Why Johnny Cash was the first Westerner to learn Stalin was dead

While he’s more famous for being “The Man In Black,” Johnny Cash served in the U.S. Air Force during the Cold War and was the first man outside of the Soviet Union to learn of Premier Joseph Stalin’s death.

Cash was born J.R. Cash and was raised in a hardscrabble family in Arkansas. He was forced to begin working at the age of 5 and he began playing and writing his own songs at the age of 12 after one of his brothers was killed in a farming accident.


(Photo: U.S. Navy Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Gary Rice)

At the age of 18 in 1950, J.R. Cash joined the Air Force and was forced to change his name to John. He rose through the ranks and served as a Morse code operator. He spent much of his time quickly decoding communications between Soviet officials.

On March 3, 1953, he was a staff sergeant manning his post in Landsberg, Germany, when a surprising message beeped into his ears. Soviet Premier Josef Stalin, who had suffered from ill health for years, had died.


(Photo: U.S. Navy Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Gary Rice)

The leader of Russia had suffered a massive heart attack that day and died quickly.

The Man In Black passed the message up the chain and returned to work. Cash’s job already required that he have limited off-post privileges and contact with locals. Still, he couldn’t discuss what happened with even his close friends.

The rest of the world would soon learn of Stalin’s death and the ascent of Georgy Malenkov.


Johnny Cash as a newly signed musician at Sun Records in 1955. (Photo: Sun Records. Public Domain)

Cash, meanwhile, would leave the service honorably just over a year later and return to Texas where he had trained. He married his first wife the same year and signed with Sun Records in 1955.

He played the Grand Ole Opry stage for the first time the same year.

Over the following 48 years, Cash wrote thousands of songs and released dozens of albums before his death in September 2003 at the age of 71.