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Sharpened Pencils and Sharper Minds: World War II Women Code Breakers

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The following is the first post in a six-part series highlighting women veterans’ collections from the Veterans History Project (VHP) archive in recognition of Women’s History Month.

Imagine coming across this job announcement today: Candidates must be highly skilled in math and linguistics, willing to relocate and able to keep a secret to the death. Only college age women with no imminent wedding plans need apply.

I’m not sure if that’s exactly how World War II-era government recruiters worded their advertisements for participants in a top secret cryptography program, but those were certainly among the requirements for selectees. Based on that list, I probably would not have been a good fit. Days filled with both math and secrets would have been way too much for me to bear.

Black and white photo of women in uniform outside of building posing for photo.
Photograph of a WAVE decoding unit stationed at the Naval Communications Command Annex, Washington, DC 1945. Ruth Koczela Collection, Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, AFC2001/001/91889.

In 1942, reeling from Japan’s devastating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States was in desperate need of workers to serve as code breakers in the newly ramped up war effort. Most of the eligible men were either already on active duty in the armed forces, or preparing to be. Thankfully, there were hundreds of women who were good fits for this top secret program who enthusiastically answered the call to duty. Otherwise, the United States very well may have lost World War II.

Frances Scott (nee Lynd) was one of those women. In her audio-recorded VHP interview, Scott shares that when she and several of her friends were seniors in college, they were “approached by a Navy man” who wanted them to take a secret course in cryptology. They agreed, and learned their first lesson right away.

When you have a secret, you don’t go around telling people that you have a secret. You make up a good story, and you pass off your story, and you don’t let anyone know you’re doing anything that’s secret.

They found the course to be both fun and challenging, much like the crossword puzzles and cryptograms they enjoyed doing in the newspapers. After graduation, Scott and her friends were sworn into the Navy as ensigns and sent to boot camp for the next two months. Scott said she loved most everything about it—including the food, particularly the breakfasts. Not so much the fit of the uniforms, or the fact that women were required to cut their hair so that it was well above their uniform collar. There was one policy she mentioned that gave me pause. So much so that I had to rewind and listen to her say it again.

You weren’t allowed to say that you had cramps from menstruation, because the Navy did not give you any kind of dispensation for a monthly period. You were supposed to be women who didn’t have problems in that direction.

Problems in that direction. Wow.

The women’s training involved lots of memorization of seemingly insignificant details—a critical skill that would prove vital in Scott’s work when she was eventually sent to the Navy’s Communication Annex in Washington, DC to break Japanese and German codes. Her adventures in DC also included some pretty awkward interactions with a nosey neighbor as well as a couple of African American men who were afraid she might unintentionally get them lynched.

Book cover of "Code Girls - the Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II" - by New York Times bestselling author Liza Mundy (with five women in uniform on cover in black and white)
Cover art from the book, Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II
by Liza Mundy, (Hatchett Books, 2017).

Scott is one of the fascinating women profiled in New York Times bestselling author Liza Mundy’s new book, Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II. It is a captivating assemblage of stories that, had Mundy not undertaken such a vast dig for details at VHP and the National Security Agency, may have been lost to history.

Color headshot of woman sitting on white couch.
Liza Mundy, author of Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II.

To help kick off Women’s History Month, Mundy will present a book talk at noon on Friday, March 2 in the Library’s Jefferson Building, room LJ-119. She will share with the audience how a personal interest in women’s military history turned into a major research project, resulting in a groundbreaking book that pays homage to a group of women whose stories suspiciously seemed to be all but erased from official records.

Mundy also will discuss the vital role VHP first person narratives played in her research process, and sign copies of the book, which will be available for purchase on-site. This event is free and open to the public. RSVP at or watch live on the Library’s YouTube channel.


Comments (7)

  1. I’m curious if any of these women are identified. There are two women in glasses who may be a woman from North Dakota named “Marjorie Brock”. In talks with her sister in law, Marjorie was a decoder stationed in Washington D.C. with the WAVES at the Naval Code and Signal Laboratory. Unfortunately the only photo I have of her is a grainy newspaper photograph.

  2. My mother was a codebreaker in the WAVES during WW2. She was stationed in Washington, WAVE Quarters D. She wasn’t allowed to tell anyone what she did. Not even her parents. It was a job she was proud of, and always spoke so kindly of the women she worked with. She loved being a WAVE.

  3. Our mother was in DC during the war but never talked about what she dad other than say she was a secretary. We took many trips to DC to walk around the neighborhood she stayed. Is there a way to get more information?

    • Thank you for reading. For more information, we recommend you read Liza Mundy’s book, “Code Girls:The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II.” She mentions conducting research at NSA, here at the Library of Congress Veterans History Project and many other sources you may find helpful. Her website,, has links to more information.

  4. I’m currently teach an adult education course for OLLI, a life long learning institude consisting of over 1,300 age 50+ members on “Women Code Breakers and Spies”. The Code Girls” is one of the books that I am using.

    I would welcome any experiences that particpants in this blog might have to offer.



  5. I am a member of a 1,300+ adult education organization called OLLI located in western MA. We are currently taking classes online duo to the virus restrictions.

    My course is “Women Code Breakers and Spies”, which includes the book, “Code Girls”.

    I would appreciate any personal stories related to the women code breakers.



  6. See the attribution of the photo (which I am told is not in the book). I had the privilege of interviewing Ruth Koczela in 2010 about her life in the WAVES in D.C. and videotaped her reading the letters she wrote to her mother about her experiences. All of the materials are now on file in the Library of Congress, including transcripts of the spoken word of the videos and additional photos that Ruth, herself delivered to the LOC. Ruth’s daughter, Mary and I made a list of potential topics a researcher might look for, based on the transcript. And, just a note – Ruth just celebrated her 101st birthday in June 2022!

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