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Wilmingtonian decodes German World War I Correspondence

By Jessica A. Bandel
via the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources web site

Charles Jastrow MendelsohnCharles Jastrow MendelsohnNot every North Carolinian who served in the armed forces during the First World War carried a gun on the battlefields of France. Some, like Camelia Rutherford London, were administrators. Others served as nurses, artists, naval officers, and chaplains. In the course of my research, I’ve uncovered at least one person who served as a cryptographer—someone who specializes in encrypting and decrypting sensitive information—during the war period, Wilmington native Charles Jastrow Mendelsohn.

The only child of Rabbi Samuel Mendelsohn and his wife Esther Jastrow, Charles excelled in mathematics and foreign languages, obtaining a Ph.D. in classics from the University of Pennsylvania in 1904. He was employed as a professor of ancient languages at the City College of New York when the United States formally declared war on Germany in April 1917. As a civilian, Mendelsohn supported the war effort as a translator and interpreter of foreign languages for various government offices and as a censor of correspondence and newspapers with the postal service.

His expertise soon caught the attention of Herbert O. Yardley, an influential cryptologist of the time who recruited Charles to join the United States’ first cryptologic agency: Military Intelligence, Section 8, known more commonly by its abbreviated form, MI-8. In July 1918, Mendelsohn entered the army straight from civilian life with the rank of captain. The swearing-in ceremony was deeply moving for him: “[M]y heart is full to the brim of gratitude for the trust that America is placing in me, and the firm determination to serve her to the utmost limit of my slight powers—all to the end that peace may again spread her blessing among men, and that the world of the future may be a world without war and hatred….”

The entirety of his year-long military term was spent stateside at posts in Washington D.C. and New York City where Mendelsohn led at team tasked with decrypting intercepted German diplomatic correspondence. Using ciphers that had already been broken by the British, including one from the Zimmermann Telegram known as 13040, his team broke at least six of Germany’s diplomatic codes. Two of the deciphered messages shed light on Germany’s continued attempts to recruit support from Mexico. Though Mexico declined such offers, Mendelsohn’s work provided a deeper understanding of Germany’s interference with one of our nation’s neighbors.

Read the entire article on the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources web site here.

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