My Grandfather: Business analytics in wartime, 1942

Summary:Like many American veterans, my grandfather fought in World War II. But he didn't fight with bullets -- his weapon against the enemy was his brain.

Editor's note: This was first published in December 2011. We're republishing this on the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings. 

In May of this year, my maternal grandfather, Sidney Esikoff, passed away. He was 91 years old. He would have been 92 at the end of this month.

I wanted at the time to write about him, and the influence he had on my life. But I was too devastated and emotionally drained to deal with it.

Yes, Sid had a long and happy life, but he was very much our family leader, and it was a tough thing to even think about, let alone convey in an article.

And as collected as I was, since he had been ill and deteriorating for several years from Alzheimers, the impact was still tremendous. I really couldn't bring myself to do it.

At his services I delivered his eulogy, and I could barely do that without breaking down in tears.

Now, six months after his passing and on the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor which threw this country and its allies into a global conflict against tyrannical aggression by the Nazis, Italian and Spanish Fascism and Japanese Imperialism, I finally have the motivation and the wherewithal to talk about him and what he did for our country.

My interest in my grandfather's participation in the war effort started when I was very young, when he used to tell me stories about going up in bombing raids on B-24 Liberators while stationed in Italy.

He told me that he wasn't a pilot or a bombardier, but he desperately wanted to be one. His eyesight was apparently not good enough and he wasn't considered good enough physical material either.

But he was still an officer, a Captain. When he discharged from the service in 1946, he left as a Major. He had explained to me that he was involved in US Army Air Forces as a "statistician" in the mediterranean theater, based in Italy, and they collected all kinds of reports and stuff about virtually everything the Air Forces did, from bomb damage assessments to plane replacements and death tolls and ammunition supply requirements.

He also told me that back in the early 1940s, he was one of the first people to use "computers" made by IBM, although they weren't actually called computers then. They were "Tablulating Equipment" which were automated calculators and rudimentary data processing equipment that used punch card readers for collating information.

There were few people in my family he actually spoke to about what he did during those times -- the war was an uncomfortable subject for him. On the few times he went up on missions with the bombing groups, he said that he was so scared he literally peed in his pants.

We didn't really talk about it very much as I got older either. I knew he was proud of my achievements as a writer and as a information technology professional, and we occasionally talked about our views on the world and such. His memories of the war would come up, but he would shut the conversation down soon enough.

"So many young boys died that I lost count," he used to tell me. And then we'd move on to talking about the Yankees, George Steinbrenner or Star Trek, which he introduced me to many, many years ago.

During the week my grandfather passed away, I was shown the following photograph by my aunt. It intrigued me.

If you click on the photo you can blow it up to full resolution. Sid is the young man directly behind the first officer in the first row on the left.

I remembered how Sid told me that he had "gone to Harvard," but it wasn't as a regular undergraduate. Before he enlisted, he had taken some courses at NYU for a few years and was in charge of the bookkeeping and factory floor manager for his father's fur and animal hides tanning business in Brooklyn.

But he never actually finished college and graduated per se. I would learn the details of that later on, and how it changed things.

Part of me wonders if he went to war to get the heck out of his dad's business, which was a pretty disgusting way to make a living. But I digress.

In any case, shortly after Sid passed away, I asked my mother to requisition his military records from the US government, because I was genuinely interested in what he did. And I also started investigating what this Statistical School at Harvard actually was.

Several months later, I got back a huge packet back from the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. I wasn't expecting a data dump that big or anything at all, because I was told by other war vets that during the 1970s, many military records were destroyed in a fire. I was amazed by how much information the Army actually had on him.

What I learned between my own research and from Sid's records astounded me.

On March 6, 1942, 22-year old, freshly married Sid enlisted with the Army. On his paperwork, he notes that he had taken three years of accounting courses, some chemistry classes, and 400 hours of training on aircraft instrumentation.

Planes were obviously a huge passion of his.

Sometime after basic training, in June of 1942, his submitted paperwork for officer candidate school indicates that he applied for training as a meteorologist, but was asked to submit his college transcript and verify that he had completed certain courses.

Unfortunately, he never took his final exams at NYU and couldn't demonstrate what was required. So he was rejected from that program.

In September of 1942, he applied for a different officer candidacy position: Statistics, after apparently completing an eight-week course at Harvard Business School. His demonstration of mathematics and accounting proficiency obviously got him in the front door.

So what was this school at Harvard?

Shortly after the December attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, and with the realization that our involvement in the war was about to escalate big time, it was apparent to the Army Air Forces that they needed some sort of standardized method for collecting and analyzing data and generating various different types of reports.

To that end, they created what was referred to the US Army Air Forces Statistical Control Division, which was about 6,000 people who were deployed overseas, and about 12,000 people deployed stateside who were mostly engaged in the Department of the Interior.

In these Statistical Control Units, which were attached to fighter and bomber squadrons, only a small portion became officer material. Over 3,000 officer candidates went through a rigorous training program at Harvard Business School.

This program was specially tailored for the task of cranking out the precursors to what we call Business Analytics or Business Intelligence experts in the computer industry today.

My grandfather was an utter whiz with numbers and became a successful commercial and residential real estate developer later on in life. Now I know how he honed his skills.

Some of the people that went through the Harvard training school either as graduates or instructors are very famous. Eugene M. Zuckert, who eventually became the seventh secretary of the Air Force, was an instructor there.

Robert McNamara was the youngest instructor at the school, and taught while he was the rank of Captain.

McNamara himself later became part of a group of business process experts at the Ford Motor Company called the "Whiz Kids" and then President of the Ford company itself.

After Ford, McNamara formed another "Whiz Kids" group during the Kennedy Administration, where he became Eighth Secretary of Defense.

A number of these members went through the same program as my grandfather, such as William Kaufmann, a very well-known nuclear defense strategist who developed the Kennedy-era and modern nuclear warfare principles of Counterforce.

Do you have your taxes done by H&R Block? You've got the US Army Air Forces Statistical School to thank for that, because Henry W. Bloch went through the very same training program as Sid.

Sid didn't kill any Nazis with rifles or in hand-to-hand combat, and while he was decorated for the theater of war he participated in, such as the air raids during Operation Tidal Wave, he never became the pilot or the navigator or bombardier he aspired to be.

But that doesn't mean his contributions and those of the other Statistical Control officers he served with weren't extremely vital. Without analysis of the data that was collected, it would have been utterly impossible to coordinate the war effort.

My Popi was a Wartime Business Analytics expert. A Whiz Kid. And I'm proud of him for that.

Did one of your relatives serve in Statistical Control during World War 2? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Enterprise Software, CXO, IBM

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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