Guelker cryptology collection acquired

Landing on the beaches of France just six days after D-Day, Frank Guelker immediately found himself in the middle of things.

How close was he to the action? So close that he knew what the Axis countries were doing perhaps even before most of the countries themselves knew.

Guelker was a cryptographer assigned to the 50th Signal Battalion of the VII Corps. As such, he was entrusted with top-secret Sigaba equipment to intercept and translate messages from the enemy.

The University recently acquired a rather extensive group of letters, articles and books from the Guelker collection.

When asked why Guelker wanted his collection to go to the University, he replied “The biggest reason is that I am an alumnus of Washington University and would like for these to be in the library’s possession.

“I graduated sometime back, so far I don’t even remember. But I wanted the University to have these.”

The acquired materials will be housed in the Philip Mills Arnold Semeiology Collection. (Semeiology is the study of signs and symbols).

“Because code-breaking falls into the area of signs and symbols, it will complement the material that we already have in that collection,” said Anne Posega, head of University Libraries’ Special Collections. “It will be catalogued as the rest of our materials are, and users will be able to find it doing subject searches in the library’s online catalog.”

The treasures of the collection are many, as would be expected from a person who spent nearly 60 years studying puzzles, codes, cryptograms and other ways of communication.

“I think one of the prizes is a book from 1930 called The American Black Chamber,” Guelker said. “It’s a book not easily located; I think they only printed 1,500 copies of it. It’s not in the best condition, but it’s complete.

“Another highlight are several books authored by David Kahn, who is a historian of cryptography. He was at the University for a speech, so I brought my books and asked him to sign them. I think there are about three or four books that he signed, and almost anyone with any knowledge of the field knows who David Kahn is.”

After Guelker landed on Normandy, his unit started traveling, first south through St. Lo, Mortain, Mayenne, Chartre and Melun into Paris, and then into Belgium, followed by Aachen, Germany. Eventually, the unit met U.S.S.R. forces at Leipzig, Germany, on April 30, 1945. The drive covered 1,300 miles and took nearly a year.

While that part of his military career was planned, the field that he entered came by happenstance.

“When I entered the military, they ran some tests to see what some of my strengths were, things I was good at,” Guelker said. “They decided that cryptology would be good, so it was luck of the draw. I had always liked math and puzzles, but didn’t know anything about cryptology.

“But it became a lifelong interest for me, I have really enjoyed it, and through cryptology have been able to meet some very interesting and knowledgeable people.”

One of those is Abraham Sinkov, one of the more legendary figures in cryptology annals. Sinkov was assigned to Bletchley Park in England, just northwest of London, where the British had their top-secret code-breaking facility.

Sinkov and his American and British colleagues were assigned the heady task of breaking the German Enigma code. In fact, some of the documents in Guelker’s collection shed some little-known light on that German code.

“The story goes — and I’ve never heard anything to dispute this — that the English knew that the town of Coventry would be air-bombed, but they couldn’t do anything about it,” Guelker said. “If they defended Coventry, the Germans would know that the code was broken.

“So the English decided it was better to let the people of Coventry suffer the damages rather than to compromise the entire intelligence effort against the Germans. A lot of these documents make that clear.”

Guelker corresponded with Sinkov following the war. The collection includes a copy of the letter where the master gently let the apprentice see the error of his ways.

“In about 1950, I came up with an idea for a cipher system that I thought was pretty snazzy,” Guelker laughed. “I wrote to Abraham and outlined the principles behind it, and he was very kind to me.

“He sent back a letter telling me why it wasn’t worth a darn. He put a message into my code and then showed me how it could be deciphered in a few easy maneuvers.”

Guelker, a native St. Louisan, served in the U.S. Signal Corps from 1941-45. He earned a bachelor’s of science from the University in 1954 and a master of business administration degree from Saint Louis University in 1962.

He worked for Emerson Electric Co. for 28 years before retiring as group vice president in 1978.

The Philip Mills Arnold Semeiology Collection is perhaps the most varied and individual collection in the University’s Special Collections. It numbers approximately 1,600 volumes, extends in time from the Ars Oratoria of Jacopo Publicio (Augsburg, 1490) to Charles Kasiel Bliss’s International Semantography (Sydney, 1948-49), and ranges in subject matter from cryptography to the sign language of the deaf.

Dealing with the nature and characteristics of communication, the collection emphasizes material that appeared at early stages of the development of interest in topics relevant to semeiology.

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