Frank Moorman writes about his grandfather, Lt. Colonel Frank W.
Moorman, and his father Major General Frank W. Moorman
Thank you for this opportunity to dig further into a part of my family history that has been somewhat distant. A few years ago, I typed
my name, Frank Moorman, into Google to see what would come up. I found a few
references to myself, from the acting I have done with local theatres. I found
some historic references to my father, which I’ll discuss later. There was
information about the Frank Moorman listed on the Vietnam Memorial Wall, a
Frank Moorman from the Netherlands,
a pilot, and a few others. Then I saw this reference: “
Colonel Parker Hitt describes Lieutenant
Frank Moorman's approach to solving the Playfair
which addresses the keyword recovery logically."
In reading around, I understood that this was a reference to code-breaking and that it was about my grandfather. I copied the passage and e-mailed it to my brother Jere, my father’s oldest son from his first marriage and the only one of us who had much contact with Moorman, who died before I was 2. He didn’t know about the cipher reference, but he did know that grandfather worked on a calculus problem every day of his life to keep his mind sharp.
Last May, on another Google search, I saw a reference to my grandfather
and Troop 33. I opened your website, with this picture featuring my
grandfather and, next to him, a gawky 15-year-old version of my father. I got
in touch by e-mail, and your scoutmaster invited me to come talk to you. So here I am.
I want to talk briefly about my grandfather’s life, such as I have been
able to learn about it from a number of sources, including my uncle Hal, now
91, a former member of Troop 33. I have a few pictures you may not have seen,
and then I’d like to talk a bit about one of your early Eagle Scouts, my
Frank Moorman was born September10, 1877, in Greenville, Michigan.
He was the first of what would be six children. In 1898, 21 years later, his
father must have felt a need for some adventure in his life, because he
abandoned his wife and six children and joined the Army under an assumed name
to fight in the Spanish-American War. He stayed in Cuba,
married a Cuban woman, and started another life story that I know nothing
At age 21, then, Frank became the main support of his mother and five
siblings. In 1899, he joined the Army and spent the next five years in the
First Infantry Division as a private, corporal, and battalion sergeant major.
In 1904, he was offered and accepted a commission as a second lieutenant.
It’s interesting for me to note that my other grandfather graduated from West Point that same year. Both my
grandfathers became second lieutenants in the same year, though by different
For the next ten years or so, Lieutenant Moorman moved around as required,
got married somewhere along the way, and was in the Philippines
in 1912 when his first son, Frank Willoughby Moorman, was born. In 1915, he
was at Fort Leavenworth,
the Army Signal
as a first lieutenant, when his second son, Harold Nelson Moorman, was born.
He graduated from the Signal School
in 1915, with the highest academic standing in his class. I asked my uncle
Hal if I was correct in my assumption that grandfather Moorman had never been
to college. He said I was and added that they were not even sure whether he
had completed high school. Grandfather said his college was the Harvard
Classics, a subscription series of the great works of Western civilization.
He called it his five-foot university, from the length of the shelf on which
the books fit.
Meanwhile, in 1914, war had broken out in Europe. The United States resisted
involvement in the European war for a long time, until attacks against our
shipping and the threat of a German-inspired invasion from Mexico
pushed us into declaring war in 1917. However, we weren’t ready. Our army
consisted of 128,000 men, and General Pershing, who led the US
forces, said we would need three million. We also had no skill in sending
coded messages or in intercepting or decoding signals from the enemy. They
turned to three officers for help, Captain Parker Hitt,
author of Manual for the Solution of Military Ciphers, where he cited
my grandfather’s solution to the Playfair cipher;
Capt. J. O. Mauborgne [who would become the
Army’s first chief signal officer], and Maj. Frank Moorman.
Major Moorman commanded the Radio Intelligence Section, responsible for
intercepting and decoding German messages, as well as writing codes for the
U.S. Army. Apparently, it was my grandfather who recommended that these
codebooks be revised frequently, because they would be lost or captured by
the enemy. The section wound up publishing new codebooks every two weeks.
There’s a lot of information about this section and Major Moorman in a
book called The Codebreakers by David Kahn.
In it, the author says of grandfather that, “As a boss he was well regarded
by his men for his fairness and blunt honesty.”
At the end of the war, Major Moorman wrote a comprehensive report of his
unit’s activities and made detailed recommendations for maintaining a
comprehensive “code and cipher” cadre in the Army. At the end of the war,
however, the government cut back on all its activities, so that, in 1941, we
lacked the resources and coordination to intercept and understand messages
that might have given us earlier warnings about the upcoming attack on
One of the men working under my grandfather in the Radio Intelligence
Section was a William Friedman, who would continue in the field as a leading
teacher of cryptography and cryptanalysis and would become a major figure in
the work that led to the creation of the National Security Agency.
In 1920, Major Moorman was stationed in Washington,
and attended the Takoma Park Presbyterian Church,
where he founded Boy Scout Troop 33. In 1922, he was transferred to Camp Vail, New Jersey, which
would later become Fort
There, he commanded the
51st Signal Battalion and was scoutmaster
for Troop 67, which, according to a newspaper report, he also founded. In
1924, he was returned to Washington
Park, where he served his
second stint as scoutmaster. Although he had been promoted to lieutenant
colonel in New Jersey,
they still called him “the major” in Takoma Park.
He retired in 1927, in order to work with a cadet program in Washington
high schools, but his first year was not very satisfactory, so he quit that
and stayed home.
We only have two photo albums from my father’s side of the family, but I
did find a few pictures that might interest you, plus one from my uncle Hal.
You may keep these copies that I will pass around. I also have for your permanent
records a CD with all the pictures, some notes, and these remark
These first two are of a parade, probably the Fourth of
July. The scouts are carrying something that they built. You all may know
that better than I do. In the second picture, you can clearly see the words Takoma
Park and Troop 33 on the
flags. I’d be curious to see if anybody can identify the houses in the
background, to see if they’re still standing.
This next one is of members of Troop 33 gathering chestnuts at Mount Vernon.
According to my uncle, in the 1920s, a blight killed chestnut trees in this
area, and the scouts were attempting to recover some chestnuts to grow new
trees. In the close-up in this second picture, you can see the number 33 on
the middle boy’s shirtsleeve.
I mentioned that my father was an Eagle Scout. Here are some pictures of
him in his uniform and at a camp in 1927. You also might be amused to see the
short newspaper clipping about his working as a sentry at Arlington National
which would today be unheard of for a 15- or 16-year-old boy to do. I think I
remember him saying that he did that as a Boy Scout, so it may have been a
And here’s something you may find interesting. A Boy Scout certificate, showing that the scout in question had
qualified as an Eagle Scout, signed by the scoutmaster, Frank Moorman, and
the scout himself, Frank W. Moorman.
Let me take a few extra minutes to talk about Eagle Scout Frank W.
Moorman. I know that you recognize the history and service of scouts who died
in World War II in Camp Waldo Schmitt. I’d like to fill you in on one who was
lucky enough to survive.
After earning his Eagle Scout rank in what my uncle said was record time,
my father, known as Willie or Bill, graduated from high school in 1930 and
went to West Point.
This was the beginning of the Depression, and a retired officer’s pay did not
allow for college tuition, so the military academy was his only option.
He graduated in 1934 as a second lieutenant in the infantry, where he
spent four years. He transferred to the Signal Corps, went to the Signal School,
and intended to transfer to the artillery after four years. But the attack on
put us on a war footing, and the Army was not transferring anybody. So Bill
Moorman became signal officer for what would become one of the legendary
combat units of the war, the 82d Airborne Division, commanded by one of the
most highly regarded field combat commanders of the 20th century,
General Matthew Ridgway.
He was signal officer for their campaigns in Africa, Sicily, and Italy, though he did not
parachute until the invasion of Normandy
in June 1944. On landing, one of General Ridgway’s staff officers was shot in
the eye, and he picked my father to replace him. Dad remained one of
Ridgway’s regular staff officers and a confidant for the next ten years,
through the end of the war, in the Korean War and finally when Ridgway was
chief of staff of the army.
My father served for another ten years after Ridgway retired in 1955,
including two long tours in France.
His final position was as commanding general of Fort Monmouth, New Jersey,
where his father, your scoutmaster, had served in the 1920s. Toward the end
of that stay, a new officers’
quarters was named Moorman Hall in honor of his father.
Dad retired in 1965 as a major general. Let me leave you with two quotes
that may give you a flavor of your founding scoutmaster. One is from him, the
other from my father.
When my parents married, it was a second marriage for both of them. After
a meeting between the two fathers – my two grandfathers-to-be – grandfather
Moorman wrote a thank-you letter to my other grandfather, in which he said,
"I have long admired an old proverb, ‘Wealth doesn’t consist of things, but
of power to do without them.’ That is one form of wealth that can never be
taken from us."
This is the only document I have from grandfather Moorman, and I leave you
to draw your own conclusions from that message.
When I turned 30 in 1979, I asked my father what his life was like when he
turned 30, in February 1942, three months after Pearl Harbor. He was preparing for a war
with no sense of where he would be going, his marriage was falling apart, his wife had just left their two
children with his mother, who had just lost her third child, Robert, to a
long, wasting illness. And unbeknownst to him at the time, a young mother
with a three-month-old child was suddenly a widow. He would marry her six
He spoke of this time of his life as intellectually arid and said, "Death,
tragedy, divorce, desertion, human frailty are all part of the ultimate
absurdity of life and fall indiscriminately on the just and on the unjust.
One learns to live with them. But the life of the mind is like a garden. It
must be fertilized, watered, weeded, planted, hoed and harrowed. When it lies
fallow, the nutrients leak out."
I think his father, your founding scoutmaster, a man who didn’t finish
high school, who studied the works of western civilization on his own and did
a calculus problem every day of his life to keep his mind sharp, would agree
with his son in that sentiment. And so I pass that on to you as a message
from the past.