The following is a guest blog post by Anne Dowling, the daughter of World War II “Code Girl” Kathleen Bradley Delaney, and a guest at the “Code Girls” Reunion held at the Library of Congress on March 22, 2019. Click here to watch a recording of this historic event.
I attended the “Code Girls” Reunion in honor of my mother Kathleen Bradley Delaney, who was a Lieutenant in the Navy during World War II. As I walked into the crowded room last week I wondered, “How could this be a ‘reunion’ when I don’t know anyone here?”
And then I felt the magic. As family members assembled in line for the processional—each of us holding a framed photo of our beloved “Code Girl”—I was struck by the familiarity and ease with which we exchanged stories. The photos themselves spoke from the past: beautiful women proudly wearing their WAVE or WAC uniforms. Within minutes, strangers felt like friends.
Leading the procession was a small group of “Code Girls” in their nineties whose longevity enabled them to tell their stories firsthand. I smiled to think my mother, who passed away 26 years ago this week, may have known them. I enjoyed watching their genuine reunion.
We all seemed to know at least a few bits and pieces about our mothers’ experience, as if we were all working on a giant jigsaw puzzle. Many of us found missing pieces through the New York Times bestseller, Code Girls—the Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II (Hachette, 2017). It was a delight to have the author, Liza Mundy, as the key note speaker.
I first met Liza Mundy at a book talk in the fall of 2017. As she described her recently published book, I realized she was telling my mother’s story, taking the little I knew and bringing it to life. According to Liza’s research, the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army recruited women from colleges. Recommended by their professors, these women received secret letters inviting them to join the war effort, and partake in a highly classified project. They were sworn to secrecy, told never to share details about the nature of their work and were not allowed to discuss it among themselves.
Due to the clandestine nature of the work, I knew little about my mother’s assignment but Code Girls gives a framework for what it may have been like. The book opened up a wave of possibilities, and set me on a quest to connect the dots of my mother’s life.
My Mother’s Story
My mother told us she had been part of Radio City Music Hall’s legendary dance company The Rockettes; she would occasionally dance around the kitchen demonstrating the signature long legged kicks of her former profession. We thought this was cool. She also told us that she de-scrambled code during World War II. We were not impressed. Now, fifty-five years later I’m picturing the dialogue:
Mom: While I was in the Navy my job was to unscramble secret messages.
Billy: Is dinner ready? I’m starving to death.
Timmy: Where did all the pencils go?
Maureen: Please, Mom, can we keep the cat?
Annie: I need to make a diorama, and I can’t find a shoe box.
Kevin: I finished my homework. Can I watch Batman?
Sometime between uncovering the Santa Claus myth and discovering that our dog was not sent to a farm in Colorado, but was put down by the vet, we learned that Mom had made up her glamorous life as a Rockette. This private joke was her way of breaking the monotony of being with the kids all day and night. Dad was, of course, saved from the chaos at home by the relative peace of the fire house.
So if Mom never donned a skimpy costume and jumped around on stage, that left us to reflect on her other job “the code de-scrambler.” Looking back, it sounds interesting and mysterious, but I believe I speak for all four of my siblings when I say we just never gave it a thought. Mom was Mom, and we were preoccupied with our own stuff. I wish I had paid more attention to her stories and asked more questions about our family, both here and in Ireland.
Kathleen Bradley Delaney (known as Kay) was an outstanding student at Queens College in the early 1940’s. I always assumed she signed up for the Navy, but now I wonder if she was recommended by her professors and received one of the secret letters, enticing her to join. It’s also possible that she was recruited through her work at Sperry Gyroscope Company, where she worked after college as an inspector. Sperry worked closely with the United States Navy to develop airplane stabilizers, the aerial torpedo and a number of anti-aircraft devices. During World War II, it produced computer controlled bombsights for the B-17 and B-32 bombers (Sperry Gyroscope Division Records 1910-1990).
Once Kay made the decision to join the Navy, she needed to convince her Irish-born parents that she should go. Her father, Thomas Bradley, was easygoing by nature, but Kay needed to muster all her diplomatic skills to convince her mother. This was emotionally loaded since two of Anna McEntee Bradley’s children had already left the nest to support the war effort; John Bradley (known as Buddy) was in basic training with the Army Corps of Engineers. Mary, the oldest of the Bradley siblings, was living on an Army base in Texas with her husband Frank Snowden and their baby Patricia. Kay, possibly as headstrong as her mother, won out and left for six weeks of training at Smith College. My mother was away from home for the first time and off on a secret mission!
Along with the resources provided by Liza Mundy’s groundbreaking book, I was able to tap into another treasured source of information: my mother’s younger brother Kevin, who is 90 years old. Uncle Kevin makes a great effort to compile old letters and photos and chronicle family history for my generation and beyond. I am grateful to be able to ask him questions and listen to his stories about my mother whom he adored. Spurred on by a new sense of curiosity from reading Code Girls, I called Uncle Kevin and asked what he remembered about my mother’s experience during the war. He immediately answered:
“After training at Smith College, Kay was assigned to The North Atlantic Sub-Communications Center on 50 Church St. in downtown Manhattan.”
From there she must have been sent to Washington DC. I remember her referring to a brownstone in Georgetown which she shared with other Navy women. She was quickly promoted to lieutenant. In a letter to Kay, her brother, Buddy, wrote:
So you’re going to be an officer in three weeks. Do you realize that I’ve been in six months and you’ve only been in a month? Fine thing. All I hope is that I get a chance to see you.
War Hits Home
During wartime, tragedy strikes many families, and the Bradley’s were not exempt. Here’s Uncle Kevin’s account:
On February 12, 1945, Mother, Kay and Kevin were having a late breakfast when the doorbell rang. Kay answered; as soon as she saw the Western Union messenger she knew what had happened. She took the telegram in to Mother, who immediately became hysterical. Kevin ran next door to a neighbor, Mrs. Johnson, who came in and took over. At dawn on that day, Bud’s plane had taken off for Labrador, the first leg of a trip to England. The plane exploded a few feet off the ground.
Ironically, Sperry, where Kay worked before enlisting, was manufacturing parts for the B-17 bomber, the exact plane that led to her dear brother’s death. I’m sure my mother was devastated by the loss. Perhaps the intense nature of her work helped her to forget her personal pain, and offered some solace in saving other lives.
On August 14, 1945 at 7 pm, President Truman announced the Japanese surrender to a weary but euphoric nation (Code Girls, pg. 329). Of course the code breakers already knew this important development and, consistent with their professional etiquette, kept it quiet.
Just as quickly as the code breakers were trained and thrown into their wartime assignments, they were thanked and dismissed from their posts, and told it was their patriotic duty to get off the government payroll. (Code Girls, pg. 331). Women returning from the war were expected to embrace domestic life and leave the jobs to the men.
There would be an adjustment to civilian life for my mother and all the women returning from the war. As a WAVE, she was respected for her intelligence, and challenged by the demanding work. My father told me once that the Navy offered my mother an opportunity to stay on and continue her career as an officer. That did not happen, but my mother did take advantage of the GI bill and enrolled in St. John’s Law School. There she was reacquainted with Jack Delaney, who she knew from Queens College. She had dated Jack’s brother, Bill, before joining the WAVES. Jack mentioned her name to Bill, and shortly afterwards he called and invited her to a dance.
On June 10, 1950 Bill Delaney and Kathleen Bradley were married. One of my favorite pictures is of Mom and Dad on their honeymoon in Cape Cod. They’re looking up from a beach blanket with pure joy on their faces. Ten months later Billy was born, then within seven years came Timmy, Maureen, Annie [me] and Kevin. Glad they had that peaceful moment on the beach!
Though she loved being a wife and mother, the intellectual accomplishments and excitement of her wartime job were still a part of her. The drive to find a balance between career and home defined this period in her life. Mom decided not to finish law school and instead pursued a Master’s Degree in Education, thinking a teacher’s schedule would be more conducive to raising a family.
My father was as supportive as a man of the 1950s could be. He was a loving husband, but saw my mother’s first job as a homemaker. He liked to come home to dinner on the table, a cocktail and his beautiful wife wearing lipstick. Mom told me she would study up until she heard dad’s car in the driveway, then quickly hide the books, take out the broom and start sweeping. She worried that Dad would eventually wonder why she was always sweeping but the house was never that clean.
I remember my mother in a black cap and gown at her graduation from Hofstra. I was seven, my younger brother was five. My mother timed it so she could jump into the work force just as her youngest was in school full time. I had no concept of what a Master’s Degree was, and no clue that both my sister and I would one day share the same degree and career as Mom.
The history books say we won the war, but for countless families like the Bradleys, there was no winning. Losing a son, a brother, an uncle, shapes one’s family history forever. My grandparents left hardships in Ireland for a better life in America, only to face a profound tragedy.
I am so grateful to Liza Mundy for her steadfast research, flare for storytelling and commitment to sharing a glimpse of feminist history. Liza’s book is a gift. Code Girls may be as close as we come to understanding the back stories of World War II. Now when I think of my mother working in her garden, in her floppy hat at the beach, or dancing around the kitchen, I can add the image of her as a “Code Girl” and know, like every other aspect of her life, she gave it her all.
I look forward to connecting with the amazing network of “Code Girl” families to continue sharing our stories, and to promote the recognition these women deserve!