Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II

by Liza Mundy

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Author’s Note

In researching and writing this book over several years, I drew from three large archival collections of documents produced by the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy code-breaking units during and after the war. Most were classified for many decades, and now can be found at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland. The collections run to hundreds of boxes and include thousands of memos, internal histories, reports, minutes, and personnel rosters, citing everything from lists of merchant ships sunk, to explanations of how certain codes and ciphers were broken, to names and addresses of newly arrived code breakers, to captured codebooks. I filed Mandatory Declassification Review requests with the National Security Agency, resulting in the recent declassification of more material, including some fifteen oral histories conducted by NSA staff over the years with women code breakers, as well as volumes of a multipart history of wartime Arlington Hall. (Somewhat astonishingly, other parts of that history remain classified.) I located some forty more oral histories, as well as scrapbooks and rosters, at the Library of Congress and other archives. I consulted scholarly articles and the many books on code breaking and the war.

I interviewed more than twenty surviving code breakers, located in various ways. A few had contacted NSA, or their family members had. I placed notices on websites. I obtained rosters and consulted databases to find contact information. In other cases, friends and acquaintances provided names, or, often, one woman would lead me to another. I also obtained civilian and military personnel records that are publicly available in the National Archives personnel records facility in St. Louis, Missouri. These were supplemented by high school and college yearbooks, scrapbooks, recruiting pamphlets, newspapers, personal letters, and the very good alumnae records that many colleges maintain. In some cases, of course, I had to trust the women’s memory, but a surprising amount of what they recollected could be confirmed with archival records.

In just a few instances, however, archives proved insufficient. I wish, for example, that I could include more information on Arlington Hall’s African American unit, but very few records of that unit seem to exist.

I have included dialogue only when it was related to me, or recited in an oral history, by someone who was present. I use maiden names and other terms of the time, except in the epilogue, acknowledgments, and notes.

THE SECRET LETTERS

December 7, 1941

The planes looked like distant pinpoints at first, and few who saw them took them seriously even up to the moment they dropped their payloads. An Army private, training at a radar station on the northern tip of Oahu, spotted a blip on his screen suggesting that a large formation of planes was headed for Hawaii, but when he pointed it out to his instructor and they called their superior, he told them not to worry. The blip—he assumed—was just a group of American bombers, B-17 Flying Fortresses, arriving from California. A Navy commander, peering out his office window, saw a plane going into a dive and figured it must be a reckless American pilot. “Get that fellow’s number,” he told his junior officer. “I want to report him.” Then the officer saw a dark shape fall out of the plane and whistle downward.

And now, just minutes before eight a.m., the planes erupted into full view, all of them, streaking in and filling the mild sky like a swift-moving thundercloud: nearly two hundred fighters and bombers, flown by Japan’s best pilots. On the underside of their wings glowed the round red insignia of the rising sun. Finally, the people looking at them understood.

Below the planes lay Pearl Harbor’s Battleship Row, a line of American warships tied up on mooring quays in the blue Hawaiian waters, placid and unprotected—no barrage balloons, no torpedo nets. Almost one hundred vessels in all, more than half of the entire U.S. Pacific Fleet, dotted the harbor. In nearby airfields, American planes sat arrayed on the ground, wingtip to wingtip, clustered invitingly, fat targets.

The screaming tangle of enemy planes—a second wave arrived an hour after the first—dropped bombs as well as torpedoes modified to navigate Pearl Harbor’s shallow waters. One of the bombs found the USS Arizona, whose band stood on deck preparing for the morning flag raising. The bomb pierced the battleship’s forward deck, setting off a cache of gunpowder and creating a giant fireball. The ship—hit over and over—rose out of the water, cracked, and sank. Other bombs and torpedoes found the California, the Oklahoma, the West Virginia, the Tennessee, the Nevada, the Maryland, and the Pennsylvania, flagship of the Pacific Fleet. Diving, peeling off, coming back and back again, the Japanese planes struck destroyers and cruisers as well as buildings. Three battleships settled to the harbor bottom, another capsized, and more than two thousand men were killed, many still asleep. Nearly half of the men who died were on the Arizona, among them twenty-three pairs of brothers.

The planes on the airfields were virtually obliterated.

On the mainland, telephone switchboards lit up. Operators plugged calls as fast as they could. It was early afternoon on the East Coast and news of the Pearl Harbor attack raced through the country, traveling by radio, in special editions of newspapers, by people running along the street, crying out. Broadcasts and concerts were interrupted, the Sunday calm shattered. Congress declared war on Japan the next day. Germany—Japan’s ally—declared war on the United States three days later. Men flooded recruiting stations in the weeks that followed. Every American felt affected by the tragedy and by the abrupt entry of the United States into a global, two-ocean war.

War had been coming to America for more than a year. Even so, once it arrived the fact of total war was astonishing, unthinkable, as were the events that caused it. The first unthinkable thing was that Japan—seeking a decisive blow that would destroy the American fleet and end the Pacific War almost before it started—would attack unprovoked and without warning. But it was equally unthinkable that America’s own planners had been caught so unawares. Despite years of tensions with Japan over its aggression in China and around the Pacific, despite the fact that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had frozen Japan’s assets, despite awareness in much of the Navy that something was going to happen somewhere in the Pacific, America’s leaders had not seen Pearl Harbor coming.

The attack set in motion a lasting controversy. How could the United States have been taken by surprise? Congressional hearings would be held, fingers pointed, scapegoats identified. Conspiracy theories would be floated. Careers would be ended and reputations ruined. Chaos prevailed as the war establishment suffered upheaval along with instant expansion—what would be called, today, scaling up.

America could no longer be blind and deaf to enemy intentions. A failure on the scale of Pearl Harbor must not happen again. The country was fighting a global war against adversaries who had been preparing for years, if not decades. Intelligence was more important than ever, yet intelligence was hard to come by. Emerging from two decades of disarmament and isolationism, America had a clubby Navy with a disorganized intelligence apparatus; a small skeleton Army; no freestanding Air Force; and—as hard as this may be to believe, in this era of proliferating and overlapping spy agencies—barely any spies abroad. Building an overseas spy network would take time.

In the present—and for the foreseeable future—a first-rate code-breaking operation was needed to crack enemy message systems. Foreign diplomats; political leaders; German submarine captains; Pacific island lookouts; weathermen; skippers of rice ships; airmen in the heat of combat; even companies and banks—if anybody was saying anything, anywhere in the world, America wanted to know about it.

And so the secret letters began going out.

Some had already been issued. Months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Navy was beginning to realize that unprecedented action would be needed to address the nation’s intelligence deficit. Thus, a handful of letters materialized in college mailboxes as early as November 1941. Ann White, a senior at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, received hers on a fall afternoon not long after leaving an exiled poet’s lecture on Spanish romanticism.

The letter was waiting when she returned to her dormitory for lunch. Opening it, she was astonished to see that it had been sent by Helen Dodson, a professor in Wellesley’s Astronomy Department. Miss Dodson was inviting her to a private interview in the observatory. Ann, a German major, had the sinking feeling she might be required to take an astronomy course in order to graduate. But a few days later, when Ann made her way along Wellesley’s Meadow Path and entered the observatory, a low domed building secluded on a hill far from the center of campus, she found that Helen Dodson had only two questions to ask her.

Did Ann White like crossword puzzles, and was she engaged to be married?

Elizabeth Colby, a Wellesley math major, received the same unexpected summons. So did Nan Westcott, a botany major; Edith Uhe (psychology); Gloria Bosetti (Italian); Blanche DePuy (Spanish); Bea Norton (history); and Ann White’s good friend Louise Wilde, an English major. In all, more than twenty Wellesley seniors received a secret invitation and gave the same replies. Yes, they liked crossword puzzles, and no, they were not on the brink of marriage.

Anne Barus received her own letter during the fall of her senior year at Smith College. A history major, she was head of the International Relations Club, and had been accepted into a prestigious internship in Washington, D.C. It was a rare opportunity for a woman—for anybody—and she was looking forward to exposure to a range of government work. But when she found herself invited to a clandestine meeting in Smith’s science building, together with a group of mystified classmates, she quickly put her own plans aside.

At Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Barnard, Radcliffe, the letters went out, throughout the fall and into the terrible winter of early 1942, as undergraduates began rolling bandages and sewing blackout curtains, taking first aid courses, learning to do plane spotting, sending bundles to Britain. Meat became scarce and dorm rooms grew cold from lack of fuel. The schools were members of the Seven Sisters, and had been founded in the nineteenth century to educate women at a time when many leading colleges—Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth—would not admit them. On many of these campuses, the wartime menace felt particularly close. In the cold waters of the North Atlantic, Navy men and merchant seamen were running the gauntlet of German U-boats—enemy submarines, which often traveled in groups called wolf packs, preying on convoys transporting food and supplies to beleaguered England. At Wellesley, twenty miles from Boston, lights were doused to hide the ships in Boston Harbor, and the students learned to find their way around by flashlight.

At the time these schools were founded, many considered higher education to be poorly suited for girls. Now the views had changed. Educated women were wanted. Urgently.

The students were called to secret meetings where they learned that the U.S. Navy was inviting them to embark on a field called “cryptanalysis,” a word, it was soon made clear to them, they were never to utter outside the confines of the gatherings. They were being offered a training course in code breaking and, if they passed, would proceed to Washington after graduation, to take jobs with the Navy as civilians. Sworn to secrecy, the women were forbidden from telling anybody what they were doing: not their friends, not their parents, not their family, not their roommates. They were not to let news of their training leak into campus newspapers or disclose it in a letter, not even to their enlisted brother or boyfriend. If pressed, they could say they were studying communications: the routing of ordinary naval messages.

In their introductory meetings, the chosen women were issued manila envelopes containing a brief introduction to the arcane history of codes and ciphers, along with numbered problem sets and strips of paper with the letters of the alphabet printed on them. They were to complete the problem sets every week and turn them in. They might help one another, working in groups of two and three. Each week, professors such as Helen Dodson, selected by the Navy, would lead the students through the material. Their answers would be sent to Washington and graded. The meetings functioned as a kind of proctored correspondence course. Speed was of the essence, and often the professors were little more than a chapter ahead of the students in learning the material.

And so the young women did their strange new homework. They learned which letters of the English language occur with the greatest frequency; which letters often travel together in pairs, like s and t; which travel in triplets, like est and ing and ive, or in packs of four, like tion. They studied terms like “route transposition” and “cipher alphabets” and “polyalphabetic substitution cipher.” They mastered the Vigenère square, a method of disguising letters using a tabular method dating back to the Renaissance. They learned about things called the Playfair and Wheatstone ciphers. They pulled strips of paper through holes cut in cardboard. They strung quilts across their rooms so that roommates who had not been invited to take the secret course could not see what they were up to. They hid homework under desk blotters. They did not use the term “code breaking” outside the confines of the weekly meetings, not even to friends taking the same course.

The summons spread beyond the Northeast. Goucher, a four-year women’s college in Baltimore, Maryland, was known for the caliber of its science departments. Goucher’s dean, Dorothy Stimson, a noted authority on Copernicus, happened to be a cousin of Secretary of War Henry Stimson. After Pearl Harbor, the war secretary put in a quiet word, asking for some of Dean Stimson’s best senior girls. At Goucher, it was an English professor—Ola Winslow, awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her biography of the American theologian Jonathan Edwards—who was selected to teach the secret course, once a week, in a locked room at the top of Goucher Hall, together with a Navy officer.

Goucher was located in the heart of urban Baltimore. The U.S. Naval Academy was thirty-two miles away in Annapolis, and “Goucher girls,” as they were called, traveled there often for dates and dances.

One of the most well-liked students in the Goucher class of 1942 was Frances Steen, a biology major and the granddaughter of a shipping captain who ferried grain between the United States and his native Norway, which now was under Nazi occupation, its king compelled to leave the country under fire. Her father ran a grain warehouse at the Baltimore dock. Her brother, Egil, had graduated from the Naval Academy, and by the time Fran got her own secret letter, Egil Steen was on North Atlantic convoy duty. The Steen family was doing everything they could to support the war effort. Her mother was saving grease from bacon, giving away pots and pans to be made into tanks and guns.

Now, it appeared, there was something else the Steen family could contribute to preserve their son’s safety: Fran.

As war engulfed the nation, the summonses continued to go out. Even after Pearl Harbor’s shock receded, secret letters were sent again, in 1942, 1943, and 1944, as code breaking proved crucial to disrupting enemy operations and saving Allied lives. At Vassar, nestled in the hills of Poughkeepsie, New York, Edith Reynolds received a letter inviting her to appear in a room in the library at nine thirty a.m. on a Saturday. Edith was barely twenty. She had skipped two grades in elementary school and entered Vassar when she was just sixteen years old.

The letter invited Edith to a room in the college library, where she stood, dazzled, as a hulking Navy captain walked in, covered top to toe, it seemed to her, in the most magnificent gold braid. “Your country needs you, young ladies,” he told Edith and a few chosen classmates.

By the time Edith got her summons, German U-boats had attacked shipping up and down the Atlantic coast. On the New Jersey shore, where her family spent summers, bits of shipwreck would wash up and they could hear guns booming. It did not seem out of the question that Japan would invade the U.S. mainland—Alaska, even California—or that America would come under fascist domination.

The U.S. Army, meanwhile, needed its own cadre of code breakers and set out to recruit apt young women. At first, the Army approached some of the same colleges the Navy did, prompting angry memos from top Navy brass, bitterly upset that the Army was “cutting in” to try to get their girls. Like the Navy, the Army wanted women who were college educated—ideally women who had pursued a rigorous liberal arts education that encompassed foreign languages as well as science and math. In the United States, in the 1940s, there was really only one job consistently available to a woman with such a fine education: schoolteacher.

And so—while the starchy, white-gloved Navy officers targeted the fancy women’s colleges of the Northeastern Seaboard—the U.S. Army sent recruiters to teaching colleges, far humbler institutions, throughout the South and Midwest. At Indiana State Teachers College in Indiana, Pennsylvania, Dorothy Ramale was taking high-level math classes in the hope of becoming a math teacher. Dorothy had grown up in rural Pennsylvania—a tiny place called Cochran’s Mills, known, if it was known at all, for being the birthplace of Nellie Bly. The middle of three girls, Dorothy used to sit on the porch of their playhouse and dream about the world beyond. It was Dorothy’s ambition to see every continent on earth. As a child, her only contact with the wider world came from rare events like the time when Amelia Earhart flew over a local cemetery to salute a relative who was buried there, and Dorothy, along with other schoolchildren, waved as the legendary aviatrix passed overhead.

Dorothy’s father had supported his family through the Depression by farming and doing maintenance at a church cemetery. People sometimes asked if he regretted not having a son to help him, and he was quick to retort that his three girls were as good as any boy. Dorothy helped him with stacking hay and other outdoor chores, sometimes crawling down into a freshly dug grave to retrieve a tool he needed. At college, she often was the only girl in her trigonometry classes. Math was not a subject women were encouraged to study, and certain parts of the country had no female math teachers at all. Dorothy knew the odds, but math was her passion.

During her senior year, Dorothy stayed up late one night in February and went out to watch as her male classmates were put on a bus and sent to Pittsburgh to begin their military service. She could hardly see them through her tears. Afterward, the campus felt lonely and awful. When the dean of women invited her in for a quiet talk, she instantly agreed to do what the dean was proposing.

But even that was not enough.

The Army needed more code breakers, and then more still. So it went looking beyond college campuses, for female schoolteachers interested in pursuing a new line of work. Such women were not hard to find. Teachers’ pay was notoriously low, and classrooms often were enormous. The Army dispatched handsome officers to small towns, remote cities, and farm communities, where they stationed themselves in post offices, hotels, and other public places. Posters and newspaper ads promoted their appearances, seeking women open to a move to Washington to serve the war effort, women who could “keep their lips zipped.”

And so it was that on a Saturday in September 1943, a young schoolteacher named Dot Braden approached a pair of recruiters standing behind a table in the soaring lobby of the Virginian Hotel, the finest lodging place in her hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia, and one of the grandest hotels in the state. The man behind the table was an Army officer, and the other recruiter was a woman dressed in civilian clothing. Dot herself was twenty-three years old, dark-haired, slight, adventurous, confident in her own abilities. She was a 1942 graduate of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, where she studied French, Latin, and physics, among other subjects. She had spent one year teaching at a public high school and wished never to repeat that experience. She was the eldest of four children and had two brothers serving in the Army. She needed to earn her own living and help support her mother.

Without knowing what she was applying for—the recruiters provided no concrete job description—Dot Braden filled out an application for a job with the War Department. Just a few weeks later, Dot found herself on a train rattling out of the tobacco-growing countryside of Virginia’s Southside region, headed 180 miles north to Washington, D.C., with excitement in the pit of her stomach, very little money in her pocketbook, and not the faintest idea what she had been hired to do.

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