Retro Heaven

The Man in Black

Was Johnny Cash the first American to hear of the death of Stalin?

There have been many bizarre moments and stories during the Cold War but few, surely, can compare with the notion that the legendary country and western singer Johnny Cash aka The Man in Black could have been the first American to hear of the death of the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin!

Stalin, whose name translates as Man of Steel, died in 1953 at the age of seventy four, it goes without saying that the death of any dictator is usually shrouded in desperate secrecy until the party machine has prepared itself for the reaction and Stalin’s death was certainly a case in point.

Three years earlier as America entered into the Korean War an eighteen year old Johnny Cash enlisted in the US Air Force and following a brief training was assigned to a radio unit in West Germany. Cash would prove to be a natural at radio operating and Morse Code in particular. He soon climbed the ranks to staff sergeant and such was his proficiency for cracking codes found himself at the front seat of the German airbase listening to and deciphering Soviet transmissions.

In his autobiography Cash wrote: 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. I had such a talent for that particular line of work and such a good left ear, that in Landsberg, where the United States Air Force Security Service ran radio intercept operations worldwide, 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.

The key here is his use of the word ‘copied‘, having researched this further I have read accounts of service colleagues pouring scorn on the notion, given that Cash could not speak Russian. But perhaps technically he had first copied down the code for others to translate? To me this seems the logical explanation and given the two men involved one I am happy to go along with!!



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