“Code girls” helped win WWII
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) — Victories in two of the greatest battles in human history arguably hinged on the art and science of code-breaking.
In June 1942, U.S. Navy officers in the Pacific who had cracked encrypted Japanese communications got wind of a plan to ambush and wipe out the U.S. fleet. This enabled American forces to turn the tables and ambush the enemy fleet, instead, at the Battle of Midway.
Two years later, with the Allies poised to storm the beaches at Normandy, it was code breakers who helped mislead Hitler’s forces, convincing them that the invasion would land some 150 miles away at Pas de Calais.
What few people know is that, in both cases, the critical code-breaking hinged on some seriously smart and seriously underappreciated women known as “code girls.”
While it might have been male naval officers who decrypted the Japanese code, said reporter and author Liza Mundy in a recent phone call from her home in Arlington, “all those male naval officers had been trained by a single woman — a former Texas schoolteacher and mathematical genius named Agnes Driscoll.”
“She is the one who had spent the 1930s diagnosing the Japanese naval fleet code and understanding how it worked,” Mundy said. “She’d basically broken the code system.”
And the feint for the D-Day landings? That was orchestrated directly by women code-breakers who meticulously designed dummy encrypted radio traffic so authentic that it tricked the Nazis.
“Fake radio traffic fooled the Germans into thinking we had a completely fictitious landing force that was poised to invade Calais,” said Mundy. “We’d even named it: It was called the First U.S. Army Group. It was supposed to be led by (Gen. George) Patton.”
These coups and others are the focus of Mundy’s new book — “Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II.”
They’re also the subject of a free public lecture Mundy is set to deliver at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 6, at the Virginia Air & Space Center in downtown Hampton. Her appearance is part of NASA Langley Research Center’s monthly Sigma lecture series.
Gaudy Bezos-O’Connor, deputy project manager for Langley’s Advanced Air Transport Technology Project, selected Mundy for the lecture series to launch events for Women’s History Month.
″(Her) discovery of the role that these young, brilliant women (who) applied their love of math to help the United States win World War II is inspirational,” said Bezos-O’Connor.
The hope is that the lecture will help empower the next generation “to believe in their gifts and find their path to making our world a better place,” she said.
In all, more than 10,000 women across the country were secretly recruited by the U.S. Army and Navy and brought to Washington, D.C., where they worked in massive compounds surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards.
They were selected for their smarts: The Navy recruited from elite women’s colleges in the Northeast, said Mundy, while the Army sent some of their “handsomest young officers” to the South and Midwest to recruit exceptional teachers.
Recruits were also vetted for loyalty and an ability to keep their lips zipped.
″(Code girls) were told that, if they told anybody what they were doing, they would be shot, because it was wartime and it was an act of treason,” said Mundy. “If anybody asked what they were doing, they were to say that they were secretaries. That they sharpened pencils and filled wastebaskets. And, because they were women, people believed them.”
Actually, these women did sharpen pencils. But then they used those pencils to help crack Axis code systems throughout the war, encrypt our own communications and more, sometimes while operating in war zones.
Historians have estimated that code-breaking overall likely shortened the war by a year and saved untold lives on all sides, said Mundy.
After the war, code girls were released from duty and went on to become wives and mothers. But they were still sworn to secrecy.
And, for 70-plus years, these code breakers never broke their silence.
“They had to sit there for decades and listen to their husbands talk about what they’d done in the war,” said Mundy. “They had been unable to get credit within their own families. They had been unable to tell their parents what they did.
“One of the women said her husband used to say to her, ‘You were just a secretary during the war. You didn’t do work that was very important.’ And they could never rebut this.”
Mundy landed on their story a couple of years ago while doing research at the National Archives. She had no idea how many might still be around, now in their 90s. She decided to seek them out.
She found about 20 of them, she said, still largely reluctant to talk, dubious at first when she explained that they had been formally released from their oath of secrecy in the 1980s.
But, finally, they began to tell their stories. One woman in Atlanta told hers even as she was getting treated for a broken wrist in a hospital emergency room. Another, over Bloody Marys at her favorite club in downtown D.C.
“The level of recall that they had was remarkable to me,” Mundy said of the many women she interviewed. “And also that level of pluck and spiritedness that they must have had in their 20s. . I could still see so much of that in them.”
Since her book came out, Mundy says she’s been contacted by other former code girls and by families who still can’t quite believe that their wives, mothers and grandmothers had played such an important role in World War II, yet managed to keep mum for so long. Most took their secret to the grave.
Historians have known about the code-breaking women of World War II for a while, but generally as a footnote; they showed little interest in a deeper dive, said Mundy. She blames sexism and the unconscious bias of a society that tends to ignore the contributions and achievements of women.
“They were simply written out of history,” said Mundy.
But times have changed, and now her book has grabbed Hollywood’s attention. It’s been optioned by a movie production company owned by Jim Parsons, the actor from the sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” who portrayed a NASA engineer in the film “Hidden Figures,” based on the book by Margot Shetterly of Hampton.
That book focused on the achievements of three so-called human computers, women who did the complex calculations needed to support the nation’s space program, yet went unrecognized for decades.
“I was lucky enough to be on a panel with Margot Shetterly,” said Mundy. “And I loved this metaphor that she used: She said it’s as though there have been these rooms full of women all along in American history, and we didn’t know that they were there. And people are now coming along and turning on the light switch, and we see that they’ve been there all along.”