Dec 5, 2012

Guest Post: Karen Fisher-Alaniz, author of Breaking the Code

       Breaking the Code: A Daughter's Journey into Her Father's Secret War
       Published November 1, 2012; Sourcebooks
       Genre: memoir

"Scraps of Paper, and Eggs Benedict: The Unlikely Journey of a Memoir"
by Karen Fisher-Alaniz

Snippets of a life. Questions written on scraps of paper. A father with a photographic memory, who couldn’t remember. Breakfast at Mr. Ed’s diner every week. That’s how our journey began.

My father, a WWII veteran, started having nightmares and flashbacks at the age of 81. When he gave me more than 400-pages of letters he wrote during the war, I knew there was far more to the story than he’d ever told.

I took the letters home and started to read. I was immersed in a time and place that was unfamiliar to me. My father was stationed on Oahu, Hawaii during the war. His service to his country began in 1944. He’d told the stories so many times, but the stories he told gave me no reason to suspect he’d experienced any kind of trauma, or that he’d done something so critical to the war effort, that he’d been told he’d be shot if he ever revealed it.

But over the months, that rolled into years, that’s the story I heard. All I wanted was to help my father. I wanted to take the nightmares away. So, each night, I read a handful of letters. I wrote questions down on whatever was handy; the back of a bill, a receipt from the grocery store, a scrap of paper. When we met on Wednesday’s for breakfast, I took out the motley bunch of papers and asked the questions on them. Over eggs Benedict, my father began telling his story. Often haltingly, he shared tiny pieces of the puzzle. And what I learned about my father was unbelievable. My sweet, humble father, who’d taught me to ride a bike, was a top secret code breaker!

Trained to copy the code, based in the Japanese, Katakana, my father wasn’t sitting in an office as he’d told me so many times. He was in the middle of battle, in submarines and on ships off of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. My father was a hero. But it was this work that also laid the foundation for the greatest trauma of his life, and the reason he started having symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder more than 50-years after the war.

Once I’d heard the story, I set out to do research. I searched books, old magazines, and the internet. Every road lead to a dead end. There was very little information on this group of code breakers. In fact, I didn’t find any at all. And that lead me in a different direction; the military itself. I sent for my father’s military records. He was terribly disappointed when the records didn’t mention anything about his top secret service. But he wasn’t surprised. He’d was told that records would not be kept; the men involved would not carry records with them, for fear of being captured or discovered. Still, my father wanted nothing more than a simple confirmation of some kind; a note in his file, the name of a ship or submarine. But there was nothing like that. So, again I turned to the military.

I left messages on reunion group websites, and frequented WWII and military forums, where I asked questions and made connections. I knew that somewhere, somehow, there had to be information. When a retired, 26-year Naval Intelligence officer offered to help, I was ecstatic and so was my dad. He helped me to send for Dad’s records a second and third time, each time honing in on what exactly we were looking for. And that’s what did it.

I received a request from the military to sign something for information that was not kept with his regular military records. I was so excited. I just knew this was it. I waited a few more weeks. Finally, I received a thick package in the mail. I looked for words like Katakana, and code breaker, but there was nothing that specific. When I relayed this to the officer helping me, he said that sometimes it’s hard for a civilian to know how to read military records.

I sent a copy to the Naval Intelligence Officer, who took his time looking at them. When he got back to me, he said that instead of looking for the key words, as I had done, he looked at the timeline and the locations, and training. But he also took note of things that were not there, but should have been, like the names of the ships he was on. His conclusion was this; my father was where he was, when he said he was there. There were blanks in his records, or sparse information, when it wouldn’t make sense to leave it out. The only logical conclusion, he said, was that my father was working in Naval Intelligence, doing top secret work.

The information wasn’t as specific as I’d hoped, but it was an answer. My father was pleased. So was I. What started as scraps of paper changed to something else. First, I wanted to simply transcribe my father’s letters so that each of my children could have a copy. But curiosity got the best of me. When I started writing the story between the lines, my father’s story really started to take shape. And when a fellow writer encouraged me to write about what this journey meant to me too, a memoir was born.

Our journey began more than 10-years ago.  The book changed and grew, as we made our journey toward truth. And our father-daughter relationship changed and grew too. When someone tells you their story, it is a sacred trust they are putting in you. You can’t help but be changed by that honor.

Note: Since our journey began, more information (but still not a lot) is available about the role of code breakers who broke the Japanese, Katakana. My father is 91 now and likely the only surviving member of his five-person code-breaking team. As far as we know, this is the only book that tells the first-person story of their heroic service. I’m humbled and honored to have been a part of it.

For a chance to win a double-signed copy of the book, visit the author's website,  http://www.storymatters2.com/

Thanks to the author and WOW- Women on Writing for providing this guest post. 

5 comments:

  1. What a lovely guest post! I will next visit the author's website.

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  2. What an amazing story! I can imagine how frustrated the author must have felt after hitting one dead end after another, and the fact that she wrestled on with it, and that it eventually lead to a memoir leads me to believe that she was a lot more like her father than she might have known. Excellent and very thrilling guest post today! This is a book I would love to read!

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  3. This is such an amazing story on so many levels. This is definitely a story that needed telling as these code breakers are heroic.

    Mason
    Thoughts in Progress

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  4. Wow! This post itself is so interesting. I am hooked, I am sure I will enjoy the book even more.

    Great Guest post.

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  5. I read this one last year and loved it!!

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