{ subscribe_url:'//blogs.loc.gov/share/sites/library-of-congress-blogs/folklife.php' }

Breaking Codes and Glass Ceilings in Wartime Washington

You might have already seen Lisa Taylor’s blog post on female code breakers in World War II—but the topic is so rich, I couldn’t resist revisiting it in my own post! Read on for more details about VHP’s holdings of women cryptanalysts and an upcoming book talk by author Liza Mundy. This is the fourth post in a six-part series highlighting women veterans’ collections from the VHP archive in recognition of Women’s History Month.

One of the things I love about studying history is that, quite often, stories of the past are hidden in plain sight, so close to home that you can trip over them walking down the street. Case in point: while exploring DC, I have spent a lot of time in the area known as “upper NW”–including Ward Circle, where Nebraska and Massachusetts Avenues meet. Despite my familiarity with the neighborhood, it was not until I read Liza Mundy’s volume Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II that I learned the details of the Naval installation located at Ward Circle in World War II.

Hand-drawn sketch of the Naval Communications Annex. Included in a letter written by WAVE Ruth Kozcela, 1/5/1944. Ruth Kozcela Collection, Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, AFC2001/00/91889.

Known as the Naval Communications Annex, it was home to the Navy’s cryptographic operations—and, at the height of the war, women made up an astounding 80% of the ranks. In her exploration of these female code breakers’ lives and careers, Mundy reveals their tenacity, dedication, and intense patriotism, and how their work played a critical role in winning the war. Laden with evocative details unearthed from exhaustive research in numerous archives, including the Veterans History Project, Mundy’s book brings alive the world of the “Code Girls”: the grueling routine of round-the-clock shifts, the strict code of secrecy that ruled their lives, and the close friendships that developed between them.

Elizabeth Bennett’s collection materials, newly arrived at the VHP offices. Photograph by VHP staff.

Elizabeth McClure Bennett was one such code breaker, and her family recently donated her story to the Veterans History Project. A native of Indiana, known to her family as Betty, she had just started her senior year at Wellesley College when she received a secret letter inviting her to enroll in a class on cryptanalysis.  Following Naval Reserve Midshipman’s School at Smith College, she arrived at the Naval Communications Annex in September 1943 to work under cryptologist Frank H. Raven on an operation known as OP-20-G: code breaking.

Like Elizabeth Bennett, Elizabeth Bigelow Stewart was also recruited from an elite women’s college—in her case, Vassar—and attended training at Smith. Both women worked on breaking Japanese codes encrypted by the infamous “Purple” cipher. For Elizabeth Bigelow, the task was a very personal one, as she had two brothers stationed in the Pacific theater. No matter their personal situations or family backgrounds, all of the cryptanalysts dealt with the tangible and overwhelming sense that their work directly impacted the fate of American troops and the outcome of the war.

The Naval Communications Annex was not the only site of code breaking activity in the Washington area. The Army also made use of female cryptanalysts, most of them civilians, and stationed them at Arlington Hall in Northern Virginia. For one such code breaker, Ann Caracristi, the excitement and importance of her work far outweighed the long hours and often tedious work. Her talent and passion for intelligence eventually led to a lifelong career with the National Security Agency.

Ann Caracristi (detail from oral history interview). Veterans History Project, Library of Congress, AFC2001/001/30844.

In pursuing intelligence as a profession after the war, Caracristi was the exception rather than the rule. Most female code breakers left the service after the war, and found themselves facing limited professional opportunities. Officially, they were veterans, but higher education and professional fields privileged returning male veterans over females, and the oath of secrecy they had sworn left them unable to tout their wartime accomplishments.

Interested in learning more about female cryptanalysts ? Check out the stories of some of the other “Code Girls” in VHP’s collection: Donna Southall, Ann Madeira, and Marjorie Scott. Elizabeth Bennett’s collection will be processed by VHP staff, and her service history record will be viewable online within four to six months. And don’t miss Liza Mundy’s book talk at the Library of Congress on March 30 at noon. This event is free and open to the public. RSVP at Eventbrite.com.


Female Firsts: Pioneering Women Veterans through the Years

The following is a guest blog post by Andrew Huber, a Liaison Specialist for the Veterans History Project (VHP). This is the third post in a six-part series highlighting women veterans’ collections from the VHP archive in recognition of Women’s History Month. The story of women in the military is a story of firsts. Women […]

Blazing Trails and Taking Names: Women in the Military

The following is the second post in a six-part series highlighting women veterans’ collections from the Veterans History Project (VHP) archive in recognition of Women’s History Month. (Note: Due to the closure of all DC-area Federal Government buildings on March 2, 2018, the Women’s History Month book talk  featuring Liza Mundy  has been canceled. Stay […]

Becky Elzy and Alberta Bradford: Spiritual Folklorists

This blog post about the “Two Sweet Singers” Becky Elzy and Alberta Bradford is part of a series called “Hidden Folklorists,” which examines the folklore work of surprising people, including people better known for other pursuits. In preparing this post, I was greatly aided by Shane K. Bernard, the archivist at Avery Island in Louisiana, […]

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. […]

Bessie Jones Tells a Spooky Story: “Married to the Devil”

With Halloween just around the corner, the Library of Congress is gearing up for an exhibition of our best spooky treasures. The event is called LOC Halloween: Chambers of Mystery, and it’s sure to add both cheer and chills to your All Hallows season. As part of the effort, I’ve been looking through AFC’s collections for […]

“People Who Stood Up”: Mississippi Women in the Civil Rights Movement

This guest blog post comes to us courtesy of Catherine Turner, a high school senior working at the American Folklife Center this Spring on her service project for Park School in Baltimore, MD. Catherine is entering Brown University in Fall 2017, and has spent the last six weeks diving into the collections at the Library […]

Teaching the Japanese Tea Ceremony: Mine Somi Kubose

Tea began as a medicine and grew into a beverage. In China, in the eighth century, it entered the realm of poetry as one of the polite amusements. The fifteenth century saw Japan ennoble it into a religion of aestheticism—Teaism. Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts […]

From Thread to Fabric to Art

Before the industrial era, much of the work of the creation of clothing was done at home or at small shops. Spinning was a daily activity. Depending on one’s culture, the production of thread and yarn might be entirely women’s work, or work done by the whole family.  In northern Europe, spinning was so closely […]