Thursday, December 8, 2011

"Mrs. Friedman"

Every cryptohistorian knows the name of William Friedman but almost no one is familiar with the contributions of  "Mrs. Friedman" who must have been an unusual woman in her own right.

Early army cryptologist Solomon Kullbeck recalls meeting her  while undergoing his Friedman-directed OJT in the foundational techniques of code making and breaking.  He reported that the older couple sometimes invited the trainees over for what he described as "charming' social gatherings.

But "Mrs. Friedman" also held a day job.Prohibition had turned rum running into a  profitable business based on the ability to plan, co-ordinate, and carry out complex naval operations. The Rum Runners were the single biggest users of coded communications in the period between the wars and the Coast Guard  had its own crypto unit just to break them. Our dear, unsung "Mrs. Friedman"  headed that 3-man  service.

Kullbeck said that Mr. Friedman would sometimes bring in real world problems from "Mrs. Friedman's" unit and ask his trainees to develop solutions for them.  One such  assignment was to solve 'double-transposition' codes, codes which the Coast Guard unit had already met and mastered before Kullbeck and company ever saw them.

All of this makes me think that Mrs. F, and her team of Coasties need further investigation. At the very least, does not "Mrs. Friedman" deserve to have her name known for posterity?

But as always, when delving into things crypto, one story leads to another.  In this case, recall if you will that it was a Coastie radio intercept station that caught the wee-hours German tranmissions from a sub off the coast of Norfolk VA, sent with a distinctive ALK at the end.  It is quite possible that this designation indicated A. L. "Beau Kitselman, who told his youngest daughter that he spent his war years in a Norfolk hotel room breaking codes. I've written about that event and linked to the Radioman's story in at least one other place.

And that story seems to link back to Townsend's  in a quirky sense. As the head of the Atlantic Fleet Radio/Radar/Radar Material school, Townsend had taken over the Cavalier Hotel in the Norfolk/Virginia Beach area to use as a training facility.  But that's not the quirky part. This is:

The FBI reported that Townsend's abrupt departure from the Navy was due to an act of "self-confessed" homosexuality in a Norfolk hotel during the war.  What better way to explain why he may have been seen slipping into the same hotel room again and again late at night?

And, going way out on a limb here, perhaps this story also brought about an intended side benefit.   What better way to catch the attention of a prurient, but repressed J. Edgar Hoover and ensure that his office kept a close watch on a man who was a valuable national asset? Oh, to have just one day in the FBI vault where his most secret files were stashed!

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