Elbert Nance, WWII Cryptographer

Elbert Nance with his 75 year old war journal


Last month I wrote a story of a travel experience in Nagaland, India when I was following my father’s WWII footsteps from the Assam Valley, India to Kunming, China.  Afterwards, I learned a friend, Elbert Nance, had also been posted in the Assam Valley during the war. He had been astounded to read of our connection as was I and we quickly arranged a time to compare stories.  What I found was a 99-year-old veteran who remembered everything about his war experience.

Elbert Nance is a modest man, wanting at first to deflect questions about himself but we soon were deep into WWII history.  Elbert joined the U.S. Army on July 1st, 1942 after finishing Paris Junior College, and was posted overseas to Cairo, Egypt in January, 1943. He didn’t return home for over two years.

He served as a cryptographer (code translator) during the war, not because of any prior knowledge of the skill but because he could pass a background check before being allowed to learn the codes. Since radio messages could be intercepted, plans, orders and reports had to be transmitted in secret codes.  His primary job was to send and receive coded messages to and from bombers about where and when to bomb as well as results from the bombing.  He used code books to do this although the Sigaba machine became available later in the war, allowing instructions to be typed in.  After being trained in Cairo by the British, his instructor told him, “you have the most important job in the service.”

Elbert Nance’s shadow box

Nance worked with the British, Canadians and Americans serving in Cairo, Egypt, Benghazi, Libya and Sicily and Naples, Italy.  He particularly enjoyed the British with their need for tea breaks.  Some Americans had left his British friends baseball equipment, but they didn’t know how to play.  Nance tried to explain the rules in a condensed fashion.  When they played, he got a “home run” by running the bases as the British players over-threw every base.  In the telling of the story, Elbert was smiling in remembrance of a good time.

While in Italy, he got orders for the Assam Valley.  In consulting his 75-year-old diary, Nance confirmed departing Italy in February, 1944.   His journey to the Assam valley was quite different from my father’s who, as a pilot, was able to fly in short stints over the Middle East and India.  Nance began in a truck to the Mediterranean Sea, then a British boat to Cairo, another British boat to Bombay (now Mumbai), five days on a wooden bench sitting straight up on an Indian train to Calcutta (now Kolkata), three days on the roof top of an overloaded boat up the Brahmaputra River, another truck ride, finally arriving in Jorhat in March, 1944. He would be there for a year encoding messages to and from the pilots of the B-29s, the long-range bombers whose targets were in Japan.

We began comparing stories.  My father flew the Hump over the Himalaya mountains from India into Kunming, China bringing fuel to American and Chinese armies.  Nance was aware of the Hump pilots and their dangerous operation, but they were not based where he was, and he never made that flight. Their two bases were only 120 miles apart.

However, they shared some experiences, including primitive living conditions.  Nance worked eight-hour shifts or more and the operation was open 24 hours a day.  My father had to fly missions every 36 hours and the operation was open 24 hours a day.  Elbert arrived just as the Monsoon season began and my father also served through the Monsoon season a year later.  Nance was issued rubber boots to manage the muddy ground, lived in barracks that had quickly been set up in the middle of a field, showered and shaved in cold water and ate dehydrated eggs and potatoes and Spam – the classic C-rations.   My father would have identified with these experiences, too.  Nance did secure a jeep for his use but was warned, “don’t get close to any cow.”

Nance made his way back to the U.S. in March, 1945, this time passing through Australia to California.  He had been around the world.  Returning to Paris, he continued his education, became a civil engineer, worked for an oil company for 36 years, and returned to Paris to work as a surveyor.  He and his wife, Nancy have been married for 69 years.

Those war years are now 75 years old but in Elbert Nance’s mind, they are as clear as yesterday.  As with other WWII veterans I was able to interview for my book, I felt grateful for the opportunity to hear one more story, one of very few available to be told.

11 Responses to “Elbert Nance, WWII Cryptographer”

  1. Britt Scott

    Thank you so much for publishing this story. Elbert is my uncle who I love dearly. I enjoyed reading of his WWII accounts, several of which I was unaware.

    • Mary Clark Traveler

      I loved talking to him. He has more stories if you ever want to draw them out. These WWII vets remember so much even if they haven’t talked about it much.

  2. Nanalee nichols

    We’ve known elbert for many years and were neighbors with his brother. I really enjoyed this. Thanks so much.

      • Nancy Speck

        What an interesting story ! We all thank Mr. Nance for his service and are so grateful to hear his story. Thank you Mary Clark for sharing these memories that need to be remembered. An amazing gentleman!

  3. Ken Thompson

    I love these stories, Sisti. Looking forward to seeing more of these.

    Ken Thompson.
    Plainview native

    • Mary Clark Traveler

      Thank you, Ken. I write monthly stories for my hometown newspaper, the Paris News and I do post these here. You are probably aware that I just published my book about growing up in Plainview with my father who died when I was a teenager. There’s lots of stories in that book. It’s called “Landing in My Present”.

  4. Jennifer Silverwood

    Thank you so much for sharing Elbert’s story with us! I shared a birthday with my grandma, who was a WW2 Army nurse in England and France. She sadly passed eight years back, and I’ve been missing her something fierce as our birthday passed again this month. She would have been the same age as Elbert this year. 🙂 Reading war stories about and from Vets of WW2, always make me feel like I have a little piece of my grandma back. So thank you again, for gifting us with their stories.
    P.S. Excited to share my review of your book tomorrow! 😀

    • Mary Clark Traveler

      Thank you, Jennifer for commenting. The WWII stories have much in common while differing wildly in locations. It was definitely a unifying moment for our country.

  5. Freada Warren

    Enjoyed reading about Mr Nance. I appreciate his service and your Father’s also. I’m in the middle of reading your book. I grew up in Plainview and still live here. I knew quite a few of the ones you mentioned in your book. Hope to read more stories of these WWII heroes. My dad also was in the war stationed outside of London. Loved hearing his stories.

    • Mary Clark Traveler

      Thank you for writing, Freada. I, also, cannot get enough of the WWII stories. I hope you’re staying safe and well.


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)