'Breaking The Code' Of A Father's Secret War History

On his 81st birthday, without explanation, Karen Fisher-Alaniz's father gave her two notebooks. Inside were letters he'd written during World War II. The more she read, the more she discovered about the man and the secret role he played in the war. Host Audie Cornish talks with Fisher-Alaniz and her father about her book, Breaking the Code.

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AUDIE CORNISH, host: On Murray Fisher's 81st birthday, he gave his daughter, Karen Fisher-Alaniz, a gift of sorts. More than 400 pages of letters he had written to his parents while serving in World War II. Karen spent nearly a decade sifting through the letters and uncovering her father' past. And she learned something she never knew about him. Murray Fisher was part of a secret intelligence group in the Navy, trained to break Japanese codes transmitted in Katakana during the war.

Karen's discovery, her father's memories, and the lingering trauma of his war-time experiences, are the basis for her new book "Breaking the Code: A Father's Secret, A Daughter's Journey, and the Question That Changed Everything." I spoke with Karen Fisher-Alaniz, and her father, Murray Fisher from Walla Walla, Washington this past week. I asked Murray if he had a reason for holding onto his secret for so long.

MURRAY FISHER: Well, not especially. Of course, I was brainwashed from right at the start to not reveal any of this information, ever. So I think my brain just said don't talk, so I didn't.

KAREN FISHER-ALANIZ: I think it also got tied up in he experienced a great loss of one of his friends during the war, and he just wasn't able to talk about it.

CORNISH: Murray, was there a time when you wanted Karen to stop looking into these letters, especially like when nightmares returned and things like that? I mean, did you feel as though it was dredging up too much?

FISHER: No. I didn't feel that way. I didn't feel good about it, but I didn't feel bad either. It's kind of hard to describe. I didn't want to stop. I didn't want her to forget the whole thing.

FISHER-ALANIZ: But he would shut down. I mean, he'd reveal so much and you got a feeling there was more, but then, you know, should I ask more about this, should I tell him what I found in the letters, I mean, different things like that. During this whole time, he would not read the letters, even when we were transcribing them, we would do them in bits and pieces.

CORNISH: And you transcribed, I guess 400 pages of letters.

FISHER-ALANIZ: Yeah. He has this teeny, teeny, tiny writing, so I needed help. There's military jargon, there's language that was used in the 1940s, and then just his handwriting, trying to decipher what he was writing.

CORNISH: One thing I found interesting, Karen, is that there is a generational difference in terms of I think people in our generation tend to think that sharing and talking things out is the way to heal, and I wonder what that was like for you and your dad to adjust between that different point of view of not talking about something versus really wanting to talk about every bit of it.

FISHER-ALANIZ: Well, at first it was very awkward. I mean, at first I wanted to just say tell me about the war. Tell me how you're feeling about this. Like you're saying. But that's not something that this generation did. I mean, when he came home from the war he hung up his uniform and that was it. They went back to their normal everyday lives. So that whole story would've remained untold.

CORNISH: Murray, how did you feel about that?

FISHER: Well, I mean, it was just all right with me. I had nothing to talk about especially except I was in the Navy and I came out and I was OK and we were sworn to secrecy about everything I did. And one of the meetings we went to a sergeant in there laid a sidearm down on the desk and I heard the clunk. And he said if any of you talk about this to any of your friends and word gets out that you did this, you'll be put in solitary confinement for the duration of the war and hard labor. If you say anything that reveals top secret information of advantage to the enemy, he said, you'll be shot. You'll be shot and there'll be no trial.

We'll allow you to go on liberty but if you go out in the tavern, trying to have any beer, you're up at the bar and somebody's sitting beside you there, you can be assured that he's one of our operators. He was so emphatic about it that it scared the daylights out of us and we - I don't think any of us ever said a word.

A couple of years after I got out of the service a couple of men came up to the door. They had black suits on and shiny black shoes and I thought they were going to preach me a sermon or something, but it turned out they said you're now released from secrecy for this one thing but the other, what you were doing, you can't - that's never been released so far. As far as I know, someone might come up in this room and shoot me because I've been talking about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FISHER: I guess it's OK at this stage.

CORNISH: It seems OK at this stage. But have you both been able to learn any more detail or corroborate these stories with military records?

FISHER: No. Nothing at all.

FISHER-ALANIZ: Well, to some extent. I mean, I did have someone who was helping me who had 26 years in naval intelligence and I sent records to him and he looked at them and he said that although there's not anything specific, he said that just looking at the location, he was able to see that he was where he says he was. He said there are definitely some blank areas in there.

So in that sense, yes. But, no. I mean, Dad is a very methodical person. He has an incredible memory and it kind of drives him crazy that he can't just get verification of this, just get a, you know, a sheet of paper that says this is what you were doing. You know? He would love that, but it doesn't seem to be out there.

CORNISH: Karen Fisher-Alaniz and her father Murray Fisher. His story is the focus of Karen's new book "Breaking the Code: A Father's Secret, A Daughter's Journey, and the Question that Changed Everything." They joined us from Walla Walla, Washington. Thank you both so much for sharing your story with us.

FISHER-ALANIZ: Well, thank you.

FISHER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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