Over two dozen posts, and many, many comments, on this blog pertain to the former Army Security Agency and especially to its units in Japan during the 1950s. I was a very small part of this, as were hundreds (possibly thousands) of other guys. These postings get scores of visitors every day, mostly from veterans who were in or associated with the ASA and have at least some idea of what it was all about. Others may wonder just what was this highly secretive and mysterious branch of the U.S. Army, what did it do, why does it no longer exist, and why so little has been written about it.
First of all, why did so many draftees choose three years in the ASA instead of the required two years of regular army service? It was promoted as a rather exclusive group culled from only those scoring in the top ten percent on aptitude tests, having a high IQ, and qualifying for both Top Secret and Crypto security clearances. There was the implied promise (in our case largely kept) of an easier, more interesting, and more comfortable life than the regular army provided. The ASA did not fall under the normal "chain of command," for the most part freeing us from the nuisance of inspections, formations, parades, barracks life, and other irksome military traditions. There was also that "cloak-and-dagger" image of being involved in clandestine espionage activities — not quite at the James Bond level but still a wee bit glamorous even though most of the work was about as exciting as watching paint dry.
To the rest of the Army we were known as the "Titless WACS," a derogatory label referring to the former Women's Army Corps and comparing us to those other non-combatants. We just laughed this off as we watched the "real soldiers" parade around in formation with guns.
IN REALITY, what the ASA really did was to provide cheap labor for the largely civilian-run National Security Agency (NSA). In those days before widespread computer usage the mission of the NSA needed a massive amount of manpower to intercept and sift through mountains of accumulated communications and electronic intelligence data gathered by listening in on enemies, potential enemies, and friendly nations as well. This would have been hugely expensive were it not for the draft. At that time, all fit young males in the United States between the ages of 18 and 25 were required to serve in the military for a minimum of two years. There were, of course, ways around this, but most guys did wind up serving their nation. For those who qualified, signing up for the ASA was a no-brainer.
The work of the ASA along with its sister outfits the Air Force Security Service, the Naval Security Group, and of course the NSA itself were vital to the defense of the nation, especially during the Cold War years. When the draft ended in 1973 the days of NSA's "Rent a Trooper" were numbered as the enlistment times of the last to join ran out. As you would expect, the ASA had a notoriously low re-enlistment rate, so by 1976 the free ride was over and the ASA was disbanded. Its functions were melded into a new organization called INSCOM (Intelligence and Security Command), made up of professional career soldiers. By then, computers had taken over most of the routine work formerly done by the ASA draftees who were no longer needed.
Cryptography was what the ASA was all about. Although formed in 1945, its heritage dates back to the code crackers of World War I at the Cipher Bureau of Military Intelligence of the War Department. Surviving demobilization in 1920, the Bureau continued on as a covert agency funded jointly by the War and State Departments. In 1929 the new Secretary of State decided that listening in on other countries' communications was not a gentlemanly thing to do, and so their support was terminated. At that time the Bureau's activities was transferred to the Signal Corps, where it remained until the forming of the Army Signal Security Agency at the height of World War II in 1943. Two years later, in 1945, all signal intelligence and communications security matters were assigned to the newly-formed Army Security Agency (ASA), an independent agency within the army but outside the normal chain of command. There it remained throughout the rest of World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, and Vietnam.
The ASA had listening posts, often called field stations, scattered around the globe. Their massive antenna fields picked up weak signals originating deep in the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, North Vietnam, East Germany, and even in friendly, allied countries. Within the fortress-like walls of its communications centers sat the "ditty boppers," who listened in and recorded the coded messages, which were then sent to cryptographers for cracking. This information was forwarded through channels to the National Security Agency (NSA) at Fort Meade, Maryland, where it was analyzed for the Defense Department.
The two ASA units that I served in back in the 1950s were Headquarters ASAPAC at Camp Oji in Tokyo, Japan (July 1957 to May 1958) and JCRC-J at North Camp Drake, just outside of Tokyo (May 1958-October 1959). Click on their names to learn more.
The same sort of communications intelligence was done by the British and Americans during World War II at Bletchley Park, just outside of London. Click here to read about it.
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