Herbert O. Yardley is one of the most famous figures in American intelligence history. He led MI-8, the War Department’s codebreaking shop, during World War I. Then after the war he headed ‘The American Black Chamber’, a communications intelligence effort funded jointly by the War and State Departments. When Secretary of State Henry Stimson shut that down in 1929, Yardley wrote the blockbuster tell-all book, The American Black Chamber, which influenced countless future SIGINTers and intelligence scholars. It also motivated Congress to pass the first law specially protecting America’s code and cipher secrets.
Yardley has been of interest for so long that one might think that everything worth knowing was already known about him, particularly since the publication of David Kahn’s fine biography, The Reader of Gentlemen’s Mail. However, at least one mystery remains. In 1998, Lou Kruh brought to the attention of Cryptologia readers tantalizing information suggesting that there may have been a final, hitherto unknown, chapter in Yardley’s intelligence career. Eleven years after Kruh’s article appeared new information has come to light that tends to support the suggestion.
Kruh pointed out that one Colonel John V. Grombach had claimed in the forward to his obscure 1980 true-crime book, The Great Liquidator, that Yardley had been among the members of the little-known espionage organization that Grombach had headed from 1942 to 1955 under various names, most notably “The Pond.” This period postdates Yardley’s last known involvement in intelligence, his short stints working for Chiang Kai-Shek, and then the Canadians. The latter appointment was very brief and ended unhappily in January 1942.
Kruh noted that the evidence for the story was conflicting. On one hand, Yardley’s employment during this period appeared to be well documented: he had run an unsuccessful restaurant and then worked in the Office of Price Administration. Moreover, Yardley’s widow, herself a codebreaker under William Friedman, had stated that her husband had not been in the intelligence business during World War II.
On the other hand, in support of Grombach’s claim, Kruh cited the comments of a William S. Hart, Jr. of the Army’s Signal Intelligence Service, interviewed in 1989 and again in 1998, who said that he had seen Yardley in 1944 in situations that seemed to imply that the famous man had a security clearance to do intelligence work. Hart’s only elaboration was to suggest that perhaps Yardley was providing information or consulting services but may not have been officially connected with military intelligence. In short, the question remained a mystery.
Who was this man for whom Yardley may have worked? Colonel John V. Grombach had a background in radio. During the 1930s, he had worked for Paramount producing radio programs and he later started his own radio production company which produced entertainment featuring diverse stars such as Nelson Eddy, Eugene Ormandy, and Babe Ruth. He also had an amateur interest in cryptology. In 1940 he wrote an article for Infantry Journal describing how secret messages could be concealed in innocent-sounded radio broadcasts, a technique he called “cryptophony.” Grombach was also a member of the New York National Guard. With war looming he was called to active duty and before long found his way to the War Department’s Military Intelligence Division (MID), the G-2. However, during the first half of 1942 the War Department loaned him on a part-time basis to William Donovan’s Office of Strategic Services (OSS) where he was in charge of standing up FBQ, the OSS’ short-lived signals intelligence organization.
Though Grombach’s work for OSS extended well into the summer of 1942, by late April Donovan had had enough of this troublemaker. In a memorandum to Colonel M. P. Goodfellow, Grombach’s OSS superior, Donovan expressed his concern that Grombach “has talked and acted in such a way as would jeopardize our [relations] with the Navy” and directed that he not be made a regular member of the OSS, and thus that he be allowed to return to the exclusive control of the MID.
Despite his flirtation with signals intelligence, Grombach’s real inclinations were in the field of human intelligence and espionage and it is here that we should look for the any Yardley-Grombach link. Even while Grombach was working part-time for Donovan, he was spending the balance of his time setting up an espionage organization for the War Department. When he was finally released back to the MID in 1942, he devoted his full attention to this work.
Grombach was conspiratorial by nature and thought himself surrounded by incompetents and ideological opponents. He also scoffed at the high public profiles of the war-time Office of Strategic Services. He believed firmly that for an espionage agency to be most effective its very existence must be unknown. He went to obsessive lengths to protect the Pond’s security during the war, even forbidding his subordinates to tell other members of G-2 what their real duties were.
But was Yardley part of this secretive espionage organization? Recently, evidence has surfaced that suggests that in fact he was. Alongside Yardley’s name on Grombach’s list of his alleged one-time subordinates in the Pond was John Bakeless, a Balkans expert and author of popular histories such as Spies of the Revolution and Spies of the Confederacy. Bakeless’ diaries survive and though they deal primarily with gardening, other topics occasionally intrude. In particular, on February 24, 1970, Bakeless wrote:
John Grombach called up tonight to talk about books and then switched off to discuss Herbert O. Yardley, author of the AMERICAN BLACK CHAMBER. He says the British had a ‘down’ on Yardley because he exposed them as double-crossers, apparently at the time of the Washington 1922 Naval Treaty. After Stimson closed down Yardley’s State Department Black Chamber, he eventually went to work for Chiang Kai-Shek, who took him over to China, established him with plenty of drink and concubines and set him to work decrypting—mostly Japanese code, I gather. Eventually, British pressure forced Chiang to let him go. In World War II, Grombach took him into his own G-2 outfit for use as a decrypter but eventually the British found out about him and Grombach was again forced to let him go. (He thought General Strong winked as he gave the order.) Grombach accordingly fired him, but hired him back under another name and got more work out of him, work of high quality. But again the British got on to his whereabouts and again he was forced out. Yardley now has a very bad persecution complex but it is no wonder, considering he was persecuted. Grombach (quite rightly) thinks Yardley a wonderful cryptanalyst.
According to Bakeless, Grombach then opined that Yardley’s work on the Japanese codes had indirectly opened the way for William Friedman’s later work against Japanese cipher systems that became so important during World War Two. The diary entry closes with the following two sentences: “Grombach also used Yardley when Grombach’s organization was working on Soviet code or cipher. [Recorded this a half hour after the conversation.]”
Given this final sentence, it is reasonable to assume that the entry in the diary is a good summary of what Grombach actually said.
This brief passage, then, appears to give us the first tangible information about the circumstances of Yardley’s mysterious alleged employment, the dates of this employment, and even what he was actually doing. The reference to General Strong, the Army G-2, suggests that at least some of Yardley’s service was between May, 1942 and February, 1944, the period of Strong’s tenure at the helm of the MID.
Yardley took his job at the Office of Price Administration on November 9, 1942. It has always been difficult to imagine how Yardley could have done his job at the OPA while simultaneously doing intelligence work. The simplest explanation is that he had ceased working for Grombach before then. If this were the case, then Yardley departed Grombach’s employ between May and November 1942 and thus he only worked for Grombach for a few months in that year. Such a brief period of employment may explain why Yardley does not show up in the MID’s organizational charts and telephone directories. On the other hand, William Hart said that he saw Yardley in 1944 in circumstances suggesting that Yardley held a clearance. Certainly, Hart may have misremembered when interviewed more than forty years later, but his other comment that Yardley may merely have been providing information or consulting services offers an explanation other than faulty memory. The latter hypothesis might again help explain why Yardley is not in the organizational charts and telephone directories.
Bakeless also wrote in his diary that after being “fired” the first time, Yardley worked under a false name. It is hard to imagine how the famous Yardley could have showed up in the MID offices and plausibly claimed to be anyone other than who he was. In fact, work under a false name strongly suggests work not formally for the US Government, but rather for Grombach personally, perhaps through a part-time consulting relationship of some sort.
A third, least likely possibility is that Yardley’s work at the OPA was simply cover for his work for Grombach and the Pond. The Pond did use a variety of cover mechanisms, including diplomatic cover, an arrangement under which an intelligence fills a foreign service position while also having intelligence responsibilities.
Whatever the precise timing of Yardley’s employment, it is difficult to imagine how the British would have found out that their bête noir, Yardley, was working for Grombach, giving them a reason to renew their “persecution” of the cryptologist.
There are other problems with the account, as well. Grombach certainly confused the story of Yardley’s work for Chiang Kai-Shek with the story of his short-lived work for the Canadians. Yardley was not forced out of the former job due to British pressure. However, that was precisely the reason he left the latter job in January 1942. So in this case Grombach does not have his story entirely straight, but it is easy to understand how he could have made such an error.
What of the claim that Grombach used Yardley “when Grombach’s organization was working on Soviet code or cipher”? During World War II Grombach’s organization did, indeed, collect intelligence on the USSR. However, the Pond was by all accounts a human intelligence organization and did not do communications intelligence work. What Soviet codes or ciphers, then, would Yardley have been working on? It may be that he tackled written materials collected by Grombach’s overseas agents much as in an earlier era he had occasionally been called on to attack coded or ciphered materials found on suspected enemy agents or transmitted through the US mail. But this is sheer guesswork.
In short, while we cannot make a definitive judgment, the available evidence may now allow us to be more confident that Yardley actually did make one last foray into the world of intelligence during World War II.