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

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.

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.

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.

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 Eventbrite.com or watch live on the Library’s YouTube channel.

 

One Comment

  1. Allison Veselka
    March 13, 2018 at 8:36 pm

    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.

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