Indiana lawyer’s instructive ’92 letter to Goerner: U.S. cryptanalysis “reaching its zenith in 1937/1938”
In Chapter XIV of Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last, “The Care and Nurture of a Sacred Cow,” I discuss several compelling aspects of the U.S. government’s longstanding refusal to disclose the truth that’s been hiding in plain sight in the Earhart matter for over 82 years, including a 1992 letter from Highland, Ind., attorney Michael Muenich to Fred Goerner. The Muenich letter brings the complex world of cryptanalysis into better focus, and strongly supports Goerner’s claim that we knew the Japanese had Earhart in their clutches, despite their assurances of assistance in the July 1937 search, which were later proven to be blatant lies. Boldface and italic emphasis mine throughout.
In his letter, Muenich, a civilian with a solid understanding of Navy radio intelligence capabilities, begins with a brief history of Navy cryptanalysis and code-breaking. He cites Admiral Edwin T. Layton’s 1985 book, And I Was There, not only for study of the days and months leading to Pearl Harbor, but “the first several chapters detail radio surveillance, intelligence, and capabilities during the 1930s.”
Muenich tells Goerner that our “level of sophistication” in reading the Japanese naval and diplomatic codes “was apparently reaching its zenith in 1937/1938,” and describes the overall intelligence situation in the Earhart disappearance as well as any single missive I can recall. Here’s the letter, with minimal editing:
March 30, 1992
Mr. Fred Goerner
Frederick Allan Goerner
Twenty-four Presidio Terrace
San Francisco, California 94118
RE: Amelia Earhart
Dear Mr. Goerner:
I presume by now you have seen the April issue of Life magazine, which has an article under the byline of Richard Gillespie and accompanying photos regarding the disappearance of Ms. Earhart. I, however, remain a skeptic. I have now had an opportunity to secure and review copies of your original volume and Klass’s [sic] volume and have reviewed them with an eye towards your theory of a landing in the Marshals and ultimate transportation to Saipan. I also picked up a newer volume “Amelia Earhart: The Final Story” by [Vincent V.] Loomis and [Jeffrey] Ethel, published in 1985. If you have not yet had an opportunity to read this volume, I commend it to you as an excellent examination of the mystery.
Like you in Saipan, they have interviewed numerous witnesses in the Marshalls which place Earhart and Noonan on Mili atoll, specifically ditching off Barre Island. They have also located a number of Japanese witnesses which corroborate the recovery of Earhart and Noonan, together with their aircraft, by the naval research vessel Koshu thence to Jaluit, Truk and ultimately Saipan. Their theory closely parallels yours, with the exception of the routing from Lae, in that they do not subscribe to the “spy theory” of over flights in the vicinity of Truk or Saipan, but rather have them diverting South across Nukumanu and Nauru Islands. Unfortunately you, Messrs. Loomis and Ethel have witnesses, but no “hard” evidence, and Gillespie has “hard” evidence [sic], which isn’t conclusive as to Earhart, and no witnesses.
What caught my attention in the article, your book, and the book of Loomis/Ethel is the reference to radio transmissions, either from the vicinity of the Marshal or the Phoenix group. Gillespie referred to a Navy flying boat, HMS Achilles, and various stations over the Pacific, apparently Pan Am at Hawaii, Midway and Wake Islands, and advised the Navy that triangulation placed the aircraft in the Phoenix group. I believe your book makes reference to Navy stations on the west coast which picked up similar signals, possibly emanating from the Marshalls. I believe it may be radio signals that created the Navy’s secrecy and paranoia concerning this entire affair.
Also published in 1985 was “And I Was There” by Rear Admiral Edwin T. Layton. While the volume is directed to and addresses the issues of naval intelligence and the attack on Pearl Harbor, the first several chapters detail radio surveillance, intelligence and capabilities during the 1930s. I have enclosed copies of certain pages that detail this information; however the synopsis is as follows: Beginning with World War I, Herbert O. Yardley organized the first code breaking offices for the U.S. military. The cipher bureau was called MI-8 and worked with the British and French through the end of World War I. This office continued in existence until 1929 when it was prohibited by the U.S. Secretary of State, Stimson, against “reading other people’s mail.” However, prior to ceasing the operations, the Americans were able to establish the 5:5:3 – Ship tonnage ratio between Britain, the U.S., and Japan. The U.S. was reading Tokyo’s telegraphic instructions to its delegations, which allowed the Americans to read Japan’s hand in the poker game.
Apparently the Navy became very proficient in their trade and completely replicated what was then known as the Japanese Red code. While the operations were supposed to be terminated after the naval conference, they apparently became, at best, dormant throughout the late 20s and early 30s. You will repeatedly find the names of Joe Rochefort, Joe Wenger, Agnes Driscoll, Lawrence Safford, Tommy Dyer, Wesley A. “Ham” Wright, and other apparent geniuses in radio intercepts, intelligence, and cryptoanalysis throughout Layton’s book. The Navy operated a full network with listening stations in Guam, Shanghai, Peking, Cavite, Australia, Hawaii, and the west coast with all of the material ultimately delivered to Washington, cryptoanalysis stations Negat (Washington) Hypo (Hawaii) and Cast (Cavite).
In late 1930 the Japanese changed their naval code system and went from the Red book to the Blue book. Breaking the Red book had taken approximately three years, however given the level of experience and talent then available, the key to the Blue code was broken in September, 1931. Thereafter the Navy continued penetrating the new cipher system and for a period of eight years continued to read the Japanese “mail.” The level of sophistication with the blue code was apparently reaching its zenith in 1937/1938. In November, 1938 the eight-year-old Blue book was suspended and the Japanese adopted the “AD” code, then in June, 1939 the “AN” code, later to be designated as JN-25 which we penetrated and read throughout World War II.
In addition to reading the naval code we were also apparently reading merchant code and most significantly the Japanese diplomatic codes. Examples are the Japanese low-grade ciphers designated “PA-K2,” “LA,” “J-19” and the high-grade diplomatic code “Purple,” frequently referred to as “Magic.” Purple became effective in February, 1939. Its predecessor was Red, not to be confused with the Navy’s red code book. Both the Red and Ppurple diplomatic codes were machine code, with Red first coming into use in 1935. Colonel William F. Friedman developed the “M3” machine which was being used by the Japanese foreign ministry in 1935 to encode its most confidential communications. By 1936 we were regularly reading Tokyo’s diplomatic messages on this device. Ultimately a “Purple” machine was developed to read the diplomatic codes after 1939.
The point of this history is this: if the U.S. Navy was prepared to spend $4,000,000 and the allocation of numerous naval vessels to the search for Amelia Earhart, I found it inconceivable, given the ability of the U.S. Navy to read both the diplomatic and naval codes, and the extent of their direction finding and cryptoanalysis [sic] stations around the Pacific, that they did not listen in on Japanese communications and follow the “search” from the Japanese side. . . . Most interestingly, most of the Japanese “fleet“ that was supposed to be scouring the Pacific was in fact tied up in Japan preparatory to its operations in China which began on July 5th.
Navy signal traffic would have clearly indicated that this “fleet” was not where the Japanese claimed it to be, and may even have been able to determine the activities of the Koshu in the Marshalls. It must have driven the Navy crazy to read Japanese communications about the great search, if it did, in fact, know that no such search was being made. It is also quite possible that Navy direction finders pinpointed Earhart’s aircraft or even the Japanese recovery, since they certainly had that capability, however were unable to get our naval vessels near that area because the Japanese, knowing Earhart to be down in the Marshalls, had grabbed her first and refused to allow our Navy into the area.
Finally none of this material could be released to the public without compromising our signals intelligence and warning the Japanese that we were reading their mail. That, in my opinion, would be more than sufficient basis for the Navy’s paranoia about secrecy in this entire matter, since little, if any, of the signals intelligence was released until the 1970’s or later.
Your search and other searches at “naval intelligence” probably would not have revealed the information and files at “naval communication” which apparently were two separate and distinct operations which frequently did not share information. Unfortunately that led to the debacle at Pearl Harbor and may have also been involved in the Earhart mystery. According to the bibliography attached to Layton’s book, record group 457 of the National Security Agency on file in the national archives contains portions of the radio traffic between 1940 and 1945 and encompass over 300,000 messages intercepted and decrypted. I presume there are similar record groups that cover the summer of 1937. . . . [A]n examination of naval communication records, records of OP-20-G and the National Security Agency of signal intercepts during June, July, and August of 1937 might well locate the key to resolving the mystery.
Very Truly Yours,
Michael L. Muenich
The records of OP-20-G and the National Security Agency of signal intercepts during June, July and August of 1937 referenced by Muenich are precisely the point: If these records contain Navy intercepts of Japanese messages indicating they had Earhart in custody or even knew of her whereabouts, as some believe, it would be the smoking gun many have long sought. Although I haven’t personally searched the National Archives for these records, others more inclined to navigate and endure the stifling NARA bureaucracy have done so and confirmed what many have strongly suspected—a gap exists where the records of intercepted Japanese radio transmissions would normally be found, from 1935 to 1940.
Are these intercepts still being kept at Crane, Ind., as Carroll Harris suggested to Goerner in 1980, or do they even exist at all anymore? Were the top-secret files destroyed “in the interest of national security” somewhere along the line, perhaps? Barring some unimaginable development — a miracle, in my opinion — we’ll never know the answers to these vexing questions, as it appears the key to the vault that holds Earhart secrets was thrown away long ago.
For further discussion of U.S. and Japanese radio transmitting and intercept capabilities, please see pages 263-264 and “Chapter III: The Search and the Radio Signals” in Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last.