Warren veteran worked in security

Intercepted coded messages in Tokyo

Steve Spencer, 85, of Warren, shows a photo album containing photos from his time as a cryptographer in Tokyo between the Korean and Vietnam wars. (Staff photo / Marly Reichert)

EDITOR’S NOTE: To suggest a veteran for this series, which runs through Veterans Day, email metro editor Marly Reichert at mreichert@tribtoday.com.

WARREN — Steve Spencer enlisted in the military the year after graduating from Niles McKinley High School in 1953, but he had a good reason for volunteering.

By enlisting, rather than being drafted, he was able to choose his military occupational specialty, and Spencer chose the Army Security Agency, where he learned about the world of cryptography, which is the practice of solving and writing codes, and code breaking.

“I had to pass a comprehensive security background check since I would need a top secret clearance to do my job,” Spencer, 85, said. “I wanted to get into the Army Security Agency as opposed to being in the infantry. I wanted to get a good job in the service. When you knew you were going to enlist, you had to research what type of job you wanted.”

Spencer went to Fort Knox, Kentucky, for his basic training. After basic training, Spencer went to cryptography school at Fort Devens Army Security Agency in Massachusetts for six months.

After training, he was transferred to the headquarters of the Army Security Agency (ASA) in Tokyo, where he spent several years.

“We would intercept foreign communications to break the codes and we would glean the intelligence and send it to the National Security Agency (NSA Suite B Cryptography). Through our training, we learned how to speak different languages (working with a linguist) and break down codes,” he said.

“It was a unique opportunity in both the military and learning about a totally different culture. Very rewarding.

“When I went over there, there were a lot of Japanese soldiers playing ping-pong at the base. I started playing ping-pong with the Japanese, and at first for a full year, I hadn’t won a single game. Then I caught on and started winning at ping-pong,” Spencer said.

He also talked about the outstanding fast-pitch softball team he was part of in Tokyo that included an All-World pitcher.

“You had to wear a lot of gear if you had to face him,” Spencer said.

He has a treasure trove of stories and memories of his time in service while in Tokyo. One of his memories was when they were in headquarters and had a detachment in Korea. Spencer said this detachment was on the 38th parallel, which is the line between North and South Korea.

“Our detachment was there to intercept communications. We were that close to the enemy, and we were watching them with binoculars as they were training. We were right on the border and since we were from headquarters, they did not want us there for very long because they did not want us to get captured. When we got off the plane, we got into an M35 military truck. We put our equipment in the truck and got into a car and followed it to the detachment. We were wondering why we were riding in a car following the truck with our equipment. We found out that if we didn’t ride in the car behind the truck, the enemy soldiers would jump into the truck and steal the equipment,” Spencer said.

He also told a story about how the airport buildings where they landed were riddled with large bullet holes because repairs had not yet been done. He said there was a crematorium next to their base, which gave off a terrible stench.

“We couldn’t stay on the base when they fired up the crematorium,” Spencer recalled.

After leaving Tokyo, Spencer went back to Massachusetts as a cryptography instructor at Fort Devens until he was discharged in July 1957.

Spencer worked in the banking and financial industry before obtaining degrees at Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin. He then worked in Houston for 35 years, where he was a CEO of several banks and financial service companies.

He moved back to Ohio 10 years ago and has done some volunteer work in the financial industry.

“It wasn’t much of a problem transitioning into civilian life, because you acquired discipline while in the service. I took what I learned from the service and applied it to my career in financial services.”



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