For decades, John Bergmann told the story of an accident with a Springfield bolt-action rifle that cost him his right eye. He claimed that it was a misfire that took his eye and required him to get a prosthetic, but that was not true in any way: he was actually a codebreaker, but could not speak of the many things he had done during the war because of his assignment’s top secret nature.
Bergmann was a true genius, and loved mathematics. He was able to skip two grades in secondary schooling, and entered the University of Pittsburgh at just 17 years old. However, one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s aides approached him and made an offer that Bergmann could not resist accepting. A week later, he got his diploma, and was on his way to join the Army on special assignment.
According to Task and Purpose, Bergmann took a job at Fort Meade, Maryland, and conducted work that changed the course of the entire war.
There, he joined two dozen men who would become part of the Army’s World War II codebreaking operations. Comparable units were already in place in Great Britain, which had been involved in the war for two years before Bergmann’s enlistment.
Eventually, there were codebreaking posts around the world, operating 24 hours a day, with military men and women listening to radio signals, reading newspapers and other documents and translating Morse code in search of hidden messages.
The operations were strictly confidential. The service men and women involved couldn’t share any details family or friends and were even given cover stories to prevent disclosure.
Because of the nature of the codebreaking operations, a leak was simply not something that could be risked in any way whatsoever. In order to protect their work from disclosure, risking the enemy changing tactics, the Army even assigned the codebreaker teams cover stories in case they should ever be interrogated.
“We were very incognito,” Bergmann said. He told friends and family, “I was an accountant doing payrolls in Washington. I’d be living in Fort Meade, but I’d be doing payrolls.”
Most of his Army career took place in Maryland, though occasionally he would make trips to London to meet with his codebreaking colleagues in England. However, one time early in his Army career he made it into enemy territory, and it was there that he got the injury that would take his right eye.
Shortly after completing his initial six weeks of training — all of it was focused on codebreaking, with little in the way of weapons or other combat instruction that most enlistees completed — he accompanied a codebreaking team to Pearl Harbor, where he was promptly picked up by a group of Army rangers for a mission near the border of Burma and China.
The Japanese military had a radio station in the vicinity, and Bergmann was ordered to search it for documents disclosing the code settings used by the enemy.
It was all supposed to be a routine mission, but things went horribly awry when one of the Kachin Indians guiding the group of soldiers accidentally set off an explosion that hit Bergmann in the face. He was transported to a hospital in Philadelphia for surgery.
“The war’s over, I lost my eye, I’m going to go home now,” Bergmann remembered saying, to which his commander replied, “No, you’re going to be in a long time. You’ve got one good eye, we’re going to use it.”
He was in the service from 1941 to 1945, but was prohibited from discussing details of his mission with anyone, not even his wife and daughters. For decades, he had to deflect questions about what he did, which others who did the same job also had to do, something that almost all of them regretted doing.
It was not until 1983 that he was able to candidly discuss the details of his assignment. “It was hard for him not to tell my mom,” said his daughter Kim Elkovitch.
Bergmann’s wife developed Parkinson’s disease in her last 15 years of life, and he retired from his job as a CPA to care for her until her passing in 1998. For months, he was incredibly down because of her passing, but his daughter finally got him out of the house and that was when he began to discuss his incredible tale.
In recent days, Bergmann and other veterans have visited area schools to talk about their military service.
They describe the battles, they talk about the friends who didn’t make it off the battlefield, and they emphasize the importance of teamwork and sacrifice.
Bergmann also will tell the true story of how he lost his eye, occasionally wiggling his prosthetic and causing the students to cringe.
“It’s just a shell that goes in there,” he said. “Every six months I get it cleaned and polished, and every five or six years, they replace it. It’s a wonderful job, it’s really nice.”
Bergmann is the last surviving member of that codebreaker team. There are about 558,000 WWII veterans alive today out of the 16 million who served. That number is decreasing each day though, with about 362 passing away each day.
If you know any WWII veterans, ask them about what they did during that trying time.