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The Man Who Wasn’t There

“There aren’t any pictures,” says Kim Elkovich when I call to arrange to meet her 96-year-old father, World War II veteran John Bergmann.

“No one was supposed to know what they were doing.”

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For four decades, whenever anyone asked Bergmann how he had spent his five years of military service, he responded the same way—he worked in payroll in Washington; injured his eye in an accident at a rifle range.

He returned home to a civilian job, no one ever questioning his story, and no one knowing any differently. Until one day in 1985 when Bergmann, finally given permission to speak, gathered his wife and daughters at the table and told them the truth: dad had actually been a codebreaker in a highly secretive outfit dealing with classified information, an outfit which became the forerunner of the National Security Agency.

“[My wife and daughters] were aghast,” he said. “I had to lie to my wife for 40 years and that isn’t easy to do. If you’re a good man and a good husband, you don’t lie to your wife.”

Now sitting up in his chair in his home in Upper Arlington, Bergmann tells me a story that spans from Washington to Calcutta to 10 Downing Street; carefully preserved in his articulate and mathematical mind without benefit of notes or records. (That sounds a bit like an episode of Homeland.)

Born in Chicago and raised by his aunt and uncle, Bergmann joined the Boy Scouts as a child and became proficient in Morse Code. He graduated from high school at 16, and in college he majored in math and accounting. “All through high school I was a number nut. I loved puzzles and I loved numbers.”

A few weeks before his college graduation, Bergmann was approached by a man from Washington, asking him to join the Army almost immediately even though the United States had not yet entered the war. The recruiter would not tell Bergmann what his position would be, only that he had been investigated and his experience with Morse Code was of interest. To prove the legitimacy of the request, Bergmann was offered a second lieutenant’s commission.

When he accepted, Bergmann was also given a one-way ticket to Fort Meade, Maryland where he joined 24 other young men, all selected for their intelligence and facility with numbers and their lateral thinking skills. They were to become the beginning of U.S. military intelligence, which up to that point had been sparse. Henry Stimson (Secretary of War under President Franklin D. Roosevelt) recanting his position of “Gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail,” found the budget to assemble the group, which acquired the secret name “Treetop.”

“We were clones of each other—you could just see,” Bergmann recalled. “We played bridge. We played chess. We knew what a dictionary was. We had some smarts.”

Finally, the outfit’s true purpose was revealed to its members, and each young man was put under a code of secrecy and given a cover story to explain their service. Because Bergmann had been an accounting major, he was to tell people that he was a payroll specialist in Washington. All members of the outfit were required to have a will and insurance. They completed paperwork, and then were given a week off to go home before they met their instructors for training. Bergmann went home to his girlfriend, later to become his wife of 55 years.

Much of Treetop’s training came from British methodology developed at Bletchley Park, Britain’s central codebreaking site. Bletchley Park employed a substantial number of women, many of whom did not receive credit or recognition for their work until 2009. At first, much of the methods relied on mathematics and logic.

“The frequency of letters, the repetition of letters is one of the ways you scan a tape or a message,” Bergmann explains. He presented me pictures of the Enigma machine, a typewriter-like device on which cipher traffic was encrypted, as well as a few of the charts and graphs used for breaking codes.

Near the end of his six-week training, Bergmann was sent on a mission traveling to Australia, then to Calcutta, and onward to the northern hills of Burma, from where the Japanese were expected to launch an invasion of India—a surprise for a new officer with no military training. Accompanied by 12 U.S. Army Rangers, Bergmann’s mission was to find and steal a valuable code-setting sheet. The mission was aborted as a probable concussion bomb went off, costing Bergmann his right eye. His sergeant sat with him in the plane flying away from the field.

“He pulled out this little tin box, and I said, ‘What’s that?’ and he said, ‘Well I don’t think we’ll need that now,’” Bergmann said.

The box contained 13 cyanide pills.

“They didn’t want me to be picked up and tortured for what I knew or what I was doing there.”

Bergmann was additionally assigned the task of serving as a liaison between Fort Meade and Bletchley Park with Alan Turing, an associate professor at Cambridge, now widely considered to be the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence. About twice a year, Bergmann would fly to England to work with Turing, where they would also play bridge or chess.

“He very seldom got close to anybody,” Bergmann said. “We got along just like brothers, really, which was amazing. I’m very lucky.”

Bergmann affirms the commonly held belief that the work of Turing, Bletchley Park, and the Allied codebreaking teams shortened the war by two to four years and saved millions of lives. “I had a great admiration for the man.”

Bergmann returned to a job at Peabody Coal, leaving when his wife developed Parkinson’s disease. He became her primary caretaker, his devotion perhaps repaying what was taken from their marriage due to his need to hide the truth.

Now the sole surviving member of the Treetop outfit, its last living narrative, Bergmann enjoys sharing his story with young people in schools, encouraging them to learn more about history, and of course, math.

“It’s a hard subject,” he confessed. “It’s detailed, and some students don’t like to work at that. And some think an iPad can work out the problems… but it has to be the person putting them in the machine to get the answers.”

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