After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States officially entered World War II. Men were shipped overseas, to Europe and the Pacific, in unimaginable numbers. The magnitude of the war movement demanded and the government, military and intelligence communities needed workers, fast. With no men to spare, women had to fill the gap. They came from the Seven Sisters and later from other women’s colleges to fill the gap. They left their jobs as school teachers. They had little if any idea what jobs they were taking. But they packed their bags and headed to the nation’s capital.
Unlike their British cousins, who were building out the vast but secretive infrastructure at Bletchley Park, the U.S. armed services were woefully unprepared for the mammoth task of intercepting, decoding and translating their enemies’ communications. In fact, following World War I, much of the U.S. cryptographic efforts had been outsourced to a few quirky individuals with a passion for codes and codebreaking. World War II quickly changed that. The U.S. Coast Guard, Navy and Army hastily set up codebreaking (and codemaking) shops to track Japanese and German military strategy. By the end of the war, they would be able to do so in near-real time. But at the outset, they faced the problem of staffing. So, they recruited women – those who had shown mathematical aptitude a penchant for foreign languages, durable nerves and unshakeable determination.
“Code Girls” by Liza Mundy follows the experiences of women who worked at Virginia’s Arlington Hall and Northwest Washington’s Naval Annex during the war. They were brilliant – some almost savant-like in their abilities to crack enemy codes. Throughout the book, senior military officers were constantly breathing down their necks, reminding them of how drastic the consequences would be if they did not work fast enough. When they succeeded (the best-known example of their success is, of course, the Battle of Midway), they received no recognition. Adding to the pressure, the women had fathers, brothers, fiances, and husbands serving overseas. Sometimes, a codebreaker would receive a message confirming that her loved one’s ship had been sunk or unit had been ambushed. They were rarely afforded leave, even to attend funerals, and regularly faced mistreatment and misogyny from male peers.
Despite the pressures, the women loved the work. Many had left unfulfilling jobs to serve in the war effort, or were given the opportunity at careers they never thought possible. The women who came to Washington came from New York high society, rural Mississippi, and everywhere in between. They forged lifelong friendships across class and background. Yet some were still excluded. Black women were not allowed to serve as codebreakers. Jewish and German women were often turned down; the military was afraid their ethnic roots might negatively influence their work. Across their stories, however, what is evident is their overwhelming patriotism, their commitment to service and their intelligence.
It’s striking that any one of the “Code Girls” – and there are scores of them – would have warranted a memoir or biography of her own. And yet, as the war ended, they were discharged from their military posts or asked to resign and move on from their civilian roles. (There were some notable exceptions, such as Ann Caracristi, who went on to become the first female deputy director of the National Security Agency.) The secrecy of their work was so ingrained that they almost never discussed it with their spouses or children. Later in life, when some started dropping hints, their children sometimes did not believe them. It is a relief that Mundy was able to collect and tell some of their stories before the generation is entirely lost – and it is a shame we may lose many more stories from this cadre of exceptional women who helped America win the war.
Emma Pennisi, editor