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Working at a numbers station, a story from a numbers stations operator

Our site has various articles and documents showing the use of numbers stations. Yet, never before have we had an account from a person who has “worked at the numbers stations”. This person whose name we will not disclose has shared his story in working in foreign radio transmission base six decades ago. While his story carefully conceals what was the station and to whom it broadcasted, it tells us the basics of numbers stations operation. Much of it has not changed, only the technological level has improved, although some of the stations use similar techniques even now. This original account from the person who has made his service is believable and is source in numbers stations history by its own kind. We hope this account will help to understand the numbers stations better and shows the reality behind the complex intelligence service that involves larger numbers of men and women and our hero of the story. Here is the story of being a numbers stations operator:

Working at a numbers station 6 decades ago was not much different than working at an AM broadcast station. Located on a WWII old Naval Base it consisted of one building surrounded by a double chain link fence inside which older local men drove pickup trucks around for security. Inside the building there was a workshop, two 20,000-watt AM shortwave transmitters, crystal controlled oscillators, and a soundproof booth with a record player and records of well-known music in a language and culture common to the target. Outside the compound was an antenna farm with a log periodic antenna, a rhombic, and a couple dipoles. No “domes” as this was long before satellite commo.

I lived, with my wife, about a mile from the site and would drive through a back road to the location, be admitted by security through each gate, and park, and relieve the other op who, after briefing me, was free to go home. My job was to follow a schedule, select the proper frequency at the proper time, tune the transmitter, hit the plate voltage, play the record the schedule told me to, and then recite the messages arranged in five-number groups of numbers in the appropriate language into the microphone in the recording booth. This was all done live and, as far as I know, no recordings were kept.

The purpose of all this was to send messages to spies implanted in an enemy (or target) country. However not all – or even not many – of the broadcasts were actually messages. Usually they were simply the numbers from a one-time-pad. Agents knew that a particular music selection would tell them whether they needed to actually copy the message (that it was, in other words, “real”). Wrong music, they turned off their receivers and ignored it. Right music they’d copy it, decode it from their copy of a one-time-pad and follow the instructions.

Working at a numbers station requires no more skill than working at an AM broadcast station as far as technical ability goes. Everyone who worked inside the compound was cleared for top secret as well as clearances specific to the job at hand. We were all fairly high skilled people (I went on to a career in engineering afterwards) capable of far more complex tasks but this was the job assignment.

The security guards were “unwitting” (as far as I know) of the true nature of the installation although I suspect rumors abounded. There was no “fraternization” between the guards and the tech staff and I did not ever learn their names.

My wife knew nothing about what I did although she did know the basics of who I worked for.

The biggest excitement of that job involved snakes. One night a guard shot two of the biggest poisonous snakes I’ve ever seen. They later hung them up on the inner 12′ chain link fence and they had to be six or seven feet long. I think that the guard who shot the snakes almost had a heart attack! The other story involved a snake which had somehow gotten into the building and then into one of the big xmtrs and wrapped itself around one of the final amplifier tubes to stay warm. When a tech hit the plate power switch it cooked itself. It didn’t smell like chicken, either.

Other than that it’s just a job. The messages were all prepared somewhere else by someone else and delivered to us along with the schedule. We all had high level clearances but we  never knew who we sent these to or what the real ones might have said. This sort of compartmentalization was (and is) common.

I often thought of those for whom the messages were intended… how they felt, where they were… whether they were in an attic or shed or stranded somewhere copying down a message that was a threat to their very lives on a radio that was a death penalty to simply be in possession of. I was very careful to do it right.

I have to say that it is nice to have had jobs they make movies about; however inaccurately. I once showed my son a documentary about another one of my jobs, which is nice. Although I am not entirely sure he believed me. Obviously what I wrote above is true but no classified information was included. It was all many decades ago, anyway, and nothing remains of that numbers station today.

People at a numbers station – and at other jobs involving intelligence – are neither heroes nor villains. Mostly we do our jobs as well as we can. The times I write about were a period of war – however hot or cold it was – and we were caught up in it. It’s a difficult and sometimes dangerous career with our families often in danger, too. Lots of stress and long periods of time living in a culture different from one’s home.

While you might be able, even now, to copy numbers stations, the agents to whom their transmissions are directed to, will not be using any methods you can intercept today (or even back then). The technology of that has changed enormously. But numbers stations remain one of the easiest ways to get a covert message to an agent in a restricted area even today.

 

 
This account is direct unedited copy of the text the person telling this story has sent us. The accuracy and  legitimacy  of this account is on the good will of the person who had by our request shared his story. We believe memories are to be displayed in their raw text as they were told by this person. The authenticity of written or oral memories are always under professional review and to be confirmed  by using archive documents or other accounts. We have responsibility for this account, should the person requests to remove or there is other reason, we reserve right to remove it.

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