Last week we introduced our readers to the story of a groundbreaking linguist and analyst Minnie McNeal Kenny, which you can read here. This week in Puzzle history we share the story of Mr. William D. “Bill” Coffee, who collected history of African-American contributions to US cryptology efforts. He began his career as a janitor and rose through the ranks of the Armed Forces Security Agency – the precursor to the NSA – becoming a pioneering figure in the racial integration of the young agency, going on to become the leader of a team of 30-plus analysts providing critical translation, research, analysis and decryption of foreign codes.
Born in 1917 in Abington, Virginia, Coffee came of age at the dawn of the Great Depression. After studying English at Knoxville College in Tennessee, he first entered government service in 1937 working for the Civilian Conservation Corps, where he would be employed until 1940. In 1941 Coffee would find employment in Washington D.C. as a waiter at the Arlington Hall School for Girls. When the nascent Armed Forces Security Agency acquired the land and took over Arlington Hall as its new HQ in 1942, Coffee was hired as a junior janitor within the Signals Intelligence Service, which would go on to be renamed the Signal Security Agency.
While he was employed in a menial role, his supervisors soon recognized Coffee’s intelligence and in January of 1943 promoted him to the role of messenger, delivering secure messages between researchers and analysts in different wings or buildings in the agency’s facilities. By April of the same year, only three months later, Coffee had been promoted to the position of head messenger 1. There he reported to the head of the agency’s B Group, Lt. Col. Earle Cooke.
In 1944, Cooke was tasked with recruiting a cadre of African-American analysts to form a new unit. When he struggled to identify or recruit desirable candidates, he turned to the only person he thought could help; Bill Coffee, his head messenger. Coffee was empowered as a de facto personnel officer and was given the task of recruiting men and women of color with the required skills for cryptological work. He would go on to recruit over 100 African-American scholars, linguists, and analysts for the agency, the first recruitment effort of its kind in the US intelligence services 2.
Thanks to his success in recruitment, Coffee would be promoted to the position of cryptological clerk, at first working alone, but slowly building a team of other African-American analysts to focus on the task of breaking non-governmental commercial codes from a range of foreign countries. These pioneers continued to struggle against the racism of the era; their unit was kept segregated, they were hired at a lower position and pay rate than white peers who were sometimes less qualified than themselves. For his part, Coffee was promoted to Assistant Civilian in Charge, albeit with a white officer as his supervisor, Lieutenant Benson K. Buffham.
Buffham, who would eventually go on to be promoted to Deputy Director of the NSA, would later recall that while he was nominally in charge of the unit, Coffee was the actual subject matter expert and leader of the team, and was responsible for the unit’s day-to-day operations 3. Under Coffee’s leadership, the unit was responsible for translating, analyzing, and decrypting coded foreign commercial communications, looking for unusual activity that might point to involvement in Axis wartime activities.
The unit would continue to grow throughout the final years of WWII, with Coffee ultimately directing a team of approximately 30 analysts distributed across six divisions, a position of authority unheard of for any African-American before him. In the years following the end of the war, Coffee would go on to supervise a new unit in the Intercept Control Branch, supporting their automated Morse code translation activities.
In 1946, Coffee would receive the prestigious Commendation for Meritorious Civilian Service from the chief of the Army Security Agency, General W. Preston Corderman, both for his contributions to the war effort, and his instrumental role in recruiting African-Americans to the intelligence community. The following year, the agency would rescind the de facto racist policy of installing a white supervisor over the all-black unit with the promotion of Coffee’s former assistant, Herman Phynes, to the role of Officer in Charge.
Coffee would continue to work for the NSA until his retirement in 1972, and passed away in 1989. He would go on to be posthumously inducted into the Cryptologic Hall of Honor in 2011, and today is remembered as a pioneer within the US intelligence community for overcoming the barriers of a segregated society. In his entry into the Hall of Honor it is written, “His strength of character brought dignity to African-Americans in cryptologic work at a time when discrimination was sanctioned. His efforts made possible the advances toward acceptance of minorities and diversity values in the generation that followed” 4.
1. National Cryptologic Museum Foundation: https://cryptologicfoundation.org/what-we-do/stimulate/african-americans-in-cryptology.html/title/william-d-coffee-cryptologic-hall-of-honor-honoree
2. The Invisible Cryptologists: African-Americans, WWII to 1956, pg. 8: https://www.nsa.gov/Portals/70/documents/about/cryptologic-heritage/historical-figures-publications/publications/wwii/invisible_cryptologists.pdf
3. The Invisible Cryptologists: African-Americans, WWII to 1956, pg.12 https://www.nsa.gov/Portals/70/documents/about/cryptologic-heritage/historical-figures-publications/publications/wwii/invisible_cryptologists.pdf
4. NSA Cryptologic Hall of Honor: https://www.nsa.gov/about/cryptologic-heritage/historical-figures-publications/hall-of-honor/Article/1621571/william-coffee/