetoric, feeling that their mission’s danger and results was somewhat exaggerated. Both had a droll take on their mission, seeming to view it as a high lark of sorts. Bernie insisted that Frank wrote the entire report – he claimed, with a smile, that Frank knew more than he did and was a better writer.
At the end of the event, Bernie autographed a copy of America Afire and inscribed to me: “…with thanks for his part in recovering some personal history and best wishes. – Bernie Weisberger.
*Report on Axis SIGINT and Cryptographic Activities in the Shanghai and Nanking Area.
26 October 1945
comments powered by Disqus
- Historians at the Rochester Institute of Technology are bolstering Wikipedia’s archive of entries on women’s history
- "Multiple Steves and Pauls": A History Panel Sets Off a Diversity Firestorm
- University of Washington Dean defends the liberal arts degree on economic grounds
- David S. Wyman, author of "The Abandonment of the Jews," has died at age 89
- Jon Meacham finds new meaning in the Age of Trump in Barbara Tuchman’s work on “The March of Folly”