Johnny Cash: Radio Intercept Operator
Did you know that the late country music star Johnny Cash was a spy? He was.
Cash enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1950 and was assigned as a morse intercept operator with the 6910th Security Group at Landsberg, West Germany where he intercepted Russian military radio transmissions. He reached the rank of sergeant before leaving the service. Over the next three years, between shift work Cash developed his singing skills, and following his departure from the service, went on to become one of this nation’s most popular country music stars. The Air Force gave Cash his first steady paycheck, $85 a month, which he used to buy his first guitar. He was honorably discharged from the military in July 1954.
Here is an excerpt from his memoirs about his time as a signals intelligence (SIGINT) intercept operator (Johnny Cash and Patrick Carr. “Johnny Cash: The Autobiography.” New York: Harper Paperbacks, 1997. 79-80)
“The Air Force taught me the things every military service imparts to its enlisted men … plus one skill that’s pretty unusual: if you ever need to know what one Russian is signaling to another in Morse code, I’m your man. I had such a talent for that particular line of work and such a good left ear, that in Landsberg, where the United States Air Force Security Service ran radio intercept operations worldwide, I was the ace. I was who they called when the hardest jobs came up. I copied the first news of Stalin’s death. I located the signal when the first Soviet jet bomber made its first flight from Moscow to Smolensk; we all knew what to listen for, but I was the one who heard it. I couldn’t believe that Russian operator. He was sending at thirty-five words a minute by hand, a rate so fast I thought it was a machine transmitting until I heard him screw up. He was truly exceptional, but most of his comrades were fast enough to make the best Americans sound like amateurs, sloppy and slow. It didn’t matter, though. Our equipment was so good that they couldn’t make a noise anywhere in the world without us hearing it. Our receiver worked pretty well bringing in WSM, too. Some Sunday mornings I could sit there in Germany and listen to Saturday night at the Grand Ole Opry live from Nashville, Tennessee, just like at home. I heard the enemy every day in the Air Force, but I never saw combat or even came close to it. I enlisted a week before the Korean War broke out, so I was already in the system, and once they’d discovered my aptitude, trained me, and assigned me to the Security Service, Korea wasn’t an option. My only choice was between Germany and Adak Island, the Aleutian archipelago off Alaska. that wasn’t hard: frozen everything or food and Frauleins? I chose Landsberg.”