Book: Code Girls: The untold story of the American women code breakers of World War II by Liza Mundy
Publisher: Hachette Books
Publication date: 2017
Source: Promotional copy of the trade paperback from the publisher (over two years ago — oops!)
Summary: American women signed up for all kinds of jobs during World War II. Rosie Riveters are famous for their work in manufacturing. Nurses cared for wounded soldiers, near and far from the battlefield. Entertainers and ordinary women provided songs, cookies, and dance partners at canteens and other venues, at home and abroad.
Many women worked for the government, doing the vast amount of administrative and clerical work required to run a country at war. As it turns out, thousands of women who told their families that they worked as government secretaries, in fact, performed secretive and vital war work as code breakers.
Women have likely been involved in ciphers and codes since ancient times. The secrecy of the endeavor, combined with the invisibility of women’s work, in general, render that history invisible.
Women who broke codes in the US in World War II had forerunners that are known to history. Elizabeth Smith Friedman broke codes during World War I. Then, during the interwar years, she broke the codes of Prohibition-era rum-runners for the Coast Guard. Agnes Meyer Driscoll made up codes for the Navy to use in World War I and, later, tested enciphering systems and machines to see if the messages they produced were as unbreakable as advertised.
When the Army and Navy needed lots of people to break codes and decipher messages in World War II, they looked to the nation’s women. They recruited math and language majors from women’s colleges. They hired teachers away from classrooms. Librarians were needed for their organizational skills. Switchboard operators were valued for their quick minds and hands to run code-breaking machines.
Women working for the Navy were mostly recruited into the WAVES. The cover of Code Girls features a photo of WAVES in their snappy uniforms.
The Army utilized their WACs in code-breaking, but also relied on many civilian women.
Decoded messages, representing the work of thousands of women, were vital to the success of the US effort. Supply ships in the Atlantic avoided U-Boat attacks. US submarines attacked Japanese supply convoys in the Pacific, rendering it impossible for Japan to hold onto far-flung island outposts. Because of decoded messages from the Japanese ambassador in Germany, the Allies knew details about German coastal defenses — knowledge that made it possible to plan the D-Day invasion.
These, and many other, stories are revealed in Code Girls.
Thoughts: I’ve been aware of Alan Turing and Bletchley Park since I was a fledgling computer programmer in the early 1980s. The revelation that the British had broken Enigma, the German’s unbreakable code, was still fairly new, kept a secret well into the 1970s. Our professors were delighted to talk about how nerdy computer pioneers saved the day.
The history of US codebreaking was revealed even more slowly. American codebreakers were unaware that they had been released from the secrecy papers that they signed at the end of their service. Many women code breakers died of old age while their families still believed that they had done clerical work during the war.
I’m so entranced by these women that I chose this setting as my NaNoWriMo project for 2020. I’ll spend November with women code breakers during World War II. Women who left their homes to flock to Washington DC and its secretive work, often tedious but with moments of exciting break-throughs. The topic seems ripe for a fictional approach.
During my research, I found the National Cryptologic Museum, run by the National Security Agency. This small museum in Annapolis Junction, MD is closed due to COVID-19, so they are offering virtual tours. Rick and I attended one last week that took us through the Women in Cryptography exhibit. We had so much fun that we plan to attend more. What a great way to visit a museum at a time of limited travel!
Appeal: Code Girls is a new exploration for people who love World War II history — a home front story that had direct impact on the strategies and battles of the war. This is also a great book for readers of women’s history. There were still a few living women code breakers alive when Liza Mundy researched this book, so we get to learn from their memories via interviews.
Have you read this book? What did you think?