Russell Willson developed and directed the new Code and Signal Section, bringing together elements from Navy Department Operations, Intelligence, and Communications organizations.
He coordinated with our British Allies. In that position, he oversaw production and Fleet-wide distribution of his NCB (renamed Navy Cipher Box) cryptographic device and associated material, and construction of a totally revamped two-part code book to replace its long-compromised predecessor one-part codes. His success helped propel the Navy and the United States into a world leadership role for naval communications and cryptography. It also earned LCDR Willson another promotion within 14 months and lasting recognition for his trailblazing NCB invention and new enciphered code cryptographic systems.

Not only was Willson the first Navy officer to lead the Code and Signal Section in the Naval Communications Division, but he is also recognized as the designer of the first mechanical cryptographic device adopted for general Navy use. In fact, evidence points to as-yet unchallenged historical judgment that the NCB was the first of its kind in the world to become operationally successful.

The NCB provided the Navy with an unassailable advantage in communications security during World War I. LT Willson’s wartime accomplishments accelerated his promotion to LCDR in May 1917 and to CDR in July 1918. They also earned him the Navy’s second-highest award, the Navy Cross: “For exceptionally meritorious service in a duty of great responsibility in connection with the preparation, handling, and distribution of war codes and for devising a new and very efficient system of such communications.”

The official Navy position recognized how valuable Willson and his new cipher device had been to winning the war. Senior Navy officers affirmed that the NCB was used to encrypt all messages exchanged between Washington Headquarters and the Navy commander of U.S. naval forces in European waters. Those secure transmissions dealing with Allied convoys helped conceal the movements of transports, saving thousands of lives and millions of dollars.

Navy success in protecting its communications during the war led to a postwar Presidential decision to employ the NCB-along with Navy personnel and codes and ciphers-to handle every U.S. secret dispatch from and to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. All responsibilities for those communications were shifted from the State Department and given to the Navy. President Woodrow Wilson was assigned his own special cipher and reportedly operated the device himself.

This observation made on behalf of the Secretary of the Navy, appeared in sworn testimony before the House Committee on Naval Affairs in 1935. Although no further evidence has been located, the testimony is entirely credible and consistent with Wilson’s previous interest. Prior to the war President Wilson and his wife, Edith, worked together using a State Department code book to encrypt and decrypt messages exchanged with “Colonel” Edward M. House in Europe where he tried unsuccessfully to negotiate an end to the war before the U.S. was drawn into it. A copy of one such message and the code book is held in records at The Woodrow Wilson House, a National Trust for Historic Preservation property in Washington, D.C.

Source: NCVA Echoes of Our Past/Raymond P. Schmidt