Villages Navy cryptologist fondly recalls days of intercepting top-secret messages

Doug Stenzel, as a young Navy radio intercept operator. He says he loved the job so much that he would cut his leaves short to return to his post.

When you dial up Doug Stenzel’s cell phone, it tells him who is calling – in Morse code. After spending 30 years in the U.S. Navy’s Naval Security Group, “reading” Morse code is second nature to him.

Cryptology – sending messages in code – dates back thousands of years, particularly for diplomatic and military messages. The simplest code is often based on transposition or key words. Breaking the German “Enigma” code during World War II has been the subject of popular movies and best-selling books.

Along with his brother and sister, Doug grew up in Bergholtz, a small town near Niagara Falls, New York, and started school in a one-room schoolhouse.

“My first-grade teacher was 80 years old, the same teacher my mother had when she started school,” he says. “The first thing he said was, ‘You’ll learn something today and I will learn something today.’ That was the first lesson I learned in school.”

It was a manufacturing town, benefiting from the cheap electricity generated by Niagara Falls power plants. Doug’s father was a house painter and his mother worked in a carborundum plant that made sanding belts.

“That was one of the reasons I joined the Navy,” he says. “I wasn’t going to work in a factory.”

So, when he turned 17 in 1957, Doug joined the Navy.

“I knew I wanted to join, but I didn’t know what I was going to do,” he says. “I got lucky.”

In boot camp, he was given a “code test.”

“I did OK and fell into a really nice job. I loved what I did,” he said of his role as a Naval cryptologist.

For the first 10 years, he was a radio intercept operator.

“We intercepted other people’s communications. We just can’t tell you who we intercepted and how successful we were,” he says with a smile.

That meant he spent his shift wearing earphones in front of a typewriter, listening to messages being sent from one place to another. His job was simply to record the letters that came through in Morse code. Then, analysts deciphered the code.

After retiring from the U.S. Navy as a master chief and living in Scotland for several years, Doug Stenzel moved to The Villages. ‘I got tired of playing golf in the wind and rain instead of sunshine,’ he says.

Doug was never told what the analysts discovered. Virtually every intelligence in the world listens in to each other, Doug explains.

“If it’s in the ether, it’s fair game,” he says.

One of the deciding factors in the Battle of Midway during World War II was the fact that the Allies had intercepted and broken the Japanese military code.

“Although,” he notes, “Somebody in the State Department told a Chicago newspaper and the Japanese changed the code.”

Then the Allies had to break the new code – “Probably lengthened the War because the guy was bragging.”

A decade later, Doug was promoted to report writer.

“We wrote intel reports,” he says. “We would analyze the communications to see what was going on and then write reports for the fleet – ‘these guys are here and just moved over there.’ I did that for 10 years.”

Then he was promoted to Chief Petty Officer and retired as a Master Chief.

“I was a department administrator,” he says.

While radio intelligence might seem like a relatively safe military occupation, Doug says there is definitely danger involved. He cites several Cold War incidents where cryptologists’ lives were lost.

“One of our ships, the Pueblo, was captured by the North Koreans,” he says, adding that other cryptologists have died or been injured in more recent Middle East conflicts.

During his three decades, Doug had numerous assignments, including Montrose in Scotland, where he landed in 1966.

“I met a lovely girl, Fiona Robertson, and we got married,” he says. “I was fortunate enough to be stationed there three different times. It was the place everyone wanted to be.”

Other assignments included one of his favorites, flying with a recon squadron over the Gulf of Tonkin in the mid-60s.

“That was before the big buildup,” he says. “We flew at night and the enemy didn’t have surface-to-air missiles then, so it was pretty safe.”

Their son, Christopher, was born in Scotland, and their daughter, Shona, was born in Spain. After his retirement, Doug stayed on in Scotland, taking over the Naval club system until the base closed in 1997.

“With satellite communications and other advances, there wasn’t much use for overseas duty stations anymore,” he says.

Doug Stenzel’s golf cart features the graphic of the U.S. Navy ‘Spook Group,’ cryptographic technicians who monitor communications and provide intelligence information.

Fiona died in 2004 and Doug moved back to the United States.

“I got tired of playing golf in the wind and rain instead of the sunshine,” he says.

Doug looked around Florida and settled on The Villages, buying a home in the Village of Charlotte. On a Villages golf course, he met Gail and later, three years after her husband had passed, they married.

Of his 30 years in the Navy, Doug says, “I loved what I did as a radio intercept operator and I didn’t really want to get promoted. I loved it. We’d get 30 days leave and after a week I’d be back to work because I missed it. It was really fun!”

The Villages Naval Cryptographic Alumni organization is open to all residents. For information contact Stenzel at USNrafedzello@gmail.com.

John W Prince is a writer and Villages resident. For more information visit www.GoMyStory.com.