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Bellevue woman who cracked German codes in WWII is buried with British military honors

September 26, 2018

When British art student Jean Briggs turned 18 in the fall of 1943, she put her artistic aspirations on hold to serve her country, her king and the Allied cause.

Briggs enlisted in the Women’s Royal Navy Service and soon, against her better judgment, was dating a U.S. Army Air Corps B-17 pilot named John Watters.

They courted during the war and married soon after, raising six children as John Watters rose to the rank of Air Force colonel.

But Jean Briggs Watters could keep a secret. During the war, while still a teenager, she ran a “bombe” machine that decoded German military messages. She was part of the ULTRA effort that broke the German ENIGMA code, a top-secret military program that wasn’t revealed until the 1970s.

“She never told anyone,” said their son, Robin Watters, a retired Navy rear admiral. “She was fully aware of the gravity of what she was doing. It was haunting to her, what might happen if she made a mistake.”

On Monday, Jean Watters, who died Sept. 15 at her home in Bellevue at the age of 92, received a rare tribute: burial at Omaha National Cemetery with British military honors. The Union Jack draped her casket.

She was buried next to her husband, who had died June 30 at age 101.

“They had a 72-year marriage, just like in the movies,” Robin Watters said.

Jean Annette Briggs was born Oct. 15, 1925, in the town of Bury St. Edmunds. She was the oldest of three sisters, quiet and a wonderful artist.

Her youngest sister, Pamela Smith, known to family since childhood as “Babbie,” described Jean as proper, and a bit aloof. Smith, now 87, also married a U.S. Air Force officer and moved to the United States.

Jean attended art school in Cambridge, England, but turned down a deferment to join the Navy.

Actually, Jean was decoding German messages, one of about 10,000 people — three-fourths of them women — who worked for the master codebreaker Alan Turing on the project. The ULTRA effort was spotlighted in the 2014 movie “The Imitation Game.”

John Watters survived more than 25 perilous bombing missions over northern Europe, and the two were engaged soon after V-E Day. She was given leave from her Navy service to marry him. The family moved from place to place with the Air Force, including tours in England and Guam, and, finally, at Offutt Air Force Base. They retired in Bellevue in 1969.

Jean Watters made her children’s birthday cards by hand and was a skillful painter. She loved cooking and gardening, and playing cards and mahjong.

“This sweet, soft-spoken lady with the English accent could, and would, cut you off at the knees while playing Hearts,” her family wrote in a tribute.

Soon after her husband’s funeral in July, she invited Capt. Paul Dunn of the Royal Navy to tea. He is a British military liaison at U.S. Strategic Command.

He and two other officers attended Monday’s funeral.

“With our links to the Royal Navy, we feel it was fitting,” he said.

Robin Watters said his mother would have been thrilled by Monday’s service, which featured a sole bagpiper in a kilt. He played “Amazing Grace” and the “last post,” which is similar to taps.

He said she was shaped by the sobering circumstances in Europe as she came of age.

“She had a seriousness, and a sense of duty,” he said. “She was a really special lady. But she was tough. She did the hard things.”

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