The following is a guest blog post by Sally Sims Stokes, the daughter of World War II “Code Girl” Jean Ashby Sims.
“Dear Library,” my mother begins the World War II memoir she completed in 2008 for the Library of Congress Veterans History Project. This salutation was her way of responding, as if in a friendly letter, to a writing prompt in the Project’s field kit. “You asked what I was doing on Pearl Harbor Day,” she continues. A nineteen-year-old senior French major at Marshall College in her hometown of Huntington, West Virginia, Jean Ashby Johnson was riding in a car with her girlfriends on December 7, 1941, when the driver “turned on the radio and we heard the infamous news.”
Mom launches her account by focusing on a friend among the car’s passengers, Martha, a paraplegic. Mom thinks back to 1941, wondering what Hitler might do to someone like Martha—or to Mom’s Jewish next-door neighbors.
Her first few paragraphs constitute a springboard to a 90-page chronicle, and demonstrate her resolve to leave Huntington and apply her skills to defeating the enemy. Having received her B.A. in 1942, she was pursuing a “dreaded” teaching certificate when she saw a Navy recruitment notice in the newspaper. In January 1943, she was sworn in.
My sister Emily and I had presented Mom with that field kit in about 2005. We asked her whether she would contribute recollections of her experience in Washington, where she served in the U.S. Navy WAVES from 1943 to 1945. She hesitated, worried about breaching security even sixty-odd years later by revealing the nature of her work in the Navy Code Room. After some assurances, she evaluated the options, ruling out oral history in favor of composing and typing her own document.
Now determined to produce the memoir, she directed me to buy her a laptop and to help her master Microsoft Word. I still have her heavily-annotated copy of Word 2003 for Dummies. She was already a crackerjack typist (she honed these skills in the Navy). Her first request was that I show her how to create a running header; she wanted her name, rank, and serial number on every page.
Mom and Dad had met at Marshall; were dating by 1940; and were engaged during the Easter Parade in New York on April 25, 1943. They were married in uniform about six weeks later. Dad shipped out to the “forgotten theater,” China-Burma-India, in July 1943, not to return until October 1945. Mom was on her own, making the best of it, as so many others were doing.
In her memoir, Mom presents details of the Code Room, dredging from sworn-to-silence memory such recollections as an unauthorized visit by the boyfriend of one of the WAVES. She remembers dusty Coke bottles on a Code Room shelf, and a constantly-running electric fan. She recalls,
The air was impregnated with cigarette smoke and purple Ditto ink.
She also noted that the work required enormous care, writing, “The enemy constantly monitored our traffic.”
She brings to life the Washington scene, describing restaurants, stores, recreation, housing, and an instance of high intrigue when she realizes that one of her fellow WAVES risked being compromised by a landlord who was dealing in sugar and Thom McAn shoes on the black market.
Seeking a title for her memoir in 2008, she chose “Crowded Wartime Washington,” which “was the way all radio announcers referred to our nation’s capital,” she said of the times. In the title of this post, I have placed “Herstory” before “Crowded Wartime Washington.” Mom’s memoir is a conscious example of herstory, though she didn’t use the term. In her account she wrote, not unkindly, that Dad, to whom she was married until his death in 1979, was “not part of this story.” In her story (herstory), she placed herself and other Navy WAVES into the historical record.
Mom died on September 3, 2017, at age 95. Only weeks later, I read a review of Liza Mundy’s Code Girls, and corresponded with the author. Mom’s Code Room work didn’t align exactly with the scope of Mundy’s book: Mom’s assignments were not in cryptanalysis, but rather what would today be called cybersecurity. She encoded outgoing messages, and broke incoming messages by applying the schematics achieved by the Code Girls of Mundy’s definition. But Mundy acknowledges Mom as a Code Girl, and it is through my having communicated with Mundy that I learned about the upcoming, first-ever Code Girls Reunion.
I eagerly look forward to this Women’s History Month event at the Library of Congress, with gratitude to the Veterans History Project; to Liza Mundy; to the Code Girls who were students at elite women’s schools and were tapped by their college presidents on the basis of their math or language skills; and to Mom and women like her, products of public coeducational institutions, who found their own way into the WAVES. I hope surviving Code Girls who were uniformed members of the military and their families who haven’t yet done so will contribute their own herstories to the Veterans History Project.
Editor’s Note: Watch the Code Girls Reunion live at 12pm ET on Friday, March 22, 2019 via the Library’s Facebook page at facebook.com/libraryofcongress or its YouTube site at youtube.com/LibraryOfCongress.