Friday, November 11, 2011
WALLA WALLA -- In her book "Breaking the Code, A Father's Secret, a Daughter's Journey and the Question That Changed Everything," Karen Fisher-Alaniz chronicles the journey that began with her own curiosity, and her feeling there was more to the few stories her father shared about the war.
With the help of his daughter's patient persistence, World War II veteran Murray Fisher began about 10 years ago to remember things he'd locked in a vault in his mind.
The hidden memories were securely fastened, like a well-glued label covering a fragile jar.
The terrorist attacks of 9/11 lifted an edge of the label, and Fisher began to experience nightmares, and immersed himself in war movies and books about World War II.
Although no one recognized it at the time, the Walla Walla man was experiencing post traumatic stress disorder.
Fisher lifted the next edge himself when he handed his daughter Karen Fisher-Alaniz, who also lives in the city, two binders of letters Fisher had sent to his family while he served with the U.S. Navy.
He gave Fisher-Alaniz the letters on his birthday, April 27, 2002.
Fisher-Alaniz began to read the letters after her family had settled down for the night. She discovered her father was a very good writer, despite his minuscule handwriting. She soon discovered her father was not eager to discuss what she was reading, and probing resulted in gentle but firm silence. She also began to feel the letters were "sanitized" not only for the censors, but for his family.
Fisher worked as a telegrapher for Northern Pacific Railroad in Helix until he was drafted, and entered the Navy in 1944. He had his boot camp training at Farragut, Idaho. It was there he was trained in transcribing Japanese katakana, one of the language's three sets of characters.
Most of his time was served on Oahu, and his duties were often minimal. His letters describe the monotony, and the lack of activity. He rated shows and movies he attended, and talked about the Fiat his brother was fixing, offering his advice about the project.
Fisher-Alaniz and her father began to have weekly breakfasts to talk about the letters, and she would pick at the label, but found it resistant.
One day she managed to lift a large piece, when she asked her father if he had any friends during the war.
Yes, he said. He then told her about the day an armed sailor in a Jeep parked in front of his tent. With no explanation, the sailor drove Fisher to a building where he met a group of other men and an instructor.
All of them had been skipped in the drafts for shipping out to west Pacific and the fighting. Instead, they were to copy and break a top-secret Japanese code transmitted in katakana.
Among the team members was a man Fisher only remembers as Mal, a man who became his friend and the man whose fate was the source of Fisher's future anguish.
The code-breaking operation was shrouded in secrecy, and the team members were told they would be shot without a trial if they revealed anything that aided the enemy.
Their first mission was on a submarine they were told was the Sailfish. They were off Iwo Jima for about two weeks copying code.
"Mal and I copied this code continuously. We just kept copying," Fisher said in a recent interview in his Walla Walla home.
"I would fall asleep over the keys until someone would wake me up. The cooks would bring food, but I didn't have time to eat it."
As copiers, Mal and Fisher just copied, and it went to other members of the team for interpretation.
They had no idea what was happening topside, until the sub surfaced after the Americans had taken the island.
"We saw the flag on Iwo Jima, and hundreds of ships off shore. The place was black with ships, Japanese and ours."
Fisher went on one more mission two weeks later, to Okinawa. Something went wrong with the submarine's communication equipment, and the code team was moved to a communications ship.
During the invasion of Okinawa, Japan unleashed the biggest kamikaze assault of the war, Fisher said. The communications ship, which was "just bristling with antennas" was a choice target for the suicide pilots.
The only place the code team could plug in their antenna was on the bridge. Mal and Fisher sat on opposite sides of the bridge in rolling chairs, and were snapped to a loop at their stations in front of their equipment.
Occasionally, "for fun" they would exchange places, gliding across the deck aided by the swell of waves.
Mal and Fisher had just exchanged places when a plane hit the ship or crashed in the water. The plane was loaded with shrapnel, and a piece of metal pierced Mal's forehead.
Fisher rushed to his friend, holding him as he died.
The last things Fisher remembers are his fingers being pried from Mal's body, his shirt covered with blood and someone saying "get that shirt off him."
"That's all I know. The next thing I knew I was in the psych ward in the Navy Hospital in Oahu. I have no idea how I got there, but they must have flown me," he said.
When he woke up in the hospital, his left hand was bandaged. "I had no idea I'd been hit. I guess I was hit," he said, looking at his hand.
Fisher finished his tour of duty back on Oahu, celebrated the Japanese surrender, and waited his turn to be discharged. He returned to Walla Walla and resumed working for Northern Pacific as a telegrapher. He retired after 40 years, and with his wife, Betty, enjoys trips in their motor home, and time with their daughters and grandchildren.
Like most veterans of World War II, he returned to the life he'd had before the war, and put aside the most haunting memories.
The Navy and the secrecy of the code missions helped Fisher put his memories out of his conscious mind. His service records do not include his contribution to intelligence. His research has revealed nothing about the existence of the Sailfish.
After telling Fisher-Alaniz his story about Mal's death, Fisher began a grieving process. He installed a flagpole in front of his house, and flies the flag every day. He often sat in his lawn chair next to the flagpole. The flag was for Mal, he told Fisher-Alaniz.
The big breakthrough for Fisher came with telling his story to Chuck Hindman, then-pastor of the Pioneer Methodist Church.
Hindman wrote what amounted to a memorial service, and emailed it to Fisher-Alaniz.
In January, 2007, Fisher's family persuaded him to revisit Hawaii, and bid farewell to Mal there.
Fisher-Alaniz' poignant account of the farewell at the end of a dock ends her book, but Fisher still is visited with nightmares, although far less intense than those of a decade ago.
His family has urged him to seek counseling for his PTSD at the Veterans Administration Hospital, but he is reluctant.
"I just think I'm aware of it. I just don't think any doctor would see anymore. I also don't want to get any worse, get tangled up in something," he said.
Carrie Chicken can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 522-5289.
About the book
"Breaking the Code" is available locally at Book and Game Co. as well as major brick-and mortar and online bookstores.