This is Chapter 43 from The Man Who Mastered Gravity, now available from Amazon and fine booksellers everywhere.
When William Stephenson arrived in America in the spring of 1940 at the behest of Winston Churchill, his first objective was to establish a base of operations for an espionage network in a place where it could survive if Britain fell to a Nazi invasion. The headquarters for British Security Coordination (BSC) were setup in offices at Rockefeller Center in New York City.
Official accounts will trace the formation of BSC to the weeks immediately following Churchill’s occupancy of #10 Downing Street. But we know from the unofficial account of Townsend Brown’s voyage aboard the yacht Caroline in 1933 that Stephenson’s operations preceded the onset of the war by at least half a dozen years. In New York that spring and summer, Stephenson’s real work was converting his private web of business and financial interests into a classified network of political and military capabilities.
Lieutenant Townsend Brown remained in the Navy through the first year of the war. In another Annual Fitness Report, filed on June 10, 1940, Lt. Brown listed his occupation as “Materials and processing engineer” for the Glenn L. Martin Aircraft Co. in Baltimore MD, where his duties included being “in charge of inspection and testing of aircraft materials and construction, shop processes and special research problems.” He also mentions conducting a “special study of corrosion prevention” for the Navy’s flying boats.
But the most important news Townsend Brown’s life was found not in the Navy records, but, once again, in a Zanesville newspaper, which reported on September 24, 1940:
The marriage of Mrs. Josephine Beale Brown and Lt. Townsend Brown took place Thursday, Sept. 19, in Alexandria, Va. The Rev. Mr. Ashby officiated, and the couple will reside at 4447 Greenwich Parkway, Washington D.C.
Mrs. Brown has been district supervisor of the W. P. A. housekeeping aid project of District No. 3. Mr. Brown is with the Navy department of the United States in Washington.
Brown’s official Navy records begin to show heavy redactions during this period, but the story in the newspaper also reports that his work for the Navy included acoustic and magnetic mine sweeping – a subject addressed in some detail in the short autobiography that Townsend dictated to Josephine many years later:
Some way was needed to sweep mines from the Channel and this required exploding them where they were. One way to do this was by placing a huge coil on a barge and passing current thru the coil to produce a magnetic field which spread to the bottom of the seabed. The trouble was, when blowing up the mine, it was invariably under the barge and blew up both barge and coil.
Someone suggested that if we could trail a wire behind a converted tug boat, and put current in that wire of several hundred amperes, that would do the job.
But, the wire being heavier than water, would sink to the bottom. A way had to be found to keep the wire at the surface. Plastic floats were tried. Only, when the mine was detonated, it blew up all the floats and the wire sank to the bottom.
That is when I got the idea of putting floats inside the wire, like sausages. Wire wrapped around the sausages so the cable floated. It was 3 1/2″ in diameter and conducted 300 amps, which was more than enough to blow up the mines. When the mines blew up, the explosion merely tossed the cable in air without damage.
I took out a patent on this idea. It was immediately classified. I heard nothing more, but understand it is still in use today, still accepted as the best method of minesweeping.
Those heavily redacted Navy records say nothing of this. But several times over the years, Josephine told Linda a story about a night she and Townsend spent at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. Linda had no reason to suspect that she may have been hearing a story about her parents’ second honeymoon:
Daddy had been away a lot. Months. Mother simply missed his company (in and out of their bedroom!). So when they were reunited she was looking forward to a long weekend behind locked doors at the Mayflower.
She admitted they had already had a pretty good time, so she was surprised when she felt his hand brush against her hipbone. Mother was fashionably thin in those days. His hand stopped on one hipbone, and slowly traced across the flat of her tummy, and then up the other hipbone, where his hand paused again….
Mother was thinking, “oh boy….” and then…. “huh? What the heck?”
Suddenly Daddy yelled, “that’s it!” and threw the bed sheets aside. He scrambled into his uniform and was out the door with barely another word. He was gone for months and it was not until years later that she discovered that her hipbones were responsible for a breakthrough in mine-sweeping cable design that saved many lives during the war.
Lieutenant T. Townsend Brown was still on active duty when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 drawing the U.S. into World War II. His superior officers continued to commend him with glowing praise, as in the 1941 Fitness Report in which the commanding officer commented that:
This officer is well educated, intelligent, and adaptable. He is well informed in theoretical and practical electricity and physics. He is particularly suited to research rather than engineering. His value to the Service will increase with experience. He is recommended for retention on active duty during the present emergency and for promotion when due.
In the first months of 1942, Lieutenant Brown was assigned to the Atlantic Fleet Radar School at the Norfolk, Virginia Naval base as a Radio Officer, Ship’s Service Officer, and Educational. Another Fitness Report, dated June 25, 1942 states,
Lieut. Brown is thorough, energetic and possesses exceptional initiative. Has performed his duties in a thoroughly satisfactory manner of excellent professional and personal character. Is recommended for promotion when due.
Despite the glowing commendations and consistent recommendations, there were no promotions. To the contrary the Navy records contain a letter dated September 30, 1942
Five days later, on October 5, Lieutenant Brown received his final orders in a a telegram addressed to the Commanding Officer:
LIEUTENANT COMMANDER THOMAS TOWNSEND BROWN EVS USNR HEREBY DETACHED -X- WHEN DIRECTED BY COMMANDING OFFICER REPORT FOR PHYSICAL EXAMINATION –X- UPON COMPLETION PROCEED HOME UPON ARRIVAL RELEASED FROM ALL ACTIVE DUTY X CHARGES PSANDT X FORWARD COPY OF THESE ORDERS BEARING ALL ENDORSEMENTS TO BUPERS…
There is no explanation for the termination of Brown’s service anywhere in the file. The statement “CHARGES PSANDT” is not an explanation for his dismissal, but is rather an instruction to the bursar of accounts to pay the departing sailor his “Pay, Subsistence and Travel” expenses until he got home.
It is hard to fathom why the United States Navy, so recently engaged in a global war, would part company with one of its most qualified radio and radar specialists.
Less than two weeks later, the recently discharged Lieutenant assumed a post as a ‘research engineer’ for the Vega Aircraft Corporation1 in Burbank, California.
1 Over the decades to follow, Vega was transformed into the famous Lockheed “Skunkworks” facility that spearheaded the most advanced aviation research of the twentieth century.