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Cryptologic Pioneers the African American Experience

William Coffee

William Coffee

Born in Abingdon, Virginia, in 1917, William Coffee studied English at Knoxville College, Tennessee in 1936. During the closing years of the Depression, from 1937 to 1940, he worked in the Civilian Conservation Corps. Thereafter, he worked as a waiter and Arlington Hall School for Girls hired him in September 1941. When the Army acquired the property, Mr. Coffee applied for a federal position and was hired as a junior janitor and was eventually being promoted to messenger.

In January 1944, in response to a supposed request from Eleanor Roosevelt, the chief of the cryptanalysis section tapped Mr. Coffee to build a unit of black employees that would be "gainfully employed." His job title was officially changed to cryptographic clerk in June of that year. Initially he worked alone, but the unit grew in size. The organizational chart reflects William D. Coffee as Assistant Civilian in Charge, with nineteen subordinate civilians. For several months, the office continued to expand in mission and resources under Mr. Coffee. By June 1945, he directed the efforts of thirty people distributed over six sections engaged in code identification and decoding; researching and analyzing unknown codes; and translating.

In February 1946, Bill Coffee was transferred to the Intercept Control Branch as the supervisor of a new typing unit that augmented the automatic morse transcription section of nearby Vint Hill Farms in Warrenton, Virginia. On 3 April 1946, William D. Coffee received the prestigious Commendation for Meritorious Civilian Service. He continued his cryptologic career until his retirement in the early 1970s.


Historical Document | Date Posted: Jan 15, 2009