Don Ulery: My WWII and Korean War Service as a Cryptographer

Don-in-1944-at-age-20

By DON ULERY

As told to John Howsden

By March 16, 1945 all our guys had gotten their parachutes properly fitted, and we took off for our next stop, Belem, Brazil. We were flying in a group of about thirty C-46s, and it did not take long for us to get strung out. I don’t think I ever saw another C-46 in flight until we reached England. We landed at Belem, Brazil in the middle of a torrential rain storm and hit so hard that we broke our tail wheel.

— Don Ulery

Early Life

I was born in March, 1924, the last of seven children—three sisters and three brothers. My dad, John, and my mother, Lulena, married in 1903 and my father’s family came over from Germany.

I grew up on a hill in the outskirts of Denver, Colorado. There were only three houses on the street, so when it snowed, we rode our sleds down the middle of it. In the summer we played softball and climbed the trees.

I was nine years old when we moved to Whittier, California. My mom had heart problems and her doctor thought the mild California climate would be good for her health. We lived in Whittier for a year and then moved to Mesa, Arizona. Although Mesa and Phoenix have grown together as one big metropolis, back then Mesa was a city no bigger than a block, stuck in the middle of the desert. Next door to us was a dairy farm with cows and horses that we rode when we could.

My dad bought one of the only two gas stations in town. They were on opposite corners and when we opened the back door to our station, all we could see was desert.

Back then Indians would walk over from the reservation and hang out at the station. I never saw one, but my dad told me stories about chasing them away when they asked for gasoline…not for their vehicles, but for drinking.

We left Mesa and returned to Denver for a short time and finally ended back in Whittier.

I graduated from high school in 1942. School was easy for me. I did not study that hard, yet I still got A’s and B’s. I did not know it then, but later, when I entered the Army and took some tests, I found out I had an I.Q. of 131. Although I was six-four and thin, I did not play sports in school. We were poor, and I spent my off-time working odd jobs.

At the beginning of each school year when it was time to get new clothes, I would buy my own from the money I earned with my part-time jobs.

While in high school, my twin sister talked me into taking a typing class. As it turned out, the teacher was Pat Ryan, the future wife of Richard Nixon. She was a nice lady. Little did I know how much this typing class would influence my war experience.

I did not see eye to eye with my dad, so as soon as I graduated, I moved in with my older sister and her husband in Seattle, Washington. By then the war was in full bloom, and I had landed a job at the shipyard as an acetylene cutter.  There was plenty of work, and I got good at it. I cut as precisely as I could, making sure not to leave any jagged edges. Because I left a clean edge, the workers did not have to do much grinding. Consequently guys would come from all over the shipyard to have me cut their parts.

Don on right

Don on right

Enlisting in the Army Air Force

Everything was going fine in Seattle. I snow skied in the mountains and swam in the ocean. But at 20 years old, I knew I was on the short list with the draft board. Not wanting to be end up in the infantry, I gave my notice at the shipyard and joined the Army Air Force. A few days later I was on a train heading for St. Louise, Missouri for my basic training. All I remember about the ride was seeing signs posted throughout the car warning passengers to not to stick their arms and heads out of the windows.

Basic training was okay. We slept in bunks with 20 guys to a barrack. There was a lot of marching and saluting. The food was good, as a matter of fact, this was the first time I had ever eaten a steak.  Up to this point I had not shot anything bigger than a BB gun. Even though I had never shot a large caliber rifle, I guess I did all right because no one cussed me out or kicked my ass.

I don’t remember my drill instructors, but I do remember a fellow recruit by the name of Griesedieck (pronounced greasy dick). His family owned the Griesedieck Brewery in St. Louis and was well off. He had his own car, making him extremely popular with the staff.  He was a nice guy, but having a car got him some privileges.

One of the privileges was attending the World Series that year. The Cardinals were in the World Series and playing in town. Since we were in boot camp, none of us were allowed off the base, which really pissed us off. However, Griesedieck was able to get tickets, so he took the sergeants to the World Series in his car.

Don's dogtags

Don’s dogtags

Becoming a Cryptographer

At the end of basic, I entered the Army Special Training Program (ASTP). This was a military training program to meet wartime demands for junior officers and soldiers with technical skills. You had to have an I.Q. of 120 to qualify for this program. This is when the army told me I had an I.Q. of 131.

I enrolled in the University of Mines and Technology, in Rolla, Missouri.  It was rated number two nationwide for chemistry, something I had not taken in high school. It was hard because the courses were compressed into a shorter time span than normal due to the need to get us through the training and into the war. It may sound funny now, but we were afraid we were going to miss participating in the war.

I know during the Viet Nam war, it wasn’t that way, but we had been attacked and it was the patriotic thing to do. Then again, I might have felt differently if I was in infantry and going to get shot at.

We were six months into the program when the sergeant called us into a room. He announced that the program was canceled because the country needed men in the field, especially with the upcoming D-day invasion. It looked like I was going to end up in the infantry after all.

Don on right

Don on right

But before dismissing us, he asked for a show of hands of anyone who knew how to type. Some of us raised our hands. Pulling us aside, he asked if we were interested in volunteering for a special detail. A few of us stepped forward; however, three others did not. I heard later that one of those three became a warrant officer and was killed on D-day.

Come to find out, the Army Air Force was looking for cryptographers. Because of my I.Q. level and my typing ability, I qualified. They sent us to Urbana, Illinois where the army was running a cryptography course at the University of Illinois. From there, we were sent to the University of Nebraska for a graduate class. The training was intense and started with the history of cryptography. It continued into the various codes and methods of deciphering. We learned how to interpret the codes by using a key for translation. I found it very interesting.

After completing the six-month school, I was assigned to the 349th Troop Carrier Group—23rd squadron at Sedalia Army Air Field, which is now the Whiteman Air Force Base near Knob Noster, Missouri. This airfield was the training site for the Waco CG-4A glider, the Douglas C-46 and the Douglas C-47. The only difference between the two Douglas airplanes was the DC-46 had doors on both sides of the airplane for paratroopers to jump out.

Shortly after arriving at Sedalia Army Air Field, I got my top clearance. The army had done a thorough job on my background investigation, even contacting the police department where I grew up.

As a cryptographer, we worked out of an eight-by-10-foot wooden shack in an open field near the airstrip. It had no windows and the door was locked at all times. Inside was a chair, a desk and a cot. On the desk was a teletype we used to transmit and receive our coded messages. It was manned around the clock, and we worked eight hour shifts. Those working night shift could sleep on the cot because when a message arrived, the teletype would alert you by ringing like a door bell.

The teletype was like a big electric typewriter. When a message arrived, we simply tore off the paper and decoded the message. The messages contained information on the schedules for the planes as to when and where they were flying.

I was stationed at Sedalia for five months. Although it wasn’t the best duty, we were allowed to bring our girlfriends to the shack. Visiting with your girlfriend in such privacy was a nice perk.

It was in Sedalia that I met my first wife, Bette. She was a Women’s Army Corps (WAC) and worked as a Private Branch Exchange (PBX) operator for the base switchboard.  I saw her at the club one night sitting at a table with her girlfriend crying. She had just broken up with her boyfriend, so I started kidding her, trying to cheer her up. We dated and got married two months before I shipped out for France.

Don-with-1st-wife-Bettie-June-(top-Oct

Bette and Don

Off to War

After getting my orders, I was sent down to Miami in preparation to fly over to France. We had to hang around Miami for a couple of days because some of the harnesses for the guy’s parachutes did not fit well. By March 16, 1945 all our guys had gotten their parachutes properly fitted, and we took off for our next stop, Belem, Brazil. We were flying in a group of about thirty C-46s, and it did not take long for us to get strung out. I don’t think I ever saw another C-46 in flight until we reached England.

We landed at Belem, Brazil in the middle of a torrential rain storm and hit so hard that we broke our tail wheel. I spent my twenty-first birthday on Belem waiting for a replacement wheel from Miami. It never stopped raining. While there, another C-46 came in behind us and crash landed in the jungle about a mile short of the runway. The jungle was so thick; it took a day and a half before the rescue crew found them. I left before finding out what happened to the guys in the plane.

After refueling, we flew across the Atlantic. It was a long flight and there was only a few of us on board because the plane was crammed full of wooden creates packed with new M-1 rifles bound for the Chinese Army.  We landed at Ascension Island, a volcanic island off the coast of Africa that serves as a gas station. We landed uphill and took off down hill. From Ascension Island we flew to Africa. We set down at Roberts Field in Marshall, Liberia. Once on the ground, we offloaded the crates of the rifles. We spent the night in Africa and then headed for England.

We stayed a week in England waiting for our equipment to catch up with us. It rained some more, but that did not stop me and some buddies form going to Nottingham and exploring the sites. We walked around the Nottingham campus, but to us it was just a bunch of buildings.

From England we flew to Roy-Amy France and took over an old Spitfire air base. We called it a town, but it was more like a village. As far as I know, it may not even be there any more. It was March of 1945 and by then the British had relocated about 100 miles north to be closer to the fighting. There wasn’t much to the base, just reinforced revetments and a narrow concrete air strip.

We moved into an old house and outfitted it with teletypes and field telephones, although we never used the phones. Again the cryptographer office was staffed around the clock. The messages came in mostly at night or early morning. Our job was to receive, decode and disseminate messages from headquarters. Just like in training, the messages just contained information on where the planes were flying.

Even though most of the flights were training exercises, secrecy was paramount. Each day we took the old messages out to a 55-gallon barrel next to the house and burned them, never leaving until everything had been reduced to ashes. Even then, headquarters changed the code every two or three days just in case the code book fell into enemy hands.

We were under strict orders not to talk to anyone about what we did. If someone asked, we just said, “We’re in communications.”

Keeping everything in code got so extreme that even when the President Roosevelt sent us a letter wishing us a Happy Thanksgiving it was in code.

The day before a paratroop mission, the troops came in and set up on the other side of the airstrip. We didn’t fraternize with them. We got the impression they didn’t care for us. To them, we were just a one-way taxi to combat.

We were stationed out in the middle of nowhere, so we stayed to ourselves on base most of the time. We lived in houses, three guys to a room, and every room—except ours—leaked like a sieve. To amuse ourselves some guys shot rabbits with their M-1 rifles from the porch and gave them to the cook, but I don’t really think he cooked them.  I shot at a couple of rabbits, but I missed.

The French

A 12-year old French kid picked up our laundry and took it to his mom. She invited us to dinner a couple of times. Because the war had made sugar such a scarce commodity, we would bring her a sack of it to show our gratitude.

The guys looked forward to the home-cooked meal. Also living in the house was the mother’s 21-year-old daughter. No doubt this attracted some of the guys just as much as the food. I was young, newly married and in love. I couldn’t have cared less about other women.

Both the mother and the daughter’s husbands were away at war. Now that I think of it, I never did see a military-aged man while I was in France. They were all off fighting.

Although there were not a lot of civilians around, I did meet one girl, sort of. It was dark.  I was pedaling my bike down a country lane when I crashed head-on into a young French girl riding her bike in the opposite direction.  She was young; maybe high school age and did not speak a word of English. I did not speak a word of French, so we just got back on our bikes and continued on our separate ways. She was very embarrassed. It seemed the French got easily embarrassed.

Something else I did not see in France was beef. The two times I had dinner at the laundry lady’s house we had chicken. It was good, don’t get me wrong, but because of the war, they didn’t have any beef to cook.

The French were nice to us. It was war and they knew how to adapt and get along. I can’t say that about the English. There was animosity between us. We didn’t like them because they were arrogant, and the English didn’t want to have anything to do with us. There was an English gardener on base. I tried to talk with him, but he would not have any part of it. Although we may not have gotten along with the English socially, we worked together in the war. Shortly after the war ended, our unit took English troops into Belgium to occupy the country, and on the return flight, we brought out English prisoners of war.

Germany Surrenders

The war ended a couple of months after I got to France. One of our missions after the war was to fly American prisoners back to England from Germany. The prisoners were in poor shape; the Germans didn’t give them much. They didn’t want to talk about their imprisonment. All they wanted to do was get back to England. Once on English soil, they knew for sure they were out of the war.

But being brought back from the frontlines did not mean you were home free. When you’re dealing with aircraft, there is always the chance of something going terribly wrong. One day a large four-engine bomber known as a Manchester, loaded with rescued prisoners of war, was coming in for a landing. For some unknown reason it crashed short of the runway, killing all on board. Another time two mechanics were working on a Piper Cub, a small single-wing aircraft. After pulling maintenance on the engine, they took it for a test flight. It crashed nearby, killing them.

After the war ended with Germany, we stayed put and waited to see where they were going to send us next. Meanwhile, we made trips into Paris. I must have gone at least six times. I explored the castles, and I even visited Napoleon’s tomb.

Finally word came that we were going down to Marseille to get on a ship and head out for the invasion of Japan. We loaded onto railroad box cars. There were no seats in the box cars, so we sat on the floor; legs dangling out the open door and watching the countryside slide by. It was warm spring weather and quite enjoyable. We were low priority, so when we met another train coming from the opposite direction, we had to pull off the main track and wait. While waiting, the French people came by and visited with us.

Japan Surrenders

While waiting in Marseille to sail for Japan, the Atomic bomb was dropped. We didn’t think much about it. For us it was just another bombing mission. When we heard more about it, we were actually glad they dropped the bomb. War is horrible, but you do what it takes to win.

Later, while we were loading onto a liberty ship to sail for the South Pacific, our commanding officer announced that Japan had surrendered. Officers broke out the liquor and celebrated, but by regulations, the enlisted were not allowed alcohol. However, our CO passed out some bottles anyhow. I don’t recall what it was, but it was really sweet.

But that was immaterial. The war was over, and we were going home.

Bette and Don

Bette and Don

Sailing Home

When it came to going home, I lucked out. Normally, the guys with the highest points got to sail back to the States first. The more time you spent overseas, the more points you accumulated; one point equaled one month overseas. But since we were already onboard and ready to sail, they let us go ahead of the guys that had more points.

We sailed for 10 days. All I really remember was having nothing to do but eat, sleep and play cards. When I got onboard, I didn’t know how to play pinochle, but I soon learned. I stayed clear of the poker games though. There were some good players, and the pots got pretty big. I made the mistake of loaning a sergeant from Arkansas a couple of hundred bucks to play poker. He lost it all.

He was discharged before me, so I went to his house in Arkansas to collect my money. He said he didn’t have any, and that is the last I ever saw of that money.

In the hold of the ships, the bunks were stacked four high. You can only sleep so much, so often we would wake up at three in the morning, crowd around on the bottom bunk and play pinochle just to pass the time. We had to shower and brush our teeth with salt water. By the time I got off the ship 10 days later, my teeth were perfectly white.

We pulled into Newport News shipyard, and I got two weeks leave. I went to Illinois and stayed with my wife for two weeks. At the end of my leave, I reported back in at Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin, Texas.  Two months later I was discharged and went back to Illinois. Nine months later we had our first child, Don Jr.

From Illinois, we moved to California where I worked part-time in produce for Ralph’s grocery store. With the help of the G. I. bill, I attended Whittier College, getting my B.A. three years later.

Don and Bob Schurr during Korean War

Don and Bob Schurr during Korean War

Off to War Again

I was working at a produce packing company in Salinas when the Korean War broke out. Two days after the Korean War started, I got a telegram from the Army ordering me to Victorville. I have been activated.

The quickest way to Victorville was to drive. My wife Bette did not have a driver’s license or even know how to drive. We went down to the Department of Motor Vehicles the next day and got her a driver’s license. She learned how to drive in one day.

After leaving our two children with the neighbors, she got behind the wheel of our new 4-door Kaiser sedan and drove me down to Victorville, located in the middle of the desert near Palm Springs. After dropping me off, she kissed me, turned the car around, and made the long, lonesome drive back to Salinas.

Being pulled back into the Army was rough. We had two children, payments on a new car and a mortgage. Fortunately Bank of America put a moratorium on our mortgage. When my wife got back from dropping me off, she had the house boarded up and made arrangement with our neighbor across the street, which happened to be the vice president of Bank of America, to watch it for us. My wife and the kids piled into the car and drove to Illinois to live with her family.

Don in Nara Honsou, Japan

Don in Nara Honsou, Japan

Meanwhile I was issued new uniforms, assigned to a new group and put on a liberty ship heading for Japan. Ten days later I was in Nara, Japan. I was still a cryptographer, but before I could return to my encrypting duties, the military had to renew my top secret status.

While waiting for my top clearance, I was assigned the task of inspecting Japanese breweries that sold beer to Uncle Sam. It was just a way of keeping us busy. What the hell did we know about brewing beer?

A side benefit, however, was getting some good meals. The breweries were family owned, and if we inspected breweries during dinner time, the owners made us a meal to go with the beer. Up to then I had never eaten sushi, but I leaned to love it.

While I was there, we explored the country side by driving around in a jeep. The roads were good, and we befriended a Japanese college student who we took along to interpret for us. I got to know him well and attended his graduation.

But by the time the army issued me a top-secret clearance, most of my one-year commitment was up. I had applied to be an officer, and was going to be promoted, but when they told me I would have to stay in for another 21 months; my wife Bette put a stop to that.

Don in Japan during Korean War

Don in Japan during Korean War

After the Wars

Upon my discharge from the Army, I resumed my old job in produce. From that job, I was sent to Oxnard to open up a new packing plant. I stayed there until I went to work for Darcoid Rubber; an industrial supply company that sold V belts, industrial hoses and special lubricants.

After two years at Darcoid, I went to work for West America Rubber out of Los Angeles for 14 years as an outside salesman. I enjoyed the travel and meeting other people. In time I got very good at it. The trick to sales is you have to sell yourself, and I could do that.

In 1947 the University of Santa Clara opened up a night school offering a Masters Degree. It was normally a four year program, but I crammed extra classes in whenever I could and got my degree in three years.

I never minded working hard, and I usually had more than one job at a time, but I realized in order to build a future for me and my family I had to start my own business. In 1970 I established the Western Rubber and Supply Company that I still own today. We employ 32 people and do a million dollars worth of business every month. I am retired, but my nephew is doing a fine job running the company.

After 54 years of marriage, my first wife, Bette, passed away in 1999 of a stroke following pneumonia.

It was because of my rubber business, in 2000, that I met Lydia—my second wife.

Lydia was standing in line next to me at the bank waiting to make a deposit for her employer. I struck up a conversation with her and asked her out the next day. We were married in 2001 and have a combined family of seven wonderful children.

Although having my own business kept me busy, I did enjoy drawing up plans for houses. As a young man I had thought of becoming an architect, but when I started drawing I would stay up until the wee hours of the morning. Having worn bifocals since high school, my eyes couldn’t take the strain. I did, however, design the interior of the building for my business in Livermore. And I designed our home in Sonora that I live in now with my wife Lydia, two Yorkies and an orange tabby.

Don Ulrey, April 2014

Don Ulery, April 2014

A Good Life

More recently I volunteer at Interfaith, a giving program for food, clothing, showers, etc. I work in the pantry bagging groceries and handing them out to the needy.  For the ladies, especially the good looking ones, I offer to wheel the groceries out to their car. Interfaith also provides showers, haircuts and clothing.

Looking back, I always enjoyed the military and never resented serving. I do not think about the war much. I hold no animosity towards the Germans or the Japanese. I am blessed with a good family and hope the best for everyone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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