"Secret codes were the hallmark of the radio show and with coded messages being worked into storylines that only members could figure out, decoders soon became all the rage.
"Kids would listen to the program for a Master Code Combination, set their dials accordingly, and then keep track of each code number given by the announcer. Then, they could find the code numbers on their badge, and write down the corresponding letters. Pretty soon, the message would be revealed."(source)
Captain Midnight was a a 1940s super hero, a fictional character written as mortal who, from just before the beginning of World War II into the deepest throes of the war's battles to it's decisive end, that, using the medium of regular radio programing, comic books, and movie serials, took on all the proportions of real life, giving hope, strength, and inspiration to thousands and thousands of war weary families and kids, as loved ones fought, were wounded, and died for our freedom in the air, the seas, and the farflung battlefields of distant lands.
Captain Midnight, like my own Mentor who in real life was a pilot in World War I, was also, as written, a pilot in World War I, with many of their exploits, both the factual and the fictional, paralleling. At least that's how I discovered it to be after reading Captain Midnight's biography which was so adroitly put together by author Stephen A. Kallis Jr. The author, following hours-and-hours of researching and sifting through piles and piles of background material, notes, and archived original radio scripts, combined all he gathered into a book he titled Radio's Captain Midnight: The Wartime Biography (2000). In parallel, both Captain Midnight and my mentor were Americans, about the same age, and loved flying. They went to Europe as not much more than kids to fight well before the U.S. entered the war. My mentor was a pilot for the Royal Flying Corps, having joined by going through Canada, flying for the British while Captain Midnight flew for the French under the branching umbrella of the Lafayette Flying Corps. My mentor's aircraft was the venerable British made Sopwith Camel while Midnight's was said to be a French built Nieuport 17. However, parallels notwithstanding, unlike my mentor who remained within the ranks of the Royal Flying Corps when the U.S. entered the war, Albright, like a large portion of the Americans fighting with the French, shifted to the American forces, being commissioned an officer and receiving the rank of Captain. My mentor, a front line fighter pilot, nearly always flew in multiple plane squadron-like groups and was wounded twice. Captain Midnight's time in the air was spent basically flying unescorted, often unarmed and alone, participating in dangerous low and high level observations, scouting, and photo reconnaissance. Cumulatively his abilities eventually morphed, because of his extraordinary flying skills and knowledge of the lay of the land, especially behind the lines, into solo secret missions.
I was much too young to have fought in World War II. Years passed before I served in uniform, and by then it was a much different time and a much different war. The following, telling of my early childhood during the Second World War, is from the source so cited:
"Even though my home was thousands of miles away from the raging turmoil of the battlefronts, living practically on the beach along the Pacific coast we were constant hostage to attack. Although most people don't know it or they don't remember it, the hostilities of the war visited our shores more than once, and sometimes so close it was like it was in our front yard. Japanese submarines prowled the waters all up and down the coast with shipping being hit, torpedoed, damaged and sunk. The mainland being hit with shells, bombs, and by air attacks. Sure, it was nothing like what was happening in either of the two major theaters, but happening none the less."(source)
When I was a young boy growing up during that period, like most of my male peers, I was thoroughly enamored with the wartime super heroes. Even though I liked most of them in one fashion or the other, for me, mostly because of the Code-O-Graphs, Captain Midnight and his wartime exploits saving America and the rest of the free world from total domination by the Axis Powers provided a welcome respite from dangers actual or perceived. However, I had no clue, until well along the way into my adult years that Captain Midnight and my mentor's early experiences paralleled so closely. Although their paths veered dramatically following the war I still find it amazing to this day that as a teenager, well after the war, I sought out and became friends with a person whose real life early background paralleled so closely with that of one of my foremost childhood heroes. The following, from the source so cited, exemplifies the high regard I carried for it all during my childhood:
"Up until the start of high school the only real possessions I dragged about with me throughout my childhood in good order, other than my Buck Rogers U-235 Atomic Pistol, was a collection of cereal box-top offers called Captain Midnight decoders. Although I eventually collected all of them up through 1949, my favorite was the 1942-1944 Photo-Matic Code-O-Graph. People who knew me as a young boy recount that after I got my first decoder badge, a Photo-Matic Code-O-Graph, which I sort of misappropriated from my older brother without his approval or knowledge and after which not only I wouldn't give up, but for years, once getting my hands on it, they seldom saw me without. They say me listening to Captain Midnight and deciphering his Secret Squadron messages all the while coveting the decoder for myself raised a huge inter-sibling calamity and fuss in the family. But my mother, seeing that using the decoder required dealing with letters and numbers, and me willingly learning them at such an early age, bought a bunch of Ovaltine and sent for another decoder so both my brother and I would have one --- one of the few fond memories I have of my mother prior to her death a couple of years later, and why I think, a major reason for the importance of the decoder throughout my life."(source)
Although there is an overall arc that spans Captain Midnight's background, when it comes to the specifics not all the various media, radio, comic strips, and movie serials, are in agreement. While most of us have a tendency to lump them together, myself included, Kallis in writing the biography, concentrated exclusively on the wartime radio scripts, believing that the content of those scripts were the only true, reliable, or 'real' source of Captain Midnight's background --- an opinion that is not easy to disregard. If one goes beyond those early radio scripts, which tread a fairly solid path in regards to Captain Midnight's early years, there is a total of at least three other incarnations of Captain Midnight. In the June 2005 bimonthly journal, Radio Recall, Kallis provided a brief thumbnail sketch of the differences between the various media versions. He begins by saying the original was a radio serial that started in 1938 as a syndicated program from Skelly Oil. The story line revealed that the character was an aviator who became something of an amateur 'crime' fighter. After Ovaltine picked up the sponsorship in the Fall of 1940, Kallis then goes on to say:
"The show changed, with the title character recruited to head a Government-supported paramilitary organization known as the Secret Squadron. The organization was formed to fight sabotage and espionage, of which there was plenty before Pearl Harbor. The program produced a yearly cryptological premium called the Code-O-Graph, that identified the owner as a member of the Secret Squadron. [Materials shortages prevented manufacture of 1943 and 1944 models.]
"At least once a week, the show's announcer broadcast a cipher message that gave a slight preview to the following show. The program ran as a serial until the Spring of 1949. In the Fall of that year, a few half-hour, complete-story, program aired, but it was dumbed down and lasted through the middle of December.
"In 1942, a Captain Midnight newspaper comic strip was introduced. It was drawn in a Caniff-like style, and was extremely close to the radio show, though with different stories. Also, in 1942, Fawcett Comics introduced a comic-book Captain Midnight. This version was significantly different from the radio or comic-strip versions. The Fawcett hero traded his uniform for a standard superhero costume (skin-tight uniform with logo, etc.), was "an inventor," and had no Secret Squadron. It wasn't even close to the radio show. The Fawcett 'Captain Midnight' was a retread of another Fawcett character, Spy Smasher.(see) The Fawcett Captain Midnight had a 'gliderchute' built into his costume rather than a parachute, that enabled him to 'fly' much like a Flying Squirrel."(source)
Kallis, in his background research into Captain Midnight, originally cited the person who would grow up to be Captain Midnight as being born in North Carolina at the turn of the century under the name Charles J. Albright (my mentor, also a World War I pilot, was born in the fall of 1899, making him age-wise, just at the lower limits to have been able to have participated in the war). However, although the place and time for Captain Midnight remain the same, after review of sound information by fellow researcher Tom Tumbusch, the author of Illustrated Radio Premium Catalog and Price Guide, who, in his findings provided convincing evidence of a different name, Kallis has since acknowledged Tumbusch's findings. The name now agreed upon by most Captain Midnight aficionados is Stuart James ('Jim') Albright, nicknamed Red, who, under the code name, Captain Midnight, was the leader of the Secret Squadron.
How Albright came to be called Captain Midnight in the first place is based on the most notorious of his secret missions --- and of which, because of its successful completion, saved the allied armies from destruction and world's population from near total annihilation, in turn escalating Albright, AKA Captain Midnight, into super hero status.
Throughout his career Captain Midnight's main nemesis, protagonist, and arch foe was a master criminal named Ivan Shark. According to Kallis, toward the close of World War I Albright was dispatched by an American general on a secret mission known only by Albright, the general, and the general's immediate superior in Washington. The completion of the mission was given only a 100 to 1 chance of being successful. He did though, tell the general when asked, how he, the general, would know the mission was successful. Albright said that if the mission was successful he would be back that night by the stroke of 12. Looking all the same that he wouldn't return, at exactly the stroke of 12 Albright returned and the general, relieved that the mission had been accomplished, called him Captain Midnight.
Not much is known about Albright/Captain Midnight during the years between the wars. He barnstormed, worked in the movies as a stunt pilot, and took on as a ward the son of his best friend killed in an aviation accident. However, with all the military expansion and goings on by the Germans and Japanese in the late 1930s, even though the U.S. vowed to say neutral, it was clear something had to be done on an official albeit not military level. In 1940 Albright was called in from retirement, he was given the code name Captain Midnight and put in command of the Secret Squadron. Because the Secret Squadron operated outside the scrutiny and authority of the government and other agencies, they maintained their own secret communication system known only to Secret Squadron operatives or members. Hence the rise and use of the Code-O-Graphs.
Before moving on it should be noted for your own edification that in the above main text where I write that up until the start of high school the only real possessions I dragged about with me throughout my childhood in good order, other than my Buck Rogers U-235 Atomic Pistol, was a collection of cereal box-top offers called Captain Midnight decoders, is that Buck Rogers, like both Captain Midnight and my mentor, was himself, as written by the author that created him, a pilot in World War I. He, like Stuart James ('Jim') Albright, nicknamed Red and code named Captain Midnight, is also credited to have risen to the rank of captain. Rogers, however fell into a deep state of suspended animation not awakening for 500 years, hence Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. For more please see:
HIS HISTORY AND EVOLUTION
Now that Captain Midnight's history and biography has been put forth fairly well, what follows is almost anything you would ever want to know about the Code-O-Graphs sometimes called decoder badges. However, before moving on, just to make things clear, borrowing from Kallis one more time, he writes:
"Regarding Captain Midnight and the so-called 'decoder rings' of the era... up front: there were no 'decoder rings' offered in the entire era of Old-Time radio. There were, though, 'decoder pins.'"
1941 MYSTERY DIAL CODE-O-GRAPH
1942-1944 PHOTO-MATIC CODE-O-GRAPH
Due to the shortage of metal during the war no new decoders were issued between 1942-1944
1945 MAGNI-MATIC CODE-O-GRAPH
1946 MIRRO-FLASH CODE-O-GRAPH
1947 WHISTLE CODE-O-GRAPH
1948 MIRRO-MAGIC CODE-O-GRAPH
1949 KEY-O-MATIC CODE-O-GRAPH
Those of you who have got this far are at least semi-familiar enough with my background to know that Code-O-Graphs played a major role during my childhood. However, as odd as it may seem they continued to play a major role throughout my life right on into adulthood. Especially so after my brother inadvertently sent the Photo-Matic Code-O-Graph I owned as a kid to me while I was in the Army. Please see:
THE CODE MAKER, THE ZEN MAKER
SHANGRI-LA, SHAMBHALA, GYANGANJ, BUDDHISM AND ZEN
AND NOW THIS:
In order to not remake the wheel, except for minor editing for our purposes here, the below paragraphs regarding the background and history of the Code-O-Graphs, which as proved to be quite accurate under my own investigations, has been provided through the courtesy of Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (see) with a good portion of the original research stemming from an article by Stephen A. Kallis Jr., appearing in Old Radio Times (July 2007) and available in PDF format by clicking HERE:
1941 MYSTERY DIAL CODE-O-GRAPH
The first Code-O-Graph, called the "Mystery Dial" unit, was introduced in 1941, as a device to enable Secret Squadron agents in the field to send and receive secure messages. It was in badge form, as were the next three models. The front of the badge displayed the number and cipher alphabet scales. The reverse had two windows, one labeled "Master Code"; the other, "Super Code." each window was used for cipher key settings. As an example, if the cipher was designated as "Master Code 3," it meant that the movable rotor was to spun so that the number 3 would appear in the window labeled "Master Code." This setting would align the number and cipher alphabet scales correctly to decipher a message.
The second Code-O-Graph was the "Photo-Matic" unit. The badge had a space for a picture of the owner, to make it a photo-ID badge.
The advent of World War II had an impact on the Code-O-Graph availability: the two previous models were made of brass, and the attack on Pearl Harbor, which propelled the United States into World War II, caused the U.S. Government to impose restrictions on manufacturing materials. Copper and brass were considered critical materials, and most of the materials were diverted to war activities. This precluded brass being used to manufacture novelties like radio premiums.
The Photo-Matic Code-O-Graph, although not distributed until 1942, was manufactured prior to the Pearl Harbor attack. Since it, and its predecessor, were undated, the newer Code-O-Graph was used for the 1943 and 1944 seasons as well as the 1942, making it the Code-O-Graph with the longest service life. The cipher setting scheme was similar to the 1941 Mystery Dial model, but there was only one cipher setting window, labeled "Master Code."
By late 1944, Ovaltine scraped together enough material to manufacture another Code-O-Graph, the 1945 "Magni-Magic" Code-O-Graph. This unit used stamped sheet steel for the badge bodies, painted with "gold" paint to look similar to the earlier brass badges. The cipher disk element was made of injection-molded plastic, with the center of the disk knob in the form of a magnifying lens. The production was limited, and it was the only model of which supplies were completely exhausted.
The 1945 model altered the cipher-key setting scheme. The new method was to align one of the letters on the alphabet scale to a numeral on the number scale. For instance, the "Master Code X-15" setting meant that the letter X would be moved until it was next to the number 15 on the number scale. The advantage with the new scheme was that a total of 676 possible key setting combinations could be used. The disadvantage was that each key compromised one letter-number pair.
The 1946 model was the "Mirro-Flash" unit, the first postwar Code-O-Graph, and the last in badge form. Since the war had ended, the new badge was made of stamped sheet brass, and the plastic "dial" element had a small circular mirror for signaling by heliography. It used the same cipher-key setting methodology as its immediate predecessor. This practice was used for the 1947 and 1949 models as well.
The 1947 model was the first in non-badge form. It was in the shape of a police-style whistle, with the cipher elements along one side. It was called the "Whistle Code-O-Graph," possibly the least imaginative name of the series.
The 1948 model, the "Mirro-Magic" unit, was a circular product, manufactured of brass, aluminum, plastic, and steel. The cipher letters and numbers could only be seen one at a time through windows on the front. The design had the cipher alphabet and number disks coupled by friction, and there was often slippage when trying to decipher a message. Unlike any other Code-O-Graph, the cipher-key settings utilized a pointer on the back, and a number scale from 1 through 26. Each would increment the positioning of the two scales.
The last Code-O-Graph was the "Key-O-Matic" unit. Possibly to compensate for the slippage of the 1948 unit's elements, the cipher alphabet and number scales were placed on interlocking gears, preventing any slippage. Resetting the cipher elements utilized a small key that was inserted into slots over one of the gears, which could be disengaged, using the key and a leaf spring as a simple clutch mechanism.
THE FLYING TIGERS
THE BOY IN THE MAN REMEMBERS THE LEGEND
Fundamentally, our experience as experienced is not different from the Zen master's. Where
we differ is that we place a fog, a particular kind of conceptual overlay onto that experience
and then make an emotional investment in that overlay, taking it to be "real" in and of itself.
ON THE RAZOR'S
CODE-O-GRAPH GRAPHICS PROVIDED THROUGH THE GENEROSITY OF
HAKE'S AMERICANA & COLLECTIBLES
As to the subject of donations, for those of you who may be interested in doing so as it applies to the gratefulness of my works, I invariably suggest any funds be directed toward THE WOUNDED WARRIOR PROJECT and/or THE AMERICAN RED CROSS.
The opening quote, paraphrasing it a bit as I remember it, can be found by going to FLYING ACES: PART II, Captain Midnight.
Flyboys © 2006 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc
JOUSTING WITH DRAGONS
The person that eventually became my mentor was a real-life fighter pilot during World War I as well as the role model British author and playwright W. Somerset Maugham used for Larry Darrell, the spiritual traveler and main character in his novel The Razor's Edge. The air war in Europe in those days wasn't all dog fights and blowing 800 foot long Zeppelins returning from bombing runs over England out of the sky. For both sides, after leaving the aerodromes, much of the time was spent flying for miles and miles over farmland with no encounters with the enemy at all. Maugham has Darrell saying, repeating an almost direct quote from my mentor, the following:
"I loved flying. I couldn't describe the feeling it gave me, I only knew I felt proud and happy. In the air I felt that I was part of something very great and beautiful. I didn't know what it was all about, I only knew that I wasn't alone any more, but that I belonged. I felt that I was at home with the infinitude."
Feeling much the same about flying as my mentor did in the above quote, when I was around ten years old I built a glider-type airplane initially inspired from three primary sources, a 1947 black-and-white Tarzan movie titled Tarzan and the Huntress, the drawings of flying machines as found in the notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci, as well as the actual machines made by early flight pioneers such as Otto Lilienthal.
One day I took the completed craft to the top of a nearby two story building and holding on for dear life, jumped off. At first the flying machine held fairly steady, maintaining altitude and covering a rather substantial distance. Then suddenly the craft stalled, I lost control and it dropped like a rock from a pretty good height, crashing into the front porch and through the windows of neighbor's house across the street. The machine escaped any real major damage and so did I.
Even though the flight ended not as smoothly as I hoped, primarily because of lack of experience on my part, or as the case may be, none at all, and as I discovered, perhaps the lack of any sort of actual flight control mechanisms as well, I considered my attempt a success --- especially so because of the distance covered before I lost control. I always felt my mentor and I were able to strengthen our bonds as friends initially because of his interest in flying and my early childhood attempt at manned-flight, re the following from the source so cited:
"Although I never attempted another similar human-powered flight after that, my mentor loved the story, and I think it was an early key to our initial philosophical bond."(source)
There is a slight caveat to my 'never attempted another similar human-powered flight after that' found in the above quote. That caveat circulates around what is called the 'Washoe Zephyr,' sometimes referred to as a 'devil wind.' The Washoe Zephyr occurs on a regular basis on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountains, with an extremely strong portion on the east side of the paralleling Virginia Range, most notedly around Virginia City. Unlike the typical thermally driven slope-flows which blow upslope during the day and downslope at night, the Washoe Zephyr winds blow down the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada in the afternoon against the local pressure gradient. The Washoe Zephyr figured prominently in my reconsideration of a second flight attempt. For more on that second attempt, please see:
THE WANDERLING'S JOURNEY
Let Me Travel Through the Air Like a Winged Bird
In what could be construed as a follow-up book, albeit by a different author, titled Captain-Midnight's-Post-War-Radio-Years (2012) by Leonard Zane, who just as adroitly and exhaustedly, if not more so, takes up where the Kallis' book leaves off. In the Preface Zane writes, as to Captain Midnight's identity:
"On 7 October 2007, Stephen A. Kallis, Jr. posted an Amazon.com review of the book Illustrated Radio Premium Catalog and Price Guide. This book was written by Tom Tumbusch and published in 1989. Kallis’s review described it as “a superior reference work,” and went on to say: 'Tom Tumbusch has been a scholar of radio and cereal premiums for at least 30 years. He has published a number of Tomart’s Guides, the latest being in 1991.'
"On page 33 of his 1989 book, Tom Tumbusch said: 'Since readers of this book are privileged to know old radio’s top secrets the true identity of Captain Midnight can be revealed. His name was Stuart ‘Red’ Albright.' (‘Red’ was a nickname given Captain Albright in the Skelly Oil Company’s sponsoring of the Captain Midnight radio program, from 1938-1940, and dropped by the 1940–1949 Ovaltine-sponsored programs.) Leonard Zane emailed Tom Tumbusch about his sources of the first name, 'Stuart.' On 8 October 2007, Mr. Tumbusch emailed back: 'I wrote that Captain Midnight passage back in 1976 and had at least two references for whatever I included in the book. I used mainly old radio magazines for my research…I also used premium ads from the newspaper comic sections…I still have all my reference materials…'
"Since October 2007, Stephen A. Kallis, Jr. accepted Tumbusch’s findings; and Kallis’s short story 'The Case of the Disappearing Designer' begins with the words: 'Stuart James (‘Jim’) Albright, who, under the code name, Captain Midnight, was the leader of the Secret Squadron.' 'Jim' appeared in the Captain Midnight television series that ran from 9 September 1954 to 21 January 1956. In 1958, the TV series was syndicated as 'Jet Jackson, Flying Commando,' after Ovaltine ceased its sponsorship."(source)
One Craig Yoe, writing for the International Team of Comics Historians (ITCH), has put together a fairly comprehensive page regarding Captain Midnight's metamorphose from his early days on the radio through to his many versions in comic strips, serials, and comic books. See:
CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT #54
INDEPENDENT HEROS FROM THE USA
The previously cited quote in the main text above by Stephen A. Kallis, as well as the full article it is cited from can be found by going to Captain Midnight and Decoder Rings. Continuing into the investigation IF such items as Captain Midnight decoder 'rings' were offered, or it they did or did not exist, Tom Mason (1934-2003) of The Crimson Collector, in an article titled 'Collecting Radio and TV Premiums,' under the sub-section 'The Rings,' writes the following:
First of all, we should clear up the myth of a Captain Midnight decoder ring. Exhaustive research has proved that such an item was never offered by Ovaltine. They did come out with an Ovaltine Decoder Ring in the year 2000, but it had nothing to do with Captain Midnight. With that out of the way, I believe five rings were offered in all.
Skelley Oil may have brought out a Captain Midnight ring with what appears to be a red “V” or check mark on its crown. This ring is very rare and seldom seen. There are some premium photos showing the Captain brandishing a “secret ring.” Pictures of the ring are shown in various collector bibles, some do not identify it as being from Captain Midnight, others do.
1940-1941 Brought us the Flight Commander Ring, and the Whirlwind Whistling Ring.
1942 Brought the Sliding Secret Compartment Ring and the Mystic Eye Detector Ring (the same ring as the Lone Ranger Defender and ROA Look-Around Ring.) This ring is sometimes called the Look-Around Ring as well.
1943-1944: No rings issued due to war effort.
1945: No rings issued.
1946 Was the year of the Mystic Sun God ring: the most prized of the Captain Midnight rings. It was a shiny gold with a bright red plastic stone that held its secret. The stone was hollow and you could slip it off a metal track and insert your secret message into it and then replace the stone. Whatever you had to hide had to be extremely small as that stone would not hold very much, but it was the idea that fascinated me. This ring is a sad memory for me. After waiting weeks for its arrival, it came and I immediately put it on. My mother took me shopping with her and I happened to glance at my new treasure and the bright red stone that was the secret compartment had slid off its track and disappeared. Back-tracking my steps brought no sign of that little piece of red plastic. I was heartbroken. Talking to quite a few collectors revealed that they had similar experiences with the ring. Today, that ring, complete with its stone, is one of the higher prized pieces of Captain Midnight memorabilia.
1947: No rings issued.
1948 Gave us the final ring: the Initial Printing Ring w/top. Here was another ring with parts to lose. You removed the top to reveal an inked stamp pad with your initial on it.
Besides the rings and decoders, a variety of items were offered over the years: manuals, medals, pins, autographed photos, books, plane detectors, games, patches, insignias, and transfers.(source)
For more regarding the controversy surrounding Captain Midnight and if there was or wasn't 'decoder rings' please see:
THE DISAPPEARING DECODER RING
MEL RAMOS STUDIOS
5941 Ocean View Dr, Oakland, CA