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Rosie the cryptographer

Women were central to America’s ability to crack axis codes during the Second World War

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

By Liza Mundy, Hachette Books, 416 pages, $28

 

In the fall of 1941, mysterious letters appeared in the mailboxes of a select group of young women attending the Seven Sister colleges. Chosen for their aptitude in such subjects as math, English, history, foreign languages and astronomy, the women were invited to meet one-on-one with senior professors. At Wellesley, the students were asked unusual questions: Did they like doing crossword puzzles, and did they have imminent wedding plans?

Those women who gave the right answers — yes, and no — were asked to sign confidentiality agreements and join a hush-hush government project. With war raging in Europe, the United States Navy had been staffing up its cryptanalysis division for several years but this was a new recruiting strategy. The female undergrads were offered campus training in code breaking, with the promise of government civilian jobs in Washington upon graduation.

In the months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the Second World War, such a patriotic summons became more urgent. Not only did the Navy reach out to women from a wider range of colleges but the Army began ramping up its own rival code-breaking unit. After Army brass were chastised for competing with the Navy for the same female campus talent pool, the Army switched tactics and sought out small-town schoolteachers eager to participate in the war effort and take part in a big-city adventure.

In Liza Mundy’s prodigiously researched and engrossing new book, Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II, she describes the experiences of several thousand American women who spent the war years in Washington, untangling the clandestine messages sent by the Japanese and German militaries and diplomatic corps. At a time when even well-educated women were not encouraged to have careers — much less compete with men to demonstrate their mastery of arcane, technical skills — this hiring frenzy represented a dramatic shift. The same social experiment was simultaneously unfolding on the other side of the Atlantic. The British debutantes and their middle-class peers recruited to work at the secret Bletchley Park code-breaking operation came to outnumber the men.

In an era when history is being updated to reflect the math and science accomplishments of 20th-century women with such accounts as Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, Mundy’s book offers valuable insights and information about those unsung women who made crucial contributions during wartime.

Their work was often mind-numbingly tedious and frustrating as the women spent 12-hour days and seven-day weeks in steamy offices staring at incomprehensible columns of numbers and letters and trying to decipher patterns. They learned to recognise ciphers — where one letter is substituted for another letter or number — and to interpret “additives,” extra numbers thrown in to stump prying eyes. They built and operated “bombe” machines to decode the thousands of German messages sent out via the complex Enigma machine, work that was done in conjunction with Bletchley Park.

Mundy’s narrative turns thrilling as she chronicles the eureka moments when the women succeed in cracking codes, relying on a mixture of mathematical expertise, memorisation and occasional leaps of intuition. Thanks to their efforts in retrieving and passing along vital information about enemy battle plans and the whereabouts of Japanese vessels, the American military was able to sink enemy supply ships, shoot down enemy planes and blunt attacks on American targets. This was emotionally fraught work since the women occasionally learned, in advance, that the Japanese had targeted ships in regions where their loved ones were serving. As Mundy writes, “Some of the women broke messages warning about attacks before they happened but were helpless to avert them.”

In the run-up to the D-Day landing in Normandy, the women were also charged with creating phony coded American messages to deceive the Germans about the site of the invasion. A former Washington Post reporter, Mundy was inspired to tackle this book after her husband, Mark Bradley, a veteran Justice Department official, read a declassified Second World War document about a counterintelligence operation, which noted that many women schoolteachers worked on the project.

The author of three previous books that touch on feminist themes, Mundy paints a vivid portrait of the daily lives of these energetic single young women — the upheaval and challenges of adjusting to the high-pressure military environment, the condescension and sexism from male colleagues and superiors, the cramped living quarters, the constant anxiety over brothers and boyfriends in harm’s way, the wartime romances, weekend high jinks and stress-related breakdowns.

Three-quarters of a century later, with firsthand recollections of the Second World War vanishing daily in the obituary columns, Mundy was able to track down and interview more than 20 former code breakers such as Ann Caracristi, an English major at Russell Sage College who turned out to be such a problem-solving prodigy that as a 23-year-old she became the head of an Army research unit. Dorothy Braden Bruce, a 97-year-old former Virginia schoolteacher known as Dot, described the tense experience of decoding urgent data from Japanese supply ships and also offered up amusing and poignant details about wartime life.

These accounts are supplemented by numerous oral histories, declassified documents and exhaustive research at the National Archives. Mundy delves deeply into a transitional pre-Betty Friedan moment in American life when institutional discrimination was the norm. As she points out, a 1941 Navy memo proposed paying female clerks, typists and stenographers $1,440 per year, while men in the same posts were to receive $1,620. The gap grew even larger higher up the ladder: Female PhDs were slated for $2,300 salaries compared with $3,200 for their male counterparts.

The author unearths the stories of pioneers like Agnes Meyer Driscoll, a math, physics and language whiz who joined the Navy in 1917, broke Japanese codebooks in the 1920s and 30s and went on to train a generation of male code breakers, only to be patronized and pushed aside during the Second World War. The talented cryptologist Elizebeth Smith Friedman was hired by the Coast Guard in 1927 to break the code of rumrunners and went on to work for other federal agencies, designing the codes used by the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the CIA. Yet her husband, the Army code breaker William Friedman, was sometimes given credit for her work.

In her effort to cram in an enormous amount of information and give so many women their due, Mundy’s book suffers at times since it’s hard to keep track of her vast cast of characters, many with similar backgrounds. As their stories began to blur, I found myself frequently flipping back to remind myself who was who. When she attempts to tell the tale thematically, her time-shifting can be confusing. At the end of Part Two of the book, it’s the summer of 1944, the United States military has just retaken Guam and Dot Braden is feeling optimistic that the Allies are doing well in the Pacific. When Part Three begins a few pages later, we’re back in 1943; then the story abruptly zigs to dismal times in 1942.

At the end of the war, virtually all of the female code breakers were given their walking papers and returned to civilian life. Only a few superstars were asked to stay on (among them Caracristi, who went on to become the first female deputy director of the National Security Agency).

For these accomplished and resourceful women, who had been given a heady taste of professional success, it was jarring to have to fight to be accepted to top graduate programmes on the G.I. Bill or embark on traditional paths as wives and mothers. Warned not to reveal their secret wartime lives, many remained silent about their valuable service. Thanks to Mundy’s book, which deftly conveys both the puzzle-solving complexities and the emotion and drama of this era, their stories will live on.

–New York Times News Service

Meryl Gordon, the director of magazine writing at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, is the author of Bunny Mellon: The Life of an American Style Legend.

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