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NSA Historical Figures

CAPT Laurance Safford, USN

1999 Hall of Honor Inductee

Laurance F. Safford, the "father of U.S. Navy cryptology," established the Naval cryptologic organization after World War I, and headed the effort more or less constantly until shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. His identification with the Naval effort was so close that he was the Friedman of the Navy.

Safford was born in 1890 in Massachusetts. He secured a commission to Annapolis, and graduated fifteenth in the class of 1916. His early career on board ships gave no indication of the role he was to play in cryptologic history. But Safford was unconventional - a constantly rumpled uniform hid an excellence in mathematics and an affinity for machines, and he was attracted to chess and other such intellectual pursuits. In January of 1924 he was called from command of a minesweeper off the China coast to head the "research desk" of the Code and Signal Section within the Office of Naval Communications. In the beginning his sole task was to exploit a Japanese naval codebook that had been filched from the Japanese consulate in New York. To do this he had four civilian clerical employees.

He was perfect for the job. Safford promoted the effort throughout the Navy, attracting brilliant minds like his own, including Agnes Meyer Driscoll, Joseph Rochefort, Joseph Wenger, and others who were to lead the business through World War II and into the postwar period. He was the first to begin organizing the worldwide Naval collection and direction finding effort, so that when the United States entered World War II it already had a system of intercept stations. Safford himself was wrenched out of the job in 1926, returning in 1929. He remained with the effort except for another sea tour from 1932 to 1936. Meanwhile, the effort that he headed broke Japanese naval codes, and began mechanizing its operations with the addition of IBM equipment. Safford himself was directly involved with building cryptographic machines, and collaborated with the Army's Frank Rowlett in the invention of the SIGABA, the only cipher machine never broken by any country during World War II.

Safford promoted collaboration with the Army on several fronts, and was largely responsible for the Navy entry into a joint effort with the Army on the Japanese diplomatic systems. He recognized the signs of war that appeared in the diplomatic traffic, and tried to get a warning message to Pearl Harbor several days before the attack, but was rebuffed by Admiral Noyes, the director of Naval communication. Organizationally, he promoted a decentralized system with Naval COMINT sections in Washington, Hawaii and Manila. He gave the chief Japanese naval code problem to the organization in Hawaii, and named the brilliant Joseph Rochefort to head the effort. (He also gave Rochefort a blank check to obtain the very best Navy cryptanalysts.) This paid off in the spring of 1942 when Rochefort's team broke JN-25, the main Japanese naval operational code, in time to win the battle of Midway. But disputes over organization eventually led to Safford's ouster, and he was shunted to the side for the remainder of the war. He retired from active duty in 1953 and died in May 1973.

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