Each of our veterans has his or her own unique story to tell about their experiences in the U.S. armed forces. We are pleased to share a few of them with you.
(Park Ridge, IL ) “I remember vividly the morning of Mike (weapons test), November 1, 1952. We were moored about 30 miles from Elugelab, the test-site island. We were issued ½ inch thick smoky goggles for viewing the explosion…The ten second countdown ended and in a nanosecond, there on the horizon was the brightest half sun I had ever seen, even through the goggles. . . . I remember the heat, shock and the low rumble of the explosion. The fireball quickly lost its glow and from it rose a radioactive debris-laden pillar that reached over 100,000 feet, mushroomed out, and stayed there until we came back on deck about 5 p.m. The fireball was three miles across. The explosive force was equivalent to 10.4 megatons of TNT. Our cryptography then began, enciphering top-secret messages as they piled up by the dozens.” Army Signal Corps cryptographer Loeffler had just witnessed the first hydrogen bomb test and was soon to see another bomb test two weeks later.
Roger (“Rog”) Loeffler grew up on the Northwest side of Chicago and graduated from St. Mel High School. He worked for two years immediately after high school before entering the Service. He was involved in newspaper production and advertising for a Catholic newspaper and a trade magazine.
Roger enlisted in the Army in November 1951 and went through eight weeks of basic training at Ft. Gordon, Georgia. While at Ft. Gordon he was subjected to a battery of tests to determine where he had the most aptitude. He qualified to attend cryptography school there and after ten weeks he graduated to become a member of the Signal Corps. He and about 40 others formed the 7131 AU (Army Unit) at Ft. Monmouth, New Jersey. Now, where was he to be assigned? As he tells it, “we were told we were headed for Germany, but we ended up going the other direction”. He and about 20 others in his unit were destined for the Marshall Islands on the tiny atoll of Eniwetok. His unit as well as many more soldiers who were headed for the Korean theater of operation shipped out from Camp Stoneman in the San Francisco Bay area. The 10-day journey to Eniwetok included a brief stop in Honolulu. They arrived at Eniwetok in mid-June 1952.
He and his unit’s task was to communicate securely between Eniwetok and Los Alamos, New Mexico. Communications of the nuclear testing was destined for the Atomic Energy Commission and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He describes the crypto machine he used to encrypt and decrypt messages looking like a large typewriter with a keyboard and eight rotors. He remembers that in typing an “a”, for example, that letter could be encrypted as a “z”. The cryptographers worked in an enclosed cement block room with enhanced security. If a threat to capture the machines was made, a thermite charge installed under the tables of machines could be set off rendering them a melted mass of metal.
Eniwetok is located about 2500 miles southwest of Hawaii. The atoll is comprised of several separate islands, including Parry Island where he was posted and the various islands and nuclear test sites. The United States continued nuclear weapons testing after the end of World War II and accelerated it after the Soviets tested its first atom bomb in 1949. Roger’s posting to Eniwetok encompassed two tests under the code name Ivy, the eighth series of American nuclear tests. The first Ivy test was Mike, a dry surface test detonated on the morning of November 1, 1952, described by Roger in his own words above. The next was King, detonated on November 15. Roger remembers King as being an air drop over the test site island of Runit, about 8 miles from Parry Island where he was stationed. There was no need to evacuate the island for King, a weapon with the explosive force of 500 kilotons. After seeing Mike, “it was anticlimactic” according to Roger. However, King was the largest atomic bomb up to that date. No further testing occurred in the South Pacific test areas until March 1954 at Bikini Atoll after Roger returned to the States.
The South Pacific has its lure: surf, sand and palm trees. Entertainment on Eniwetok included USO shows from time-to-time and outdoor movies. Roger well remembers simply just gazing on the night sky and marveling at the hundreds of shooting stars and an unobstructed view of the heavens. Food was important, too. He remembers one day he and his unit chanced to eat at the Atomic Energy Commission mess. They were on temporary duty (TDY) receiving $1.50 per diem. They were fed prime steaks, sweet corn on the cob and a gallon of ice cream to share at each eight-man table. Was that ever a change from the Army mess hall grub! He also recalls that a typhoon struck on about Christmas Day 1952. The Army mess hall was obliterated. He ate rations out of his mess kit and recalls that a piece of pumpkin pie he was planning for dessert flew away in a 75-mph gust of wind.
His one-year stay on Eniwetok came to an end in June 1953. Instead of traveling by ship on the return trip to the States he flew back to Camp Stoneman. Ironically, he arrived on July 4 to find hardly anyone on base. Eventually he encountered an officer who, when he discovered Roger was regular army, sent him home to Chicago on a two-week leave followed by a final posting to Ft. Riley, Kansas. He was not in the South Pacific anymore. A crypto expert, he was assigned to work with a civilian employee sending Western Union telegrams. November 1953 saw his honorable discharge from the Army.
He returned to Chicago to civilian life. Roger met his wife Sally on a blind date. They went to a polo match at the old Chicago Armory. For the match, dirt blanketed the floor and he remembers both being covered with dust by the end. Nevertheless, the date was a great success and “the rest is history”. Sally was a teacher before they married; wife, mother, and grandmother, and later a sales supervisor for a book publisher. Roger says, “She's my buddy.” They have been blessed with five children and eight grandchildren.
Sears hired Roger in 1953 to work in the Sears Catalog department where he began as an advertising representative. His last 24 years at Sears found him as Editor-in-Chief of the Sears Catalog. He retired after 40 years at Sears in 1993. In retirement and with leisure time he and Sally traveled the world. But somehow Roger also found time to volunteer as a business counselor for the Small Business Administration which he did faithfully for 20 years until 2013. He says this “job” was one of the most satisfying he ever had. After Roger, tired of making all the travel reservations and plans himself, Sally and he opted to join the Elderhostel Program and Road Scholars on 39 trips over the years. Whew!
Thank you, Roger, for your service. Enjoy your well-deserved day of honor in Washington, D.C.