Johnny Cash, Joseph Stalin, & the Morse Code Crack (Country History X)

This is the story of how none other than Johnny Cash was the first person to intercept the World-changing news of Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin’s death, and communicate it to the Free World while stationed in Germany as a Morse code interceptor for the Air Force.

Editor’s notes:

Country History X looks to tell the history of country music, one story at a time. It primarily lives here on Saving Country Music, on YouTube (see below and subscribe), and is also available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Pocket Casts, and Anchor.

APPLE PODCAST USERS: After a recent update to Apple Podcasts, certain podcasts are unable to update in their system, including Country History X, and some podcasts are seeing episodes outright disappear. Hopefully the issue is resolved shortly, but it is completely out of the control of Saving Country Music at the moment. Everything is being done to try and update the episodes in the Apple Podcast system.

This particular episode is slightly shorter than the already-short episodes. It started out being a “supplemental” episode that was only supposed to be a few minutes long, and ended up being extended to tell the full extent of the story. This episode will dovetail nicely with subsequent episodes that explore Johnny Cash’s prison concerts, and his history of arrests.

A full transcript and sources for the story can be found below.

Episode #1: The George Jones Drug Tapes
Episode #2: John Prine & The Perfect Country & Western Song
Episode #3: Charlie Rich BURNS John Denver
Episode #4: The Mafia, and the Toby Keith & Rascal Flatts Restaurants
Episode #5: The Tragic Life and Death of Keith Whitley
Episode #6: Waylon Jennings and the Cocaine Bear

Transcript

Johnny Cash. The Man in Black. Just as much myth as legend. From being one of the primary members of the nascent explosion of popular music in America when he emerged out of Sun Studios in Memphis, to influencing a sixth decade of performers when he paired with Rick Rubin and experienced one of the most improbable late-career resurgences ever, arguably no artist ever left a wider and deeper crater on American culture from the position of a country artist than Big John.

Sure, there are country performers with more hit records and songs. There were probably more influential performers in country music for their time. Some love to point out that Johnny Cash wasn’t really even that country at all, but more of a rockabilly guy. But the way Johnny Cash could bring people together from across cultural divides and loom like a demigod wherever his shadow was cast is what made him so remarkable. Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, rock or country, Gospel or Outlaw—even hip-hop legends worship at the alter of Johnny Cash.

From participating in the legendary Million Dollar Quartet, to the country music supergroup The Highwaymen, to playing prisons and collaborating with Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash did it all. But arguably the first moment of greatness for Johnny Cash happened off the stage, well away from the spotlight, and much before he was known to anyone as a musician. This is the story of Johnny Cash, Joseph Stalin, and the great Morse code crack.

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In 1950, at the age of 18 and right out of the high school, Johnny Cash did what many young men of the time did: He enlisted in the United States military, specifically the Air Force, and was shipped off from his home in Arkansas to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, TX for basic training. After basic training, Cash was transferred to Brooks Air Force Base also in San Antonio for technical training.

Johnny Cash’s ability to pick out important rhythms and tones in sometimes garbled, busy, and concealed communications was recognized by the Air Force during his training as a unique skill set. It was also an asset that would come into good use for Cash some years later during his second occupation. So instead of flying fighter planes or refueling bombers, airman Johnny Cash was commissioned as a radio and Morse code operator and interceptor, and given top secret clearance.

While in San Antonio, Johnny Cash met what would be his future first wife Vivian at a roller rink, but the couple wouldn’t be married for another four years. After dating Vivian for only three weeks, Johnny received his deployment papers. Though the outbreak of the Korean War that same year had Cash assuming he’d be heading to the Korean peninsula, instead he was shipped in the opposite direction to a base in Landsberg, West Germany for a three-year tour as part of the 12th Radio Squadron Mobile. The Landsberg base located in southern Bavaria served as one of the forward outposts in the outbreak of the Cold War the world found itself in after World War II in the face of Soviet aggression.

Johnny Cash’s time at the Air Force base in Landsburg is arguably the most critical era in the formation of Cash’s character, except for perhaps his childhood upbringing. The Johnny Cash that the world would come to know in future years was forged through his experiences at Landsburg, and in more ways than one.

It’s hard to emphasize just how important the job Johnny Cash was assigned to was, and the rigors he had to endure to perform his job properly. Johnny Cash was ordered to sit in an isolated room for long hours, and monitor communications from Soviet assets for any intelligence that could be useful to The United States and the rest of the free world.

Because of the Top Secret nature of his task, he was not allowed to leave the base lest he falls in the hands of Soviet spies or saboteurs. He was also only allowed to make one phone call home per year, while still trying to maintain a relationship with who he believed was the love of his life at the time in Vivian back in San Antonio. Cash was able to send Vivian letters, but any personal relationships outside of his professional duties were virtually forbidden. It was torturous. Completely sequestered from the rest of the world, it was almost like Johnny Cash was in prison.

Now I probably don’t need to tell you how much prisons played a part in the career of Johnny Cash. But it goes much beyond his two famous live albums—At Folsom Prison released in 1968, and At San Quentin released in 1969 that are given credit for revitalizing Cash’s career after years of stagnation post his Sun Records success in the 50’s. But these were just a sliver of Cash’s pro bono appearances at prisons all across the United States, and some beyond America’s borders, including an album Cash recorded in 1973 at a prison in Sweden.

After Johnny Cash’s discharge from the military, performing at prisons became a regular occurrence for him, and well before the media or the public picked up on this portion of Cash’s career. It was just something Johnny Cash did as a service to what he felt was an underserved population stuck in an unjust system.

It was a performance at San Quentin Prison in California on New Years Day in 1959—over 10 years before Cash’s famous live album was released from that same venue—where none other than Merle Haggard saw Johnny Cash perform while doing time for petty crimes. Though nothing Merle ever did rose to prison status, breaking out of local jails an incredible 17 times necessitated a judge send Merle to San Quentin so he couldn’t escape, and would hopefully be scared straight. Along with befriending a death row inmate while at the prison which changed his perspective on life, Haggard gives credit to that Johnny Cash performance in 1959 for inspiring him to finally cease his wayward ways, and pour himself into music to make something of himself.

But Johnny Cash’s inspiration to take of his own time and perform for prison populations was not just inspired by his three-year isolation on a German Air Force Base without any real interaction with the outside world. It was also a film he saw while on the base that opened his eyes to the injustices that American inmates regularly faced within the prison system.

The 1951 stylized film called Inside The Walls of Folsom Prison directed by Crane Wilbur, and starring Steve Cochran and David Brian was a depiction of the horrific treatment inmates faced inside Folsom Prison under the oppressive thumb of an especially brutal warden. Even though the film was fictitious, it was inspired by the realities inside many American prisons, including Folsom in California.

In the film, after a riot where multiple prisoners and guards die, a new guard captain comes in that believes that prisoners shouldn’t be punished, but rehabilitated while inside, and institutes multiple reforms, including holding guards to account for senseless beatings, and implementing programs to help inmates find employment once they’re released. But eventually the more proactive guard captain is removed, and the prison returns to riots and escape attempts. The story arc of the movie very much sets up the mindset of Johnny Cash for the next 50 years, not just about prison reform, but about life in general, intertwining with Johnny’s Christian upbringing and Gospel teachings that had him believing strongly in forgiveness and the ability for everyone to be rehabilitated.

It was the movie Inside The Walls of Folsom Prison that inspired Johnny’s signature song “Folsom Prison Blues” released in 1955, not any of Cash’s own run-in’s with the law, which there were quite a few of later in life. In fact Cash landed in the clink himself a total of seven times, but all for misdemeanors, including twice in 1965, first for trespassing and public drunkenness after he decided he wanted to go flower picking in someone’s front yard in Starkville, Mississippi at 2 in the morning. Later that year in October, he was busted at the Mexican border trying to cross back into the United States with 688 amphetamine pills and 475 sedatives that Cash had hidden inside his guitar case. Luckily since they were prescription drugs and not illegal narcotics, the singer only received a suspended sentence.

But back at the Air Force Base in Germany, this is also where Johnny Cash would take his first stab at becoming a performing musician. Though he couldn’t leave the base, he could move freely within in, and was afforded free time to pursue other interests. First being taught guitar by his mother and a childhood friend, and beginning to write songs at the age of 12, Cash was able to purchase a guitar from the base commissary, and started playing and singing when he could. He formed his first ever band called the Landsberg Barbarians, which was a play on words from the base’s newspaper, the Landsberg Bavarian. They’d play at the officer’s club and mess hall, and this is where Cash cut his teeth in music.

Also interesting to note is that when Cash was stationed in Germany, one of his buddies was a black airman named C. V. White, who referred to the military issue airmen footwear as “blue suede shoes,” and made a fuss any time someone else almost stepped on or scuffed his pair. Relaying this story to his fellow Sun Records performer Carl Perkins years later in Memphis, Cash insists this was the inspiration for Perkins to write the song “Blue Suede Shoes,” which of course became a mega hit for Elvis Presley.

But beyond inferring his musical biography, it’s what Staff Sergeant Johnny Cash did in his capacity as a Morse Code interceptor in Germany that puts him smack dab in the middle of one of the most historic and momentous events in modern history, at least during The Cold War era. Cash says quote, “The Air Force taught me the things every military service imparts to its enlisted men … plus one skill that’s pretty unusual: if you ever need to know what one Russian is signaling to another in Morse code, I’m your man.” Unquote.

Well on March 5th, 1953 Cash was that man for the free world. On that date was a colossal moment that sent reverberations throughout the world. It was the death of Soviet Union Premier Joseph Stalin, who at the time held the Soviet empire and the Iron Curtain nations of Eastern Europe in his firm grasp. Many books have been written specifically about the moments leading up to and following Stalin’s death, since it set in motion both major policy decisions affecting millions of people, and a power struggle within the top reaches of the Soviet government. The moments were also memorialized somewhat hilariously in the 2017 film called The Death of Stalin, starring Steve Buscemi and Jeffrey Tambor.

And who was the first person in the free world to hear about this historic death, and relay it to his superiors to where it populated throughout powers centers in the United States and Western Europe? Who knew about it even before U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower? That’s right, none other than The Man in Black himself, the hillbilly from Dyess, Arkansas, Johnny Cash.

Cash says with little humility in his autobiography from 1997 quote, “I had such a talent for that particular line of work and such a good left ear, I was the ace. I was who they called when the hardest jobs came up. I copied the first news of Stalin’s death. I located the signal when the first Soviet jet bomber made its first flight from Moscow to Smolensk; we all knew what to listen for, but I was the one who heard it. I couldn’t believe that Russian operator. He was sending at thirty-five words a minute by hand, a rate so fast I thought it was a machine transmitting until I heard him screw up. He was truly exceptional, but most of his comrades were fast enough to make the best Americans sound like amateurs, sloppy and slow. It didn’t matter, though.

As they say, it ain’t bragging if you can do it. And though Johnny Cash’s humility was a regular marker of his character, when it comes to him decoding the information about the death of Joseph Stalin, he was unafraid of stepping forward, puffing his chest out, and pronouncing his participation proudly. And hey, he rose to the rank of Staff Sergeant and was given classified clearance. So clearly, Cash was good at what he did.

But if we’re being honest and objective as we consider this story in retrospect, a few qualifying points about it are necessary to enter into the discussion. There’s no reason to believe that Johnny Cash is lying or anything, and unlike some of his country music contemporaries, Cash is not especially known for telling tall tales, even if he liked to perhaps embellish details here or there. But since the work Johnny Cash was conducting in Germany was a classified military matter, the only true source we have to verify the story is Johnny Cash himself.

There’s also been numerous qualified individuals to come forward over the years to wonder if Cash deserves sole credit for capturing, deciphering, translating, and relaying the Soviet communique to superiors. Usually such code crackers worked in teams, where one person might intercept the message, another might translate it, still another might relay it up the chain of command. Was Johnny Cash just so good he did it all single-handedly? Possibly. But it’s also possible he was part of a team of people responsible for breaking the news. After all, if you read Johnny Cash’s pronouncement in his autobiography closely, he says he quote “copied” the first news of Stalin’s death. He may have chosen that word smartly.

In the 2001 authorized biography on Johnny Cash written by Steve Turner, Turner says that bringing up the Johnny Cash Morse Code story to former acquaintances of Johnny from his time in the Air Force brings quote, “wry smiles to the faces of those who worked with him,” unquote, with one source saying quote, “He didn’t understand Russian, and if it came in code we wouldn’t have been able to decipher it anyway.'” unquote.

But again, it seems like a strange story for Johnny Cash to materialize out of thin air. Big John very likely was part of the great Joseph Stalin Morse Code crack. But it’s probably fair to say that others were possibly involved in some capacity too. Nonetheless, what an incredible thing for country singer Johnny Cash of all people to accomplish.

In 1954 after Johnny Cash was honorably discharged from the Air Force, he traveled back to the United States, married Vivian who’d waited for him the whole time back in Texas, moved to Memphis, Tennessee, signed with Sam Phillips and Sun Records, and as they say, the rest is history. And make no mistake, Johnny Cash’s natural instincts and gifts for seeking out rhythm combined with his training to decipher audio patterns during his Air Force stint certainly made it into his early music in different forms.

Just listen to many of those early Sun Records singles, and how the reverberative rhythms elevate the heart rate, get the feet to moving and the hips to shaking, especially one of his signature songs from 1956 called “Get Rhythm.” Johnny Cash’s ear for rhythm truly was one of a kind, and it served both him and the rest of us in multiple ways.

But if we’re being honest, it isn’t the music that has made Johnny Cash into such a magnanimous character in American and World History almost to the point of reaching some sort of mythological status. It’s the man himself. It’s the way that even despite his own personal shortcomings of addictions and run-in’s with the law, despite pundits on both sides of the political and cultural divide trying to co-opt his teachings or actions as being for their side, and their side only, Johnny Cash embodied the universal human ideal of justice like few others. He was American culture’s most staunchest supporter, and its most ardent critic, because he believed in the promise of the American experiment, if its ideals were implemented properly and fairly.

It’s clear to see that life in America and beyond would be compositionally different and in very fundamental ways if it wasn’t for the life of Johnny Cash, and it would be fundamentally different today if he was still alive to share his calming wisdom. Luckily though, we do still have his music, and his stories from which to pull the magnanimous wisdom of Johnny Cash from.

Sources

Johnny Cash – “Cash: The Autobiography”

Steve Turner – “The Man Called Cash: The Life, Love And Faith Of An American Legend”

stripes.com – “The Airman in Black — when Johnny Cash was stationed in Germany”

Movie: “Inside The Walls Of Folsom Prison” [1951]

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