When Dr. Jim Besunder was a boy, he would sometimes notice his father tapping his fingers in Morse code on the dinner table.
When he asked him about his role in World War II, his dad would simply say he “intercepted messages from the Germans” without any further details.
Now, Dr. Besunder, medical director of Akron Children’s pediatric intensive care unit, knows much more. His father, Elliot Besunder, played a key role in helping the Allied forces defeat the Nazis.
In March, Dr. Besunder and his brother, Sandy, both received phone calls from a historian in England, inviting them to be special guests at the opening of an exhibition at Hall Place, a castle outside of London. Elliot had spent 18 months at Hall Place in 1943 as part of the “Ultra Project.”
Elliot’s mission was veiled in secrecy during the war and remained classified for 30 years. But now his sons were learning more.
As part of the “Ultra Project,” Elliot was one of 200 U.S. soldiers specially selected and trained to spend long days listening to radios for German messages scrambled in Morse code.
“You would need really good hearing and concentration for the job. It would be like trying to eavesdrop on a conversation from across the room at a cocktail party,” said Dr. Besunder. “There was noise in the background from the radio, they were in a large room, with table after table of radio operators at work, and bombs were dropping all around London.”
The messages intercepted at Hall Place were then sent to Bletchley Park, another castle outside of London where British intelligence officers worked to break Germany’s thought-to-be-unbreakable Enigma code.
A movie set for release on Nov. 28, called the “Imitation Game,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch, focuses on the achievement of the brilliant Alan Turing in developing a machine that would mathematically eliminate certain codes in the Enigma encryption system.
Historians estimate that the work of these U.S. and British teams at Hall Place and Bletchley Park shortened the war by 2 years, saving millions of lives.
Vacation plans change
Dr. Besunder and his wife had been planning to take a long-awaited trip to Israel, but now they knew they could not pass up the opportunity to go to London for the Sept. 13 opening of the exhibit entitled, “The Secret Wartime History of Hall Place.”
The artwork on the invitations feature a black-and-white photo of a young Elliot Besunder, with ear phones on but legs kicked up on a table, as he was taking a break from his work. The red dots over the photo spell out in Morse code, “Santa Fe,” the code name for Hall Place.
While the families of many of the other U.S. soldiers who were part of the “Ultra Project” planned to attend the exhibit at other times during its 6-month run, the Besunder brothers and their wives were the only ones able to attend the opening.
“We were treated like royalty,” Dr. Besunder said.
The Greatest Generation
Elliot Besunder died in 2010 at the age of 88.
After receiving the call from London, Dr. Besunder began to look at his father’s scrapbook and diary. He found several photos and notes from Hall Place.
After the war, Elliot was sent to Germany, where his job was to intercept “friendly messages,” assumed to be from the Russians. After a year there, he returned to the United States, working in his father’s store in New Jersey, and then selling medical supplies for much of his career. Later in life, Elliot and his wife, Hazel, relocated to the Cleveland area in the late 1990s to be closer to their sons and their families.
“I wish I had talked to my dad more about the war, but I know he was very proud of his service,” Dr. Besunder said. “My dad was part of the Greatest Generation. I am just amazed by their singular commitment, patriotism and selflessness.”