World War II Oral History Interview
Date: July 31, 2002
Veteran: Harold S. Thomson
US Army Signal Corps, 6812th Signal, SCHAEF, ULTRA
Interviewer: Michelle Carrara
Summarizer: Irving Bauman
Harold S. Thomson was born in Westfield, New Jersey in February, 1921. His father owned the Lehigh Valley Oil Company, a coal and oil delivery business in Cranford. After graduating from the Pingry School, Thomson completed two years of study at Haverford College before entering the service. He attempted to join the navy as an officer candidate but was rejected for failure to meet eyesight and weight requirements. He then applied to the army’s Signal Corps, which accepted him in April, 1943. After two weeks of training at Fort Dix, New Jersey, he was sent to the Sea Girt National Guard camp, which had been leased from the state of New Jersey by the federal government for Signal Corps basic training. Although hospitalized briefly at Fort Monmouth for treatment of a case of German measles, Thomson completed his training at Sea Girt, including long marches into the local countryside, and shooting on the rifle range. He then took a course in cryptography.
(Col. Michael Smith, CWO Judith E. McCabe, Harold Thomson)
Thomson’s initial assignment was at Arlington Hall, Virginia, a former girls’ junior college that would later become the site of Central Intelligence Agency headquarters. Following three months at Arlington Hall, he was transferred to Fort Wadsworth, New York, from where he embarked for overseas duty. After landing near Liverpool, England, his unit spent three weeks performing routine military tasks. Thomson then was assigned to the British code breaking center at Bletchley Park, where the men had to sign the British “Official Secrets Act,” promising not to divulge the secret information they were privy to under penalty of severe punishment.
Thomson noted that thousands of men and women who could not discuss their work with anyone worked at the Bletchley base around the clock, operating electromechanical code breaking machines that were eight feet wide and six feet high. He stated that more than 3,000 messages arrived at the center daily, transmitted via the German “Enigma” code machine by German army, air force, naval and other sources, and intercepted by the allies. Some coded intercepts, code named ULTRA by the British, were broken immediately, while others took months to crack, as the decoders tried to find the right combination of letters and numbers. He recalled that Winston Churchill called the British women soldiers, or WRENS, who worked in the operation his “Golden Geese.”
Thomson’s unit was attached to Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF). He served as a cryptographer in London, living in a private home converted to barracks in the city while it was under attack from German V-1 and V-2 rockets. At the close of the war, Thomson returned to the United States and was discharged in January 1946. He completed his education on the GI Bill, graduating from Fordham University and then Fordham’s law school. After working in his father’s business, he became an investment analyst and ended his career as senior vice president of Horizon Bank, where he headed the bond portfolio and was a member of the trust investment committee. Thomson was active in Pingry school alumni and veterans’ affairs and attended two reunions of his old Signal Corps unit at Bletchley Park. At the conclusion of his interview Thomson showed the interviewer a number of books, orders, maps and photos related to his service. Copies of much of this material are in his file at the NGMMNJ in Sea Girt. Harold S. Thomson passed away in his sleep on January 1, 2006 at his home in Sea Girt.