SPRINGFIELD, Ohio — An interview with Wittenberg University Associate Professor of Physics Dan Fleisch appears in an hour-long documentary titledDayton Codebreakers, which premieres at 7 p.m. Friday, April 15, in Boll Theatre in the University of Dayton’s Kennedy Union. Dayton Codebreakers chronicles the work of the late Joe Desch, an engineer heading a top-secret program at Dayton-based National Cash Register Co. (NCR) to develop a code-breaking machine that ultimately allowed the Allied forces to read the messages of the German Navy, helping to bring World War II to an end.
Desch’s high-speed codebreaking machine called a Bombe came to light in the early 1990s when documents about the NCR project were declassified. Desch, a 1929 graduate of the University of Dayton, received a Congressional Medal of Merit from President Harry Truman in 1947, the highest wartime honor for civilians, but had taken a pledge of secrecy not to reveal any information about his role in the development of the Bombe.
More than 120 machines were secretly built. Desch’s daughter Debbie Desch Anderson, the documentary’s director, journalist Aileen LeBlanc and the Montgomery County Historical Society are bringing the story to light. Anderson and LeBlanc raised $98,000 over the past two years from local foundations and individuals to research and produce Dayton Codebreakers.
Fleisch first became acquainted with Aileen LeBlanc, former news director of WYSO Radio and now an independent radio producer and the director/producer of Dayton Codebreakers, when he served as a commentator for LeBlanc’s program “Sounds Local.”
According to LeBlanc, “When we needed a math magician to describe the immense task that was taken on by the codebreakers, I knew Dan could eloquently explain the numbers and science involved in this project in terms that are understandable to non-scientists, while being impressive to those who are in the field.
“With very compelling style, Fleisch relates the magnitude of the numbers to the universe, which is fitting to his astronomy professorship at Wittenberg. He also links the codebreakers early work in electronics to today’s computers.”
A native of Milwaukee, Wis., Fleisch, an astronomer, got his bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University and his master’s and doctoral degrees from Rice University and later embarked upon a 20-year industry career in systems development and electromagnetics as a senior scientist, vice president, chief scientist and executive vice president. He has received a variety of academic honors during his career at Wittenberg, including the Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching in 2004, the Southwestern Ohio Council for Higher Education (SOCHE) Award for Faculty Excellence and Innovation in 2003 and the Omicron Delta Kappa Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2002.
Dayton Codebreakers will air on ThinkTV WPTD Channel 16 at 9 p.m. Tuesday, April 19, and ThinkTV WPTO Channel 14 at 10 p.m. Wednesday, April 20. Tickets for the April 15 premiere are $4 and can be ordered by calling UD’s Kennedy Union box office at (937) 229-2545.
To help celebrate the completion of this documentary, historian and retired British Intelligence officer Tony Sale, founder and curator of the Bletchley Park Museum in England, will travel to Dayton to attend the premiere. He will speak at 2 p.m. in the Education Center of Dayton’s Carillon Park the following day. Both events are free and open to the public.
In addition, German historian Eric Rust, professor of history at Baylor University, and Fleisch will attend the premiere with the filmmakers and will be available for questions after the premiere. Refreshments will be served.
Finally, a Wittenberg University colloquium featuring Sale and Fleisch titled “Breaking the Enigma Code” is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. Monday, April 18, in Bayley Auditorium in the Barbara Deer Kuss Science Center. The colloquium is sponsored by the departments of physics, history and math.
“This is a subject that cuts across many areas of study,” Fleisch said. “It is rare to have something like this that can appeal to such a diverse range of interests.”
— Rajean Blomquist