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  • Writer's pictureAmanda Custer

The Brains Behind The Operations

Updated: Oct 31, 2021

Book Review: Code Girls

While gentlemen do not read each other's mail, the women who pioneered cryptanalysis during the World Wars did so in a way that forever changed the outcome of the war and history. They paved the way for future women to serve their nation, proving time and time again that they deserved a spot at the table. Their contributions saved the United States and our Allies numerous soldiers' lives, time, and money during the World Wars. Despite being treated as if they didn’t belong, the women served selflessly and in silence. Their stories are an often unheard and unknown part of the United States' battles in the World Wars, as such I will try and rectify that injustice here by highlighting their incredible stories.

In a time where women were relegated to household duties in their strictly defined social roles, the world watched as war broke out and men young and old were needed to fight. While the idea of women contributing in combat theaters was still, and still is, a contested idea in American society, the vacuum of men to do the desk jobs back home opened up a window of opportunity for women to prove their valuable contributions. Women, who were previously barred from places of higher education offering curriculum in what is now called STEM, were suddenly in high demand. They answered the call to duty, doing the tasks required of them with no complaints. Despite being paid a fraction of their male counterparts who held the same job level and title.

There was a mass influx of women to the workforce in Washington D.C. By 1920, the census showed that almost 40% of employed people in Washington D.C. were female (the national average was 20%).¹ Women served in the first World War thanks to a ‘loophole’ in the Naval Reserve Act of 1916 which failed to specify the gender that a naval yeoman had to be, therefore allowing women to enlist in the naval reserves in WWI. Notably, Congress amended the reservist law to specify that only men could serve following the end of the war. While some women’s skills were niche enough that the Navy was willing to hire them as civilians, most were simply discharged. These women were pioneers in the field of cryptanalysis and were desperately needed by the U.S. military to break enemy codes. A Navy salary memo from November of 1921 showed that females were paid $1,440/year and their male counterparts serving in the same jobs made $1,620/year.² Fortunately, World War II would give them another chance at showing how indispensable their skills were to the war effort.

In 1940, more than 24,000 women entered government service, with more yearning to serve the war effort.³ Of the few women in the U.S. Congress in 1942, one in particular, Massachusetts Republican Edith Nourse Rogers dedicated herself to the cause of creating a place for women in the military, which England and Canada had already done. It took the attack on Pearl Harbor to shake some sense into her male counterparts and allow women to serve in an auxiliary manner. President Roosevelt signed the WAAC bill in May of 1942, allowing women into the army auxiliary. Paid less, lacking the same ranks, and receiving almost none of the same benefits as their male counterparts, the women flocked to enlist to serve their nation. The Army codebreaking operation worked out of Arlington Hall, bought by War Department in June of 1942, where codes of roughly 25 nations were worked on. Later on, “auxiliary” was dropped from the women’s titles, making them the WACs now. This did change some of the disparities, but it in no way made them equals with the men.

The Navy also reluctantly joined in allowing women to serve with Roosevelt, signing into law the creation of the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) in July of 1942. The Navy women’s status was made to be more like reservist rather than auxiliary personnel, giving them the same pay as men but without any retirement benefits. This allowed for the women working as civilian code breakers in Washington to be commissioned as officers in the U.S. Naval Reserve. They left, many at critical times of the war, to attend officer training camp. Realizing how these women were the backbone of the U.S.'s codebreaking capabilities, the Navy had to call many of the women back before the standard end of their training and started staggering their departures for training. Over 100,000 women served as WAVES. Many were overqualified for their ranks and under respected by the military as a whole, often facing backlash over their leadership positions from disgruntled subordinates.

One woman in particular deserves to be highlighted. Agnes (Meyer) Driscoll was born in 1889 and enlisted into the Naval Reserves at age 28. Driscoll went on to train virtually all major male naval code breakers noted for their WWII contributions. She also helped to design the Navy’s first ciphering machine, figuring out how the Japanese disguised their fleet code. The direct impact of her accomplishments were realized in 1936 when her codebreaking allowed the U.S. to learn that the Japanese had refitted a battleship to be able to travel in excess of twenty-six knots. This gave the U.S. Navy the chance to upgrade their battleship classes to exceed that speed. She continued to be a leading expert in Japanese codes as in June 1939 the Japanese fleet transitioned to using a code called the JN-25, and later the JN-25B in December of 1940.

It is a challenge to narrow down what, or rather whose stories deserve to be told. In order to do the collective female codebreakers justice, highlighting where they came from, how they were recruited, their accomplishments, and how they were treated is one of the best ways to showcase their achievements despite their obstacles. The Navy recruited their women mainly from the Seven Sisters schools, the female counterparts of the Ivy League institutions. However, the Army went searching at teaching colleges. The two services competed fiercely for women with the skills considered necessary to be good at code breaking. They sought out women with language skills, good memories, creativity, and attention to detail. By today’s standards this may seem broad, but because this field of work was relatively new the U.S. government wasn’t exactly sure what characteristics or talents made someone good at code breaking. The remarkable/notable element to their recruitment tactic was that university educated women were now not only in high demand but had the two branches of the military openly competing for them. As Liza Mundy put it, “it was a rare moment in American history - unprecedented - when educated women were not only wanted but competed for.”

In September 1941, U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Laigh Noyes wrote to the president of Radcliffe College (women’s counterpart to Harvard), Ada Comstock, asking her to help identify qualified women who could be trained in cryptanalysis. Rear Admiral Noyes smartly noted that “In the event of total war, women will be needed for this work, and they can do it probably better than men.”¹⁰ In 1942, roughly 4% of women had completed four years of college. These women were now leaving their jobs to join the fight.¹¹ While there was the concern that women would gossip about their work, women’s place in society at the time helped them to brush off inquiring strangers asking about their work when women could claim their jobs at military installations or similar places were menial or secretarial tasks.

A critical phenomena, named the jackpot effect, is something majority of the female code breakers demonstrated, as well as their peers that went to do groundbreaking work at agencies such as NASA. The idea of the jackpot effect boils down to one woman, or person who is typically underrepresented in a given field, being hired which leads to a windfall of other talented individuals joining the field. It can be equated with the domino effect; all it takes is the first one to get their foot in the door to set off a chain reaction allowing for others to fall into the work as well. This metaphor of course oversimplifies the factors which worked against such effects happening. It is noteworthy because without the few men who were willing to hire women and the women who were brave women who were willing to work in hostile environment and endure social ridicule, the story of the progress made in cryptanalysis could be a very different one today. These women paved the way for women today to be accepted contributing members to both STEM fields and careers in national security.

The female codebreakers played key roles in shortening the war, which were crucial to the allied success in defeating the Japanese significant in the Atlantic theater, and essential within the US-UK effort to penetrate the Nazi enigma cipher to stop and track U-boats. Their role in the victory of the Allies is further highlighted by the fact that the Axis powers did not tap into their women to the extent that the Allies did. The extent of the U.S.’s need for the female codebreakers is demonstrated in the fact that on the eve of Pearl Harbor, nearly 70% of the Army’s code breaking force were women.¹² The following famous battles of World War II would not have seen the success that they did without the women who worked to make it possible.

The Battle of the Atlantic, the six year battle between the German U-Boats and Allied convoys, was a battle of the code-breakers. Thanks to a team of Polish cryptanalysts, the Enigma machine was cracked which was shared with the British and the French. The Women’s Royal Naval Service, or Wrens, working with Bletchley Park operated the ‘bombe’ machines to try and brute force viable key settings. The Battle of Coral Sea on May 4-8th in 1942 was the first naval battle where opposing ships never saw each other and fighting was done by aircraft. It was also the first Pacific contest where code breaking played a critical role in the outcome (which was a tactical draw). In the Battle of Midway, code breaking gave Admiral Nimitz the Japanese attack plans and allowed for the U.S. to stop Japan’s expansion in the Pacific. Operation Vengeance, on April 18th 1943 killed Japanese Admiral Yamamoto through 16 US Army Lockheed P-38 fighter planes taking off from Guadalcanal airfield was made possible only through the reading of the Japanese messages and the breaking of their code.¹³ The code breakers also ensured the near destruction of Japanese shipping, which helped starve out their troops. November 1943 was the war’s most devastating month for Japanese tonnage sunk, with 43 ships sunk, 72 damaged, totaling over 350,000 tons. This aided in the big reduction in American casualties.¹⁴

Perhaps the most notable contribution to a well-known battle of World War II which the women were instrumental in, but is taught without their mention, is Operation Bodyguard.¹⁵ Operation Bodyguard was the creation of a fictitious army that was supposedly going to invade at the Pas de Calais rather than Normandy. Winston Churchill nicknamed the efforts the ‘bodyguard of lies’ in order to ensure that the true landing at Normandy would have a shot at success. The codebreakers used communications to create phantom armies, mimicking the communication patterns of a real army in order to further the disinformation operation also being propagated through the British double-cross system with German agents. This dummy traffic helped to convince the Germans that the true invasion was in fact happening at the Pas de Calais through the creation of General Patton’s fictitious army. This operation saved an estimated 16,500 allied lives.¹⁶ While the effort to divert forces away from Normandy is known, it is seldom mentioned that the female codebreakers were working behind the scenes to make the disinformation look real through falsified communications traffic.

Work on specific types of the Japanese codes, such as 2468 a water-transport code, allowed the U.S. military to further break and read a bounty of other Japanese army codes such as aviation, troop movements, and death tolls.¹⁷ The more codes they broke, the more women they needed to decode the mass streams of messages that were now readable. The water transport code, for example, averaged 30,000 messages each month in December of 1944, or a thousand a day.¹⁸ Notably, the American SIGABA machines, equivalent of German enigma, were never cracked, meaning that the women ensured that the United States retained communications security for our war efforts. The women also faced immense pressure to break the codes not only from a sense of duty to their country, but also due to the fact that they were racing to gain information that would save their brothers, husbands, and friends that were in the war. Many women suffered mental breakdowns from the constant pressure and the occasional knowledge that their loved ones were facing certain death and there was nothing they could do to warn them in time. So while they were not sitting on the frontlines, they were keenly aware that their work affected the outcomes for the soldiers whose messages they were reading.

A special mention is deserved for the women of color and Jewish women who fought to contribute during this time. Both groups at the time faced even greater prejudice and obstacles than white Christian women to overcome when they wanted to serve the country’s war effort. Due to the high demand and need for more labor to break and sort the codes, women of color and Jews were begrudgingly let in to serve but were often relegated to the least desirable posts or jobs where they faced rampant racism and discrimination. They were also overqualified for the jobs that the white Christian women were given priority for. Thanks to the work of Eleanor Roosevelt, who declared that 12-15% of the Arlington Hall workforce should be African American, the Army had a small African American code breaking unit.¹⁹ The Navy however had no such units. Jewish women often changed their last names, lied, or hid their faith in order to escape discrimination in hiring practices. These women made valuable contributions and kept fighting to serve despite the egregious discrimination.

After World War II, the U.S. Army and Navy code-breaking operations merged into what today is the National Security Agency (NSA). Priorities in code breaking shifted as the Cold War kicked off. While Meredith Gardner is the name history books attribute with the famous Venona project to break the Soviet codes, it was Gene Grabeel who helped launch it and 90% of those who worked on the project were women. Then there was Anna Caracristi, who worked at Arlington Hall as the former head of the Japanese Army address research section and was assigned to the “Soviet problem” and then later the East German codes. Caracristi went on to become first female deputy director of the NSA. She received both the National Security Medal and the Distinguished Civilian Service Award, an unusual display of public recognition for her contributions which was well deserved. The fight for parity with their male counterparts continued throughout the Cold War, and the women proved time and time again that they had indispensable skills.

I believe that part of the stigma which hindered women’s mobility and respect in national security careers is the longstanding competition between those who are out in the field “doing” and those who are behind the scenes figuring out how to best go about tackling a problem. This stigma of course still exists today, echoing this sentiment that those doing the desk work still deserve less credit than those out in the field, be it war or intelligence. I liken this to what Professor Olson has pointed out time and time again, that operations cannot be successful without good analysis of intelligence. The female codebreakers of the early 20th century proved this time and time again with the information they provided the boots on the ground saving countless lives, time, and resources.

Code Girls - Endnotes
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