Father of U.S. Navy Cryptology
Laurance Frye Safford was born in Somerville, Massachusetts, on October 22, 1893. He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1916. After World War One duty in destroyers, and later as commanding officer of several submarines, he was assigned to the Research desk at OP-20-G.
Safford was head of the forerunner of the Naval Security Group from April, 1936 to 1 February, 1942. By common consent, Safford is regarded as the founding father of our organization. He was one of the first U.S. naval officers to specialize in the field of cryptology when he headed the newly-established Cryptographic Research Desk in the OPNAV Code and Signal Section from 1924-1925.
In 1924, Safford, in consultation with the Underwood Typewriting Company, designed a “special code machine” for the use of U.S. Navy intercept operators. Instead of Roman letters, the “RIP-5” printed “Kana” characters for the interception of Japanese radio messages.
Joseph J. Rochefort and Agnes Driscoll were two of the first persons to work on codebreaking with Safford. Writing in a 1983 issue of the magazine Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute, Rochefort says of Safford that he was a “true cryptanalyst,” and “something of an odd character,” more a technician than an administrator. Rochefort credits Safford with opening new intercept stations. “He really started the whole thing, and should be considered the father of the Navy’s intelligence system.”
In the years prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, Safford constantly stressed the importance of high frequency direction finding (HFDF), extending nets into both the Atlantic and Pacific.
During World War II, Safford served as Assistant Director of Naval Communications for Cryptographic Research. From 1949-1951, he was special assistant to the Director, Armed Forces Security Agency.
John Toland, in an 1982 interview in the NCVA “Newsletter,” credits Safford with reducing the toll against heavy shipping by German submarines in the Atlantic. “Safford wanted to change the U.S. crypto devices, and the government would not finance his proposed change. Safford then scrounged parts, developed the new device, and when it was used, shipping losses were greatly reduced.” While he was head of the Naval Security Group in December 1941, Captain Safford claimed to have seen a “winds code execute” message, intercepted at Cheltenham, Maryland, on December 4, 1941. The message “meant war – and we knew it meant war,” wrote Safford. He forwarded the message to his commanding officer, Rear Admiral Leigh Noyes, feeling that he had fully discharged his responsibility. Over the years, a controversy has existed about the importance of the message and even over its existence.
Safford continued to serve as assistant director of Naval Communications for Cryptographic Research until January 1949, when he became special assistant to the director of the Armed Forces Security Agency. Although retired in 1951, in January 1952 Safford became the special assistant to the head of the Security Branch in the division of Naval Communications. He was relieved of all active duty in 1953.
He was awarded the Legion of Merit medal, and in 1958 was awarded $100,000 for cryptographic inventions which he could not patent for reasons of national security.
Captain Laurance Frye Safford died in Bethesda, Maryland, on 15 May 1973.
Source: NCVA, Echoes of Our Past