Before legendary country musician Johnny Cash became the Man in Black, he served during the Cold War as a man in blue with the U.S. Air Force.
Shortly after his marriage to first wife, Vivian, Staff Sgt. Cash was sent to Landsberg, West Germany, where the rumor began that the young airman had intercepted and cracked a secret Russian code about the March 1953 death of Soviet Premier Leader Joseph Stalin.
In his autobiography “Cash,” the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee wrote, “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...”
One source, however, has since debunked that statement — to a degree.
While Cash was involved in some way, the idea that he alone decrypted the transmission confirming Stalin’s death is likely an exaggeration.
In his book, “The Man Called Cash”, biographer Steve Turner writes that, although Cash was indeed serving in the right place at the right time for the message intercept, the singer’s account is a bit overblown.
The story told by Cash brought a “wry smile to the faces of those who worked with him,” Turner wrote.
Turner quotes one of Cash’s fellow airmen as saying, “‘He didn’t understand Russian, and if it came in code we wouldn’t have been able to decipher it anyway.’”
Cash served from 1950-54. Before his separation, he wrote to Arkansas Congressman Ezekial Gathings requesting to transition to work for the National Security Agency. Gathings sent back a typewritten letter saying he believed Cash’s chances of being accepted were favorable.
The Man in Black could, in essence, have been a much darker nickname had the NSA been his career of choice. Then again, perhaps it was ... secretly.
As he once said, “Sometimes I am two people.”
Sarah Sicard is a Senior Editor with Military Times. She previously served as the Digitial Editor of Military Times and the Army Times Editor. Other work can be found at National Defense Magazine, Task & Purpose, and Defense News.