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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)

Another:

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?

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    What would you consider valid evidence?
    – Sklivvz
    Commented Oct 5, 2014 at 15:45
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    Technically Cash isn't claiming he was the first to learn of Stalin's death, only that he copied the first news. If, as the Turner biograph claims, he didn't speak Russian, he might still have copied the transmission without understanding it, and then later been told what it said. For that matter, he doesn't actually claim to have been first to copy it; he could have been one of a number of people relaying that piece of news. Commented Oct 5, 2014 at 23:12
  • You already have the answer, just take the parts from his autobiography, together with the @NateEldredge's comment and the criticism from the biography, you have your answer and you can post it.
    – SIMEL
    Commented Feb 27, 2017 at 7:47

1 Answer 1

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I don't know, for sure, if he did, but please note the disconnect between Cash's claim, and the refutation.

I would think that Cash and his obvious musical talent/genius would be very good at discerning fine details in both tone and meter/rhythm, which would make him an "ace" at identifying Morse Code from background noise.

Cash's claim, per OP -

I was who they called when the hardest jobs came up. I copied the first news of Stalin's death

Note the very specific and somewhat odd choice of verb. Not "heard," not "knew," not "reported," but "COPIED."

The refutation:

He didn't understand Russian, and if it came in code we wouldn't have been able to decipher it anyway.

He never claimed to have translated or deciphered anything, so this doesn't say anything to what Cash actually said.

It sounds like his job was identifying when Morse code was being used, and literally copying down the Morse code sequences, not translating them. Copied, then passed off to Morse Code, cryptoanalysts and Russian language specialists to transcribe.

You can down-vote this as having nothing authoritative in the answer, but I don't think there's anything disputing Cash's actual claim. It's more that people didn't note his careful parsing of his own language in making his claim (which could be what he had in mind), and made assumptions, and reported it as a claim that he never actually made.

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    "Copied" is the verb used to describe transcribing Morse code from radio to paper. My father did the same job as Johnny Cash back in the early 1960s. He was in the US Marine Corps, stationed at Bremerhaven in Germany, copying Morse code from Soviet signals. He used to joke that he spent two years and Germany and had no idea what he did. The signals he copied from Morse code were in Russian, coded for brevity, then encrypted. He typed it all up on a typewriter with Morse code keys and a Cyrillic typebar. He literally had no idea at all what any of it meant.
    – JRE
    Commented Sep 9, 2023 at 18:09

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