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Passing from the ranks of 'undesirables' to the front line


My short career in cryptography
Richard Wilbur Poet
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While I was at Amherst of course the... America became involved in World War II. I was slow to become involved. I was more interested in being married, but shortly after our marriage in June of 1942, it became clear to me that I had to get into it one way or another, and I volunteered for the Enlisted Reserve Corps, which took us to New York City for several months where we had an apartment in Greenwich Village and where I studied each day radio physics, radio repair and Morse code transmission at an ERA school.

When I reported for duty at Fort Dix not long after, I discovered that they didn't need any more radio people and they asked me if there was anything else I could conceivably do. At some time during my adolescence I had been interested in cryptography and sufficiently interested in it to take a correspondence course from the US government in that subject and that technique. I learned all about the Playfair Cipher and other cryptographic means which were now thoroughly out of date. But when I told them that at Fort Dix, they said, all right, we'll let you become a crypto- cryptographic technician, and they sent me off for basic training, after which I began to train specifically to be a cryptographer.

It looked, as a matter of fact, as if I were going to be not only a cryptographer but a cryptanalyst. I was on the verge of being taught various languages at a secret camp in the woods of Virginia and converted then into a breaker of enemy codes, when it turned out that the counterintelligence corps and the FBI regarded me as too much of a boy radical to be trusted. Now actually, I was not much of a boy radical, I think that I was an articulate admirer of Franklin Roosevelt, the New Deal and that kind of approach to political life. But I came to feel and indeed came to know that what they wanted in secret work in the US army during World War II was bright, trustworthy people who had in fact no interest in politics and were as ignorant as possible of it.

Acclaimed US poet Richard Wilbur (1921-2017) published many books and was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize. He was less well known for creating a musical version of Voltaire's “Candide” with Bernstein and Hellman which is still produced throughout the world today.

Listeners: David Sofield

David Sofield is the Samuel Williston Professor of English at Amherst College, where he has taught the reading and writing of poetry since 1965. He is the co-editor and a contributor to Under Criticism (1998) and the author of a book of poems, Light Disguise (2003).

Tags: Amherst, World War II, New York, USA, Greenwich Village, Morse code, Playfair Cipher, Virginia, FBI, US army, Franklin Roosevelt

Duration: 3 minutes, 41 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008