I just came across this claim in a letter to The Economist:
He worked the line
SIR – Charlemagne considers it “safe to assume that Johnny Cash… gave little thought to European foreign policy” (September 20th). Actually, Cash worked as a radio operator with the US Airforce Security Service between 1950 and 1954 in Germany, intercepting Soviet Army transmissions. It is said that he was the first to pick up news of Stalin’s death.
I think it is safe to assume that he would have been very aware of European foreign policy at the time.
Andreas Haberbeck Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
Another example of this claim:
Johnny Cash Was The First American To Know About Stalin's Death
That's right, the man in black, discovered that Soviet Union Premier, Joseph Stalin, died before US president Dwight Eisenhower even knew. He was working as a radio operator for the military at the time of Stalin's death and was the first person to receive the message. (Upvenue.com)
TIL [Today I Learnt] that Johnny Cash was the first American to hear about Joseph Stalin's death, while working as a decoder for the US Army (Reddit)
It seems like this claim originated from Cash himself, in his 1997 autobiography (quoted here):
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.
A later biography of Cash writes however:
While he was, in fact, at Landsberg on March 5, 1953, the day Joseph Stalin died, his comment in Cash: The Autobiography that "I was who they called when the hardest jobs came up. I copied the first news of Stalin's death" brings a wry smile to the faces of those who worked with him. "That's nonsense," says one. "He didn't understand Russian, and if it came in code we wouldn't have been able to decipher it anyway. It created a certain aura about his skill that in my view was directly related to his celebrity."
So: True or not?