Lasswell Remembered With Dedication of Hall

Thursday, January 10, 2019
Alva Lasswell's portrait, on display at the dedication ceremony for the new hall at Fort Meade, Md.
courtesy photo

At a special dedication ceremony held in November, former Piggott resident Alva Lasswell was memorialized by the U.S. Marine Corps. Members of Lasswell's family were on hand for the ceremony, held at Fort Meade, Md., as the headquarters of the U.S. Marine Corps Forces Cyberspace Command ( MARFORCYBER) were dedicated in his honor. Designed to protect Marine forces from cyberattack, the unit is the Marine's component in U.S. Cyber Command.

With his sons in attendance, along with several other members of the family, Lasswell Hall was dedicated on the newly-developed east campus of the National Security Agency on Nov. 15. Presiding over the dedication were Major General Matthew Glavy, Commander of MARFORCYBER, and Lieutenant General Loretta Reynolds, a previous Commander of MARFORCYBER and presently Deputy Marine Corps Commandant for Information and Commander of the Marine Corps Forces Strategic Command.

Colonel A. Bryan (Red) Lasswell (USMC Ret.) was a Japanese linguist and cryptographer, trained in Tokyo and the Far East before World War II and stationed in Pearl Harbor just prior to the war. During the war he served as a codebreaker working to exploit intercepted messages from the Japanese Navy using their Code (JN-25.)

In 1941 Captain Lasswell was transferred to Hawaii to teach Japanese at a University in Hawaii. Instead, he was diverted to a secret naval office and became the chief translator of a group of 30 men of which nine were naval officers. He was the only Marine officer in the unit. The unit operated out of what affectionately became known as "The Dungeon". CDR. Joe Rochefort led this unit administratively. The signal intelligence group was initially known as station "HYPO" and later was known as "FRUPAC" -- Fleet Radio Unit Pacific. Here is where Captain Lasswell would later play a personal role in changing the very outcome of World War II in the Pacific Theater saving countless thousands of lives, and which, as most historians agree, shortened the war.

Following the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, they went on a campaign to conquer as many islands in the southwestern Pacific as they could, and FRUPAC began receiving a great deal of intercepted Japanese radio traffic to decode. Among the many translated messages that Captain Lasswell decoded were three translations that were considered major contributions to winning the war.

The first Lasswell translation was in mid-1942 when he translated an intercepted message that revealed Japan's planned attack on Midway Island designated (AF) and the intended day of attack. The message was sent to the major commanders as well as NEGAT (FRUPAC's equivalent) in Washington D.C. They disagreed with the translation that (AF) was Midway Island. Admiral Nimitz spoke with Lasswell personally and asked him how sure he was of the planned target. Lasswell stated he was 100 percent sure. Lasswell's translation was verified by CDR Rochefort when a fake message was sent in the clear from Midway Island that its desalinization plant was malfunctioning and the American troops were short of fresh water. The Japanese, shortly thereafter, broadcast a message stating that (AF) was short of fresh water which verified the target was Midway.

Admiral Nimitz used Captain Lasswell's information to plan appropriately for what would become history's first great aircraft carrier battle and what many experts believe was the turning point of the war in the Pacific Theater. After this battle was won, the Allies were finally able to go on a counter offensive that began with the Navy and Marine landings on Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands. Meanwhile, General MacArthur led the army and Australian allies in the taking of New Guinea's Papuan Peninsula. After this battle, Admiral Nimitz and General MacArthur started on an Island-hopping campaign that skipped strongly held Japanese islands, isolating them, and cutting them off from Japanese supply lines and reinforcements. In essence, that was taking the Japanese out of the war without having to actually engage them.

The next major war-changing contribution of then Captain Lasswell came on April 13, 1943, when he decoded and translated another Japanese naval message transmitting the movement intentions of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Commander in Chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet. He was to fly to the Japanese held island of Rabaul. The intercepted message gave information about his route, his escort fighters, and the exact time of his arrival. This information was relayed to Admiral Nimitz, who, having been convinced of Captain Lasswell's accuracy already, began planning the attack on Adm. Yamamoto's aircraft. Admiral Yamamoto was shot down on April 18, 1943 thereby demoralizing the Japanese Navy and Army. This shoot-down, according to several contemporary stories, had to be approved by President Roosevelt as it might signal the Japanese that their code had been broken once action was taken. Additionally, there was significant concern that killing Yamamoto might bring a new leader (Admiral Nagumo) to the Japanese Navy.

Captain Lasswell's third major translation came when decoding a Japanese plot in May of 1944 to ambush General Douglas MacArthur as he was returning to the Philippines from the European front. The Japanese Navy was to place submarines every seven miles in a stretch around the east coast of New Guinea on MacArthur's expected return route to the Philippines. It is believed the Japanese were looking for a moral victory in retaliation for the killing of Admiral Yamamoto. Because of Lasswell's translation this plot was foiled. Differing reports indicate between five and seven of these submarines were destroyed.

Lasswell lived in Piggott as a young man, and efforts by local residents were instrumental in gaining him recognition for his work and his induction into the Arkansas Military Veterans Hall of Fame. For many years he was not recognized for the contributions, as much of the work was considered top-secret. Last year members of the family visited Piggott for a special reception at the Piggott City Market, as the former local resident was remembered for his contributions. Taking part in the ribbon cutting ceremony for the new building were his sons, James and John.

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