Dr. David S. Rosen, Historian, Coast Guard Pacific Area
During Prohibition, the Cryptanalytic Unit of the United States Coast Guard deciphered 12,000 messages between rum-running craft and transmitters on American shores. Coded radio signals were intercepted from Vancouver and Mexico on the West Coast, from Newfoundland to The Bahamas on the East Coast, and from Cuba and British Honduras in the Gulf of Mexico. In the mid-1920s, the Service’s entire Cryptanalytic Unit consisted of a codebreaker and a clerk. The only tools available to that codebreaker, Mrs. Elizebeth (spelled with an “e”) Smith Friedman, were a pencil and paper.
In 1921, Elizebeth Friedman and husband William began working as analysts for the U.S. War Department. It was the first dry New Year’s Eve due to the Volstead Act that initiated Prohibition. Later, New York’s mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, estimated he would need 250,000 police to patrol his bars and clubs with an additional 200,000 cops to keep the officers honest. Coast Guard assets and personnel stationed on America’s shores, lakes and inland waterways would perform the unenviable enforcement mission for a newly established Bureau of Prohibition.
Prohibition created an illegal multi-million dollar industry with mafias using the day’s advanced technology, including radio transmitters and advanced encryption machines. One smuggling firm, Conexco, employed 60 to 70 vessels just outside the 12-mile limit. Mother ships would carry as many as 100,000 crates of liquor to be smuggled by speedboats to accomplices waiting on shore. By the mid-1920s, Coast Guard radio receivers had accumulated hundreds of coded messages from these rum runners and their clandestine shore stations.
In 1924, the service established the Coast Guard Office of Intelligence. Mrs. Friedman had retired from federal service to start a family, but the Coast Guard convinced her to return to decipher coded messages from the rum runners. In 1925, she received the badge of “Special Agent, U.S. Treasury,” since the Coast Guard was an agency within the Treasury Department. The press labeled Treasury Department analysts “T-Men,” because their work was often associated with the famed “G-Men” of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). When Friedman joined the Treasury Department, she became the Department’s, and the Coast Guard’s, first codebreaker.
In March 1929, Coast Guard cutters Wolcott and Dexter cornered a Canadian registered schooner named I’m Alone. The infamous rum runner had two 100-horsepower engines and a powerful radio transmitter with a range of 1,000 miles. In the struggle to seize I’m Alone, Cutter Dexter sank the mother ship with one crew member dying and a number of others wounded by gunfire. The Canadian government sued for damages, however, Friedman had deciphered the rum runner’s coded messages. She proved the ship was in fact owned by two New York mobsters who imported whiskey from British Honduras, transferred it to smaller boats, and landed it in Louisiana.
By 1931, Friedman had trained T-Men to use new radio direction finders. They mounted them on Coast Guard radio detection trucks to track the rum runners’ pirate radio stations. She also persuaded the Treasury Department to give her a team of analysts. She interviewed and hired three men, then trained them in the latest codebreaking methods. In her new position as Cryptologist-in-Charge, the Treasury Department raised her salary from $30,000 to $45,000 in 2020 dollars. It was an unheard of salary for a woman at that time.
In 1933, Mrs. Friedman served as star witness in the trial of 23 members of the Conexco mafia, which Federal Director of Prohibition Amos Woodcock called “the most powerful international smuggling syndicate in existence.” For two years, Woodcock had spent precious resources pursuing over 100 gang members, including complicit deputy sheriffs and some of Al Capone’s men. The key evidence of the prosecutor were hundreds of deciphered messages sent between Conexco’s Caribbean suppliers in Belize, its New Orleans headquarters, shore stations in the Louisiana bayous, and 25 mother ships at sea. The messages were intercepted by the Coast Guard at Mobile, Alabama, and forwarded to Friedman for decoding. When the gang’s defense lawyer tried to impugn her ability, Friedman requested a blackboard and translated 25 random code letters into the message “Anchored in harbor, when and where are you sending fuel?” Based on what reporters called her “class in cryptology,” the head of the gang’s Gulf of Mexico operations and four henchmen were found guilty and sentenced to prison time.
Friedman assisted in countless other smuggling cases. Her success eventually led to celebrity status. In 1934, she consented to an interview on NBC Radio as a “First Lady of the Capital.” After that, a spate of press articles highlighted her vital role in codebreaking. She detested the ensuing publicity as a distraction from her work and asked reporters to stop sensationalizing her role and credit the Coast Guard as a whole.
With the end of Prohibition, Friedman and her team focused on drug smuggling. Her codebreaking stopped the Shanghai “Green Gang” from smuggling opium into San Francisco and exposed a group of Chinese opium and gun smugglers in Canada. The San Francisco Chronicle reported her successes, while Readers Digest devoted five pages to her work. Detective Fiction Weekly printed a 14-page story about her exploits while Look magazine profiled her in an article on unusual female careers. The press coverage was focused on the “surprising” ability of a woman to decode complex messages.
In the late 1930s, the Treasury Department directed the Coast Guard to begin tracking the location of German ships. Friedman and her unit began research to unlock the secrets of the German’s complicated Enigma coding machine. Freidman’s team was the first group of Americans to learn the secrets of Enigma. The Coast Guard’s pre-war cryptological unit learned that German spy rings were gathering information about U.S. and British shipping routes as well as U.S. industrial output. Based on her team’s breaking the Enigma codes, Friedman’s Coast Guard unit supplied the U.S. Army and Navy, and the State Department, with vital intelligence. Today, these original declassified documents are stamped at the bottom, “CG Decryption.”
By contrast, the FBI had neither radio tracking stations nor codebreaking units. In 1938, after a Bureau spy fiasco, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover asked Mrs. Friedman to train FBI agents destined for South American assignments. In mid-1941, he took full credit when the Coast Guard deciphered messages between Nazi spies in New York and Latin America. When he naively revealed that German codes were cracked, he killed the goose that laid the golden egg—the Nazis quickly changed their codes. Hoover even produced a popular film about his heroic spy-catching efforts without mentioning the vital role played by Friedman or the Coast Guard.
Meanwhile, there were strong anti-American fascist parties in Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. Those countries had received 140,000 German emigrants after World War I and the crippling Versailles Peace Treaty. In Brazil, the fascist Green Shirts goose-stepped through Rio de Janaro and, in some areas, residents only spoke German. The chief of the Paraguayan police named his son Adolfo Hirohito and fascist parties grew strong in Chile and Bolivia. Argentine military and political leaders, like General Juan Peron, were openly pro-Nazi. A fascist takeover in that country would threaten U.S. security interests. Consequently, William “Wild Bill” Donovan, head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), also requested Friedman establish a cryptology office for his organization.
Beginning in late 1941, Friedman trained a group of 23 Coast Guard codebreakers, including 12 Women’s Reservists or SPARs. This so-called Unit #387 cracked 8,500 clandestine transmissions from German Military Intelligence, which ran 65 overseas spy rings located in South America, North Africa and the Far East. The German Military Intelligence Office was eventually replaced by a zealous Nazi SS-run intelligence command. During the war, the SS had about 250 informers and spies in Latin America and 29 radio stations. Their leader was Johannes Becker, nicknamed “Sargo,” who was sent to Buenos Aires in late 1940.
During the 1940s, Friedman fed translated Nazi messages to the FBI and trained their agents in codebreaking. And, once again, FBI director Hoover usurped much of the credit for Friedman’s codebreaking work. In March 1942, Friedman’s unit cracked a Nazi spy ring that used a Swiss ship moored in Rio de Janaro. An FBI raid ensued with the premature arrest of enemy agents. With this and Hoover publicizing his alleged codebreaking prowess, the Nazis changed their secret codes and evacuated their leading spies. In March, Mrs. Friedman also learned from the codes that RMS Queen Mary, with 8,400 U.S. troops on board, was being tracked by U-Boats. German authorities had placed a bounty of 1,000,000 Reichsmarks on the famed ship, however, the Queen Mary evaded its hunters.
In early 1943, with Germany’s catastrophic defeat at the Battle of Stalingrad, the Nazis sent Sargo back to Buenos Aires with massive funding to empower fascist coups in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile and Paraguay. He was accompanied by a radio expert codenamed “Luna” and a new version of the Enigma code. In Buenos Aires, General Peron was plotting a putsch with a group of high officers sympathetic to the Nazis. They occupied the Argentine presidential palace in June 1943 and installed a fascist leader. Meanwhile, Bolivia also suffered a fascist coup.
Soon, Friedman with help from British counterparts, cracked the latest Enigma codes. Nazi agents in South America were sending Berlin top-secret details regarding American guns, bombs, depth charges and rockets. The Nazis changed their secret codes one last time, but Friedman’s Coast Guard unit soon deciphered the new Enigma messages. This time, the details were withheld from Hoover and the FBI. As a result, enemy radio stations were shut down and dozens of enemy agents arrested throughout Latin America. The Nazi SS spy ring was finally crushed marking yet another triumph in Freidman’s career.
Mrs. Elizebeth Friedman devoted much of her adult life to serving the security interests of the United States. During their careers as cryptanalysts for the Federal Government, Elizebeth and her husband William were financially strapped and overworked. The Friedmans suffered from chronic fatigue and William had to be hospitalized periodically due to work stress.
Cryptanalyst and codebreaker Elizebeth Smith Friedman served the Coast Guard for nearly 20 years, playing a vital role in saving lives, enforcing laws, fighting fascists and establishing a robust intelligence capability within the service and Federal Government as a whole. This year, the Coast Guard announced that the service’s next “Legend”-Class National Security Cutter (WMSL-760) will be named in her honor.