The story of the British women recruited as code breakers is fairly well known. After many books, a television series, and at least 2 movies, the women at Bletchley Park have been recognized for the part they played in ending WWII. However, until recently, no one knew much about the American women who played an equally important role. A few years ago, the files on these women were declassified, enabling author Mundy to tell their story.
As American men shipped out to fight in Europe or in the Pacific, the military realized the need to bolster their intelligence capabilities. As in Britain, the search for recruits began at the elite women’s colleges, including Bryn Mawr, Wellesley, Barnard, and Radcliffe. Soon it became clear that the need was far greater than could be supplied by those schools. Since these workers would need to live together in cramped quarters and maintain strict secrecy, the ideal candidates would be young and unmarried. At that time, most public-school teachers fill that bill. So the military began reaching out to math teachers, German teachers, science teachers, librarians, and those who liked crossword puzzles and word games. Over 10,000 women came to work in the cryptography service.
These women came to not only learn to crack German, Italian and Japanese codes, which changed daily, but to also test the Allied codes to make sure that those were unbreakable. The women had brothers, friends, and boyfriends engaged in battle, and they knew that their work was critical to saving lives. The stress was unbelievable, and there was little time away. They took their vow of secrecy seriously, and after the war was over, most never mentioned their service to their families.
The Americans’ work was critical in the Pacific theater, crippling Japan’s fleet, and in catching the German’s flat-footed at Normandy. Some of those cryptographers are still alive, and it is about time we gave them their due.
Executive Director of the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association (GLIBA) and part-time bookseller at Literati
Featured in September 2017 newsletter