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Spook stories

Freedom's John Hogan leads New England chapter of Naval crypto veterans

FORMER NAVY SPOOK (another term for ‘spy’) John Hogan now lives in Freedom and is President of the Naval Cryptologic Veteran’s Association’s New England Chapter. (Daymond Steer photo) (click for larger version)
April 01, 2010
FREEDOM — Former Navy spook John Hogan traveled the world monitoring America's enemies for about 20 years.

Now in retirement, Hogan is helping to keep Cold War history alive as the president of the Naval Cryptologic Veterans Association's New England chapter.

In an interview last week, Hogan, 76, of Freedom, shared how he and his colleagues in the Naval Security Group and National Security Agency protected America and he also promoted the NCVA's New England chapter, which has over 200 members. The word "spook" is a slang term for spy, of which those in the cryptologic field are a subset. The "cryppies'" duties and skills include intercepting signals, code breaking, and linguistics.

A whole bunch of former spooks from New England will make the Marriott Hotel at Sable Oaks in Portland, Maine their haunt during the NCVA reunion from April 23 to April 25.

"It will be fun to catch up with some of these people," said fellow Freedom resident Tom Luke who served with the Naval Security Group in the late 1960s. Luke said his Naval peers have taken different paths in life over the past 40 years. For example, Luke said he's just retired from a Federal law enforcement career and Hogan spent his career in the Navy.

The NCVA's New England chapter is growing rapidly. Sixteen new members joined in the month of March alone. The chapter was formed in 1997 and Hogan became president last year. Many "cryppies" live in New Hampshire because BAE Systems, a defense company, is located in Nashua. The reunion will give the former Navy men and women a chance to retell some of their adventure stories.

While working in the shadowy world of intelligence gathering from 1953 to 1974, Hogan intercepted signals from the Russians, Chinese, North Koreans, and other nations. The work was so secret that even his own wife, Maryann, wouldn't always know what he was doing or where he was going.

"What we really want to do in a gentle form, now that we can say something, is to let people know what was done," said Hogan."During the Korean War we were intercepting the North Vietnamese, breaking their codes, and giving them to the French. This has been a very active organization."

Hogan and his contemporaries did their work before the advent of satellite communications. That meant having to travel all over the world — and for some spooks, getting very close to the enemy.

Hogan said his friend, who now lives in Nashua, had a close call while trying to monitor the Russians from a submarine that was sailing just off the Russian docks. At some point, the Russians located the American submarine and then waited for it to surface for air.

When the Americans almost ran out of oxygen, they had to use special chemicals to soak up carbon dioxide that was building up. Finally, the Russians left the area when the sub's crew was just about to come to the surface, said Hogan recalling his friend's story.

But not every cryptologist was as lucky. In fact, the Naval Security Group had more men killed, captured, or injured in "hostile action" than any other rating in the Navy, according to The Cryptolog, a publication of the U.S. Navy Cryptologic Veterans Association.

The National Security Agency and the Central Security Service, located in Fort Meade, Maryland, has a memorial listing the names of 161 fallen military and civilian cryptologists. These words are etched into the black granite memorial: "They served in silence."

In 2001, the NSA began sharing information about the people who are listed on the monument.

"We've lost a lot of people," said Hogan. "At that time we were never allowed to tell how many people we had working, what they were doing specifically, and if someone died it was always said to be in a car accident or some kind of tragedy. If the enemy knew how many cryptologic people were killed and where they were when they got killed it could aid them in their intelligence gathering."

Cryppies are still a vital part of the American military, said Hogan. In a war, they would be involved in everything from decoding messages to finding holes in the enemy's radar defense systems. But Hogan stressed the Naval Security Group didn't spy on the American people when he was there. Also, American intercept posts in foreign countries never snooped on their host country, he said.

"We weren't involved in Watergate or any of that stuff," said Hogan. "It was always strictly against our enemies."

Each foreign country had its own personality. Chinese and Russians were reasonable but the East Germans were less so. The North Koreans were much more aggressive – they captured the USS Pueblo in international waters in 1968 and even shot down an American reconnaissance plane in 1969. Even the Israelis attacked an intelligence ship called the USS Liberty in 1967. The Israelis claimed that they made a mistake, as they thought the USS Liberty was an Egyptian ship. The attack killed 34 crewmembers and wounded 170, according to the Navy.

Hogan grew up in Lawrence Mass. In the 1950s, the textile mills are moving down south and there no jobs to be had. The Korean War was raging and so Hogan decided to join the Navy in order to pay for college through the G.I. Bill. Originally, Hogan wanted to be a Navy SEAL but Navy testing revealed that he ought to pursue cryptologics. Those accepted into the cryptologics are among the most intelligent people in the U.S. Navy, said Hogan, whose job entailed activities such as intercepting communications and monitoring radar activity. In addition to being smart, Hogan's colleagues were surprisingly athletic and they even had a championship winning football team in a military intramural league in Japan.

After completing cryptologic school, Hogan shipped off for Guam where he would monitor the Russians, who would frequently use fishing boats for espionage. After that, he traveled to other countries including Germany, Morocco, and Puerto Rico. Hogan also went to Fort Meade to work for the National Security Agency.

Normally, Hogan would work from a base on land. He also worked from a ship called the USS Muller that primarily targeted Cuba. While working in Misawa, Japan, Hogan attained his highest rank of Command Master Chief and his responsibilities shifted to handling personnel issues.

The Hogans learned about the town of Freedom through an American couple they met while traveling in Portugal. Luke said he learned about Freedom through the Hogans.

Any bright young people who have a desire to serve their country should inquire about Naval cryptology, said Hogan. The Naval Security Group has been merged into the Naval Network Warfare Command, which includes intelligence gathering in cyber space.

The U.S. Naval Cryptologic Veterans Association of New England is a not-for-profit fraternal group with three objectives: to conduct periodic reunions, to advocate for maintaining a strong military to protect American security interests, and to preserve the history of cryptology.

For more information about the New England Chapter visit http://web.meganet.net/kman/ncva-ne.htm.

Martin Lord Osman
Littleton Chmber
Varney Smith
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