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Frederic R. Theriault, 89; Cryptanalyst Helped Break Japanese Code in WWII

September 07, 2004|From the Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Frederic Russell Theriault, a cryptanalyst who helped break the code used by the Japanese navy during World War II, has died of a heart attack. He was 89.

Theriault, a longtime resident of Hyattsville and Burtonsville, Md., died at Brighton Gardens, an assisted living facility in Oklahoma City where he had resided for the last few months.

Born in Boston, Theriault received bachelor's and master's degrees in chemistry from the University of Massachusetts in the late 1930s. He received his doctorate in food technology in 1942 from the same institution.

In a memoir he wrote for his family in 1999, he recalled that, at the outbreak of World War II, he dreamed of being in the cavalry, but "those who knew me in college at the time, remember me as a skinny, near-sighted '4F' type, who was barred from ROTC because of physical disability."

Nevertheless, he filled out a government questionnaire designed to locate special talents that would be needed in the war and mentioned that he enjoyed doing cryptograms and other puzzles. That interested the Navy, and in July 1942, shortly after Theriault received his doctorate, he reported to the Navy's communications facility in northwest Washington. He immediately began learning JN25, the fleet command communication system of the Japanese navy.

He was put in charge of a team that logged deciphered messages, though his only supervisory experience, he recalled, had been over "a little group of college men and women repairing damaged books in the college library." He received a commission as a naval ensign shortly thereafter.

"I had a reputation for solving problems caused by garbles where I was first assigned," Theriault recalled. "For the last three years of the war, my principal duty was making unreadable messages readable. I was good at it, and many messages were read which might otherwise not have been."

Theriault was especially gratified that the messages he deciphered quite likely saved lives.

At the end of the war, he received a commendation for his accomplishments and a promotion to the rank of lieutenant.

"And then," he wrote, "we began the days of the Cold War, which, for me, developed into a career with the National Security Agency."

He worked for the NSA from 1947 to 1977. Though he never revealed to his family what he actually did -- beyond saying that he was in charge of the library -- he did mention that he was the NSA officer on duty the night of April 12, 1961, when the Soviets launched Vostok 1, the world's first piloted spaceship, with cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin aboard.

Theriault also was commended in 1968 for his work with the Committee on Scientific and Technical Information of the Federal Council for Science and Technology.

In retirement, Theriault was involved in various civic activities, including the Prince George's County United Way and the county's Advisory Committee on Aging.

For many years, well into his 80s, he volunteered with Meals on Wheels. He also collected coins and loved listening to classical music.

Theriault's wife, Marjorie Evelyn Warner, died in 1990.

Survivors include three children, Anne Theriault Savage of Reston, Va., John Theriault of Guthrie, Okla., and Rick Theriault of Charlotte; and five grandchildren.

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