WALLA WALLA — After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Murray Fisher of Walla Walla started having nightmares.
Today, the 90-year-old veteran still can’t explain why the tragedy dredged up forgotten memories from more than 60 years earlier, when he was a code breaker during World War II.
The memories are painful and include his best friend dying in his arms, and guilt — the kind that scars the soul — because the information he provided for naval intelligence may have killed thousands of people.
To Fisher, it didn’t matter that those who died were enemy soldiers; they still were people with families like the loved ones he had back home in Dayton.
His daughter Karen Alaniz, also of Walla Walla, tried to encourage her father to seek professional help when the nightmares and flashbacks began, but he refused.
”My father wouldn’t go to a psychiatrist or even the Veterans Administration for help,” she said. ”Every time I tried to get him to talk to someone, he would say, ’I am talking to someone — you.’ He did eventually talk to his (family) doctor about it who said it sounded like Dad might be suffering from PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).”
Alaniz grew up listening to her dad’s war-time tales, ”but none of those stories ever involved anything even remotely traumatic,” she said. ”So when I learned the nightmares might be related to the war, I was baffled.”
What could possibly have happened to her father that caused symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder to appear so many years later? she wondered.
Alaniz wanted to help end her father’s nightmares but first she needed to find out what he wasn’t telling his family.
”I felt like the key to helping Dad was in answering the question of why was it all happening more than a half century later,” she said.
So the two began meeting once a week at a Walla Walla diner for what Alaniz affectionately refers to as, ”Wednesdays with Murray.”
As she poked and prodded her father into talking about the nightmares during those sessions, the real story slowly began to unfold.
During those visits, Fisher also turned over to his daughter more than 400 pages of letters he had written to his parents during the war, none of which mentioned anything about being a code breaker for the military.
Alaniz wrote and self-published a book, which sells for about $12, about her father’s war experience, Breaking the Code: A Father’s Secret, A Daughter’s Journey and the Question that Changed Everything, which is available through Barnes & Noble Booksellers, Hastings and Amazon.com.
”My father was not simply doing paperwork during the war as he’d led his family to believe,” Alaniz said. ”Instead, he was at two of the major battles of WWII, both Iwo Jima and Okinawa. The work he did was classified top secret and he took his job seriously.”
Writing the book came easy for Alaniz. She has dabbled in writing most of her life, when she wasn’t teaching special education in the Walla Walla Public Schools. But after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a few years ago, she left her teaching job and began freelance writing.
”I began transcribing the letters for my children and future generations,” she said.
In transcribing those letters and listening to Fisher’s confessions, the real story began to emerge, which is what prompted the book, she added.
”Dad never thought his story was worth telling, but I did,” she said.
Fisher was in his early 20s when he was drafted into the Navy. He was assigned to radio school after military personnel discovered in boot camp that he had a knack for breaking codes.
”I think it was by accident that I was assigned to naval intelligence,” Fisher said. ”I worked for the railroad before I got drafted so I already knew Morse code and that’s probably why it all came pretty easy for me.
”I was asked by an officer one day if I was interested in learning Japanese code, which is more complex than ours. It’s called katakana. I was more than happy to tackle it because I always loved learning new code.”
But Fisher said he interprets code-breaking differently than most.
”Instead of just seeing the dots and dashes that spell letters to form words, in my head I saw the whole word, and I could do it faster than most,” he said.
Fisher recalls one of his commanding officers coming into a training session at Pearl Harbor one day to explain the high security surrounding his job.
”He walked into the room, pulled out his service revolver and laid it on the desk in plain sight for all of us to see,” he said. ”He then told us that we are never to talk about what we do to anyone. We weren’t even supposed to talk to each other about our jobs or ourselves. I never even knew the last name of my best friend Mal, nor did I know where he was from. I always wondered why we never shared that information. We just did as we were told.”
The officer then proceeded to explain what would happen if the Navy found out any of the decoders talked about what they did to anyone, specifically the enemy.
”He said we would not be sent to the brig or court-martialed; we would be shot, end of story,” Fisher said. ”Then he casually picked up his revolver and put it back in his holster and left the room. We all got the message loud and clear.”
Fisher spent most of the war in Pearl Harbor and periodically would be assigned to a ship in the Pacific for decoding duties. It was during one of those assignments that his friend was killed.
”Mal and I were copying code on the bridge (during a battle) and decided to change places,” Fisher said.
An explosion sent shrapnel hurtling through the room and struck his friend.
”He was sitting where I should have been sitting and that’s the only reason I’m still here and he’s not,” Fisher said, his voice faltering at the memory. ”I remember holding him in my arms and trying to clean the blood off him but it just kept coming. All he said to me before he died, was ’Oh, Murray.’ My mind went blank after that.”
Alaniz, her sister and parents traveled to Hawaii in 2007 so Fisher could give a ceremonial farewell to his friend.
”At first I didn’t want to go,” he said. ”I didn’t want to be reminded of that sad time. But now I’m glad I did.”
The family stood on a pier at Pearl Harbor and dropped red and white orchids into the water to pay tribute to Mal’s memory.
”After so many years of silence, Dad felt some peace after we did that,” Alaniz said.
More importantly, the journey she has taken with her dad these past 10 years since the nightmares began opened up a whole new line of communication between father and daughter.
”When my father and I began this unintended journey, neither of us imagined where it would take us,” Alaniz said. ”I was just a daughter who wanted to help her troubled father, and he was a father whose secrets had finally surfaced with no place to land.”
That journey took them through a dark period in Fisher’s past. But it also forged a new bond between father and daughter that continues today.
”Dad kept the horrors of war bottled up for so many years and when 9/11 happened, the floodgates opened and he got lost in the nightmares of war,” Alaniz said. ”Our healing time together has enriched both of us, though we still have a ways to go before those nightmares go away completely.”