Obituaries

Milton Zaslow, 87; Played Major Role In U.S. Intelligence

Milton Zaslow oversaw the National Security Agency's operations in Vietnam during the war.
Milton Zaslow oversaw the National Security Agency's operations in Vietnam during the war. (Family Photo - Family Photo)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 25, 2008

Early in the Korean War, Milton Zaslow and three other cryptologists working in China for the Armed Forces Security Agency were reading thousands of messages sent over commercial telegraph when they began to notice a large number that said: "Father died. Come at once," or "Mother ill. Come home."

They figured out that the Chinese army was recalling soldiers on leave to their units. Tracking the movements of four army divisions, Mr. Zaslow and his colleagues determined that the Chinese were preparing to enter North Korea. The discovery was important. The intervention of the Chinese in November 1950 greatly increased the war's intensity and scope.

Mr. Zaslow, 87, a seminal figure at the National Security Agency who played a significant role in U.S. intelligence from World War II through the Vietnam War, died of cardiac arrest July 15 at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring.

Because he worked for an agency that holds some of the government's most secret information, an agency that for years was itself a secret, the full details of Mr. Zaslow's career might never be known. But by the time he retired in 1979, he was the NSA's second-highest-ranking civilian.

His career at NSA included oversight of the agency's operations in Vietnam during the long war. He was involved in a variety of matters, including the reports of hostile action in the Gulf of Tonkin, which launched America's major intervention in the war, to providing signal intelligence for the failed 1970 rescue attempt of Americans held at the Son Tay prisoner of war camp in North Vietnam.

The New York native had just graduated from the City College of New York when the United States entered World War II. Trained in intensive Japanese-language classes, he was commissioned an Army second lieutenant and put in charge of 10 linguists, mostly Japanese Americans whose families were interned in the United States.

His unit translated captured diaries and documents picked up on battlefields, then accompanied Marines, acting as translators, in Tinian, one of the main Northern Marianas Islands. They swam ashore on Okinawa on Aug. 6, 1945, the day that the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

"The only things that kept me from sinking is I packed my bag so well [that] it kept me afloat. I carried a carbine and a .45 and 20 pounds of dictionaries," he told a Library of Congress interviewer.

His unit was among the first to enter Nagasaki after an atom bomb was dropped there, and it stayed to help with reconstruction.

After World War II, he transferred to the Army Security Agency, an NSA precursor. Posted to China, he began reading thousands of messages that led to the discovery of Chinese troop movements.

Fifty years later, Mr. Zaslow told a spellbound crowd at the opening of a Korean War exhibit at the NSA's museum, "I have been waiting a long, long time to talk about this." He said that despite their claims at the time, top military officials, including Gen. Douglas MacArthur, were briefed six months before the Chinese invaded. "But he said, 'Well, maybe they're not coming anyway, so maybe we can win the war,' " Mr. Zaslow told the audience.

The NSA was formed in 1952, and Mr. Zaslow rose through the ranks, leading its offices in Japan in the early 1960s, serving as the NSA's first liaison to the Pentagon in 1969 and overseeing the group dealing with the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc nations. He was stationed in London from 1975 to 1978.


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