Joseph Wenger was a major figure in US Navy cryptology from the 1930s to the 1950s.  Wenger had productive years as a working cryptanalyst, but soon showed his abilities as a cryptologic manager.  He was an early advocate of cryptologic centralization after World War II, and served as vice director in the armed forces Security Agency, NSA’s predecessor.

As it happens, Wenger also had a hidden talent that few of his cryptologic colleagues knew about.

Originally published: January 28, 2013

Charles de Gaulle, the French general and statesman, once observed that the cemeteries were full of indispensable men.  While there is certainly truth in this statement, some people through their life as work change the course of history and prove to be indispensable to the way events unfold. One of these was Rear Admiral Joseph N. Wenger.

Wenger, besides being the first cryptologist to achieve flag rank and the first Vice Director of NSA, was a visionary whose proactive role in fielding COMINT collection sites around the Pacific Rim helped to shape the outcome of WWII and whose work against the German Navy’s ENIGMA machine assisted in sealing the fate of the Nazi submarine menace.  Joseph Wenger also was in no small part responsible for the development of the Second World War’s most powerful cryptographic device, the ECM II, which ensured the confidentiality of high-level US communications.

As influential as he was in helping to determine events that intimately impacted so many of his fellow Americans, Joseph Wenger’s navy career almost never was.  From his earliest days, his desire was to follow a career in art.  Shortly after his eighteenth birthday, Wenger penned:

“Dreaming is a fine art with me.  Most of my dreams are of my future – what I should like to do or be.  I have decided to become eventually an illustrator of some of the great books – of some great author as Dickens, or perhaps Shakespeare.  I love Dickens and should like to illustrate his books in such a way as to do credit to them.”

To fulfill this goal, he attended the prestigious Art Students League in New York City and studied under the then well-known George B. Bridgman, who encouraged young Wenger to pursue his art career.

“The Log” by Wenger

There was, nonetheless, another powerful force deep within him, which drove Wenger to apply to the US Naval academy and to pursue a career of service at sea.  Hedging his bets, Wenger resolved that if he could not gain acceptance into the academy he would throw himself headlong into the graphic arts. As it turned out, he passed the entrance examination with high marks. Winger’s career path still had not solidified b the end of his first year at Annapolis when he seriously considered designing from the academy and returning to NYC or Boston to continue his artistic studies. In the end, he reconciled his decision to continue his military career with the acknowledgement that “Although my head is for the Navy, my heart is for art.”

During his academy days and in the years that followed, Wenger enthusiastically contributed illustrations for numerous naval publications.  In his private life his zeal for artistic creativity never waned, and he was never far from inkpots, paper, brushes, paint, and canvas.

Source: Center for Cryptologic History, National Security Agency