Code-breaker knew America's secrets
July 26, 2008
WASHINGTON–Early in the Korean War, Milton Zaslow and three other cryptologists working in China for the U.S. Armed Forces Security Agency were reading thousands of messages sent over commercial telegraph when they began to notice a large number that said: "Father died. Come at once," or "Mother ill. Come home."
They figured out the Chinese army was recalling soldiers on leave to their units. Tracking the movements of four army divisions, Zaslow and his colleagues determined the Chinese were preparing to enter North Korea. The discovery was important. The intervention of the Chinese in November 1950 greatly increased the war's scope.
Zaslow, 87, a seminal figure at the National Security Agency who played a significant role in U.S. intelligence from World War II through the Vietnam War, died of cardiac arrest July 15 at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Md.
Because he worked for an agency that holds some of the U.S. government's most secret information, an agency that for years was itself a secret, the full details of Zaslow's career might never be known. But by his retirement in 1979, he was NSA's second-highest-ranking civilian.
His career at NSA included oversight of its operations in Vietnam during the war. He was involved in a variety of matters, including the reports of hostile action in the Gulf of Tonkin, which launched America's major intervention, and providing signal intelligence for the failed 1970 rescue attempt of U.S. POWs held at Son Tay in North Vietnam.
The New York native had just graduated from the City College of New York when the United States entered World War II in December, 1941 Trained in intensive Japanese-language classes, he was commissioned an army second lieutenant and put in charge of 10 linguists, mostly Japanese-Americans whose families were interned in the United States.
His unit translated captured diaries and documents picked up on battlefields, then accompanied Marines, acting as translators, in Tinian, one of the main Northern Marianas Islands. They swam ashore on Okinawa on Aug. 6, 1945, the day the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
"The only things that kept me from sinking is I packed my bag so well (that) it kept me afloat. I carried a carbine and a .45 and 20 pounds of dictionaries," he told a Library of Congress interviewer.
His unit was among the first to enter Nagasaki after the atom bomb, and it stayed to aid reconstruction.
After World War II, he transferred to the Army Security Agency, an NSA precursor. Posted to China, he began reading thousands of messages that led to the discovery of Chinese troop movements.
Fifty years later, Zaslow told a spellbound crowd at the opening of a Korean War exhibit at the NSA's museum, "I have been waiting a long, long time to talk about this."
The NSA was formed in 1952, and Zaslow rose through the ranks, serving as its first liaison to the Pentagon in 1969 and overseeing the group dealing with the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc nations.
His wife, Elinor, died in 1996. Survivors include two children.