John C. Ford Jr.

John C. Ford Jr., who as a young World War II cryptanalyst was part of a team whose work resulted in the shooting down of the bomber carrying Japanese Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, died Wednesday from respiratory failure at a son's Arnold home.

He was 94.


The son of an oil salesman and a homemaker, John Cecil Ford Jr. was born in Federal Hill and raised in Catonsville, where he ran track and played lacrosse at Catonsville High School. He graduated from there in 1935.

"He was at the Baltimore Business College at the time of Pearl Harbor, and he was about to be drafted into the Army. His father knew someone in naval intelligence and you had to have a high IQ to take the test to be a cryptanalyst," said a son, Jeff Ford of Arnold. "He took the test in Washington in 1942, and passed."

Mr. Ford explained the difference between cryptology and what his father did as a cryptanalyst. "A cryptographer creates codes while a cryptanalyst breaks them down," he said.

Mr. Ford enlisted in 1942 in the Navy, where he was trained as a naval intelligence cryptanalyst, and initially stationed in Washington.

He was later sent to Fleet Radio Unit Pacific — commonly known as FRUPac — one of two major signal monitoring units in the Pacific Theater during the war that listened in on Japanese traffic.

"Navy cryptanalysts hidden away in a basement with their complex machines and masses of disparate data, sweated over their seemingly impenetrable puzzles or sometimes simply played hunches," wrote Barbara Klaw in a 1979 American Heritage review of W.J. Holmes' book, "Double-Edged Secrets: U.S. Naval Intelligence Operations in the Pacific During World War II."

The author of the book, who later retired as a Navy captain, had spent the war years in naval intelligence at FRUPac at Pearl Harbor.

"He was mathematical and had a very analytical mind," said Mr. Ford of his father, whose work centered on deciphering Japanese naval codes.

Mr. Ford was part of a group whose worked help shape the mission that resulted in the death of Admiral Yamamoto, commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet and the architect of the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.

The group had learned from radio intercepts on April 14, 1943, that Yamamoto was planning an inspection tour of the Solomon Islands and New Guinea, which FRUPac code-named "Magic" and later became known as "Operation Revenge."

They learned his itinerary. He would be aboard one of two medium-range bombers — Mitsubishi G4M Bettys — which would be escorted by six Zero fighter planes. Yamamoto and his party would depart early in the morning of April 18, flying from Rabaul on New Britain to Ballale Airfield near Bougainville, in the Solomons.

The mission was turned over to the Army Air Forces' 339th Fighter Squadron, 347th Fighter Groupon Guadalcanal.

Four planes of the 18 P-38s that flew the mission made up the "Killer Section," and the plan was to rendezvous with the admiral's planes as they made their descent to Ballale Airfield.

"They were there, all right, just as scheduled, at approximately 3,500 feet above us on a direct course to Ballale Island Air Strip," according to Col. Rex T. Barber, who was part of the unit. Colonel Barber told his story to Blaine Taylor, a Towson military historian and author, in a 1991 article published in Pearl Harbor Magazine.


"We could see them because they were silhouetted against the sky, but they couldn't see us because our planes were camouflaged against the water in olive drab paint," Col. Barber said in the account.

In a matter of moments it was over. After years of controversy of who actually shot down the Japanese admiral — Tom Lanphier or Colonel Barber — it is generally accepted that it was the latter.

Admiral Yamamoto was found strapped in his seat with his hand resting on his sword.

"When they got to him and recovered his body, they found two bullet holes in him," said Mr. Ford's son. "This was akin to the killing of bin Laden. It was a major morale booster."

While at Pearl Harbor, Mr. Ford meet and fell in love with another cryptanalyst, Helen Puetz, whom he married in 1946, after he was discharged from the Navy.

Mr. Ford, who was fluent in Russian, joined the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, where he was a Cold War analyst. He retired in 1973.

A longtime resident of Hillsemere Shores in Annapolis, where he lived until moving to Arnold in 2005, Mr. Ford was an avid bird watcher, and he and his wife had led many field trips to South America, Alaska, Africa and Europe. Mrs. Ford died in 2005.

Mr. Ford enjoyed golfing, and continued playing until he was 93, having won the Maryland Senior Olympics' tournament several times and qualifying for the National Senior Olympics four times. At the nationals in 2010 in Palo Alto, he won a silver medal at age 92 in the 90-and-above age group. He was a longtime member of the Annapolis Golf Club where he was club campion eight times.

He also was a Colts and Ravens fan.

"He was a very modest man with a heart of gold," his son said. "He was getting a golfing trophy and he saw a child with Down syndrome — to whom he gave the award. That was the kind of guy he was."

A memorial service will be held from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. today at the John M. Taylor Funeral Home, 147 Duke of Gloucester St., Annapolis.

In addition to Jeff Ford, Mr. Ford is survived by two other sons, John C. Ford III of Boca Raton, Fla., and Chris Ford of Annapolis; three daughters, Mary Laird of Towson, Anne Ford and Julie Ford, both of Los Angeles; and seven grandchildren.