Sharpened Pencils & Sharper Minds: World War II Women Code Breakers cover

Sharpened Pencils & Sharper Minds: World War II Women Code Breakers

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In 1942, reeling from Japan’s devastating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States was in desperate need of workers to serve as code breakers in the newly ramped up war effort. Most of the eligible men were either already on active duty in the armed forces, or preparing to be. Thankfully, there were hundreds of women who were good fits for this top secret program who enthusiastically answered the call to duty.
The following is the first post in a six-part series highlighting women veterans’ collections from the Veterans History Project (VHP) archive in recognition of Women’s History Month.
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Sharpened Pencils & Sharper Minds: World War II Women Code Breakers

Imagine coming across this job announcement today: Candidates must be highly skilled in math and linguistics, willing to relocate and able to keep a secret to the death. Only college age women with no imminent wedding plans need apply.

I’m not sure if that’s exactly how World War II-era government recruiters worded their advertisements for participants in a top secret cryptography program, but those were certainly among the requirements for selectees. Based on that list, I probably would not have been a good fit. Days filled with both math and secrets would have been way too much for me to bear.

Photograph of a WAVE decoding unit stationed at the Naval Communications Command Annex, Washington, DC 1945. Ruth Koczela Collection, Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, AFC2001/001/91889.

In 1942, reeling from Japan’s devastating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States was in desperate need of workers to serve as code breakers in the newly ramped up war effort. Most of the eligible men were either already on active duty in the armed forces, or preparing to be.

Thankfully, there were hundreds of women who were good fits for this top secret program who enthusiastically answered the call to duty. Otherwise, the United States very well may have lost World War II.

Frances Scott (nee Lynd) was one of those women. In her audio-recorded VHP interview, Scott shares that when she and several of her friends were seniors in college, they were “approached by a Navy man” who wanted them to take a secret course in cryptology. They agreed, and learned their first lesson right away.

When you have a secret, you don’t go around telling people that you have a secret. You make up a good story, and you pass off your story, and you don’t let anyone know you’re doing anything that’s secret.

They found the course to be both fun and challenging, much like the crossword puzzles and cryptograms they enjoyed doing in the newspapers. After graduation, Scott and her friends were sworn into the Navy as ensigns and sent to boot camp for the next two months.

Scott said she loved most everything about it—including the food, particularly the breakfasts. Not so much the fit of the uniforms, or the fact that women were required to cut their hair so that it was well above their uniform collar. There was one policy she mentioned that gave me pause. So much so that I had to rewind and listen to her say it again.

You weren’t allowed to say that you had cramps from menstruation, because the Navy did not give you any kind of dispensation for a monthly period. You were supposed to be women who didn’t have problems in that direction.

Problems in that direction. Wow.

The women’s training involved lots of memorization of seemingly insignificant details—a critical skill that would prove vital in Scott’s work when she was eventually sent to the Navy’s Communication Annex in Washington, DC to break Japanese and German codes. Her adventures in DC also included some pretty awkward interactions with a nosey neighbor as well as a couple of African American men who were afraid she might unintentionally get them lynched.

Cover art from the book, Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II by Liza Mundy, (Hatchett Books, 2017).

Scott is one of the fascinating women profiled in New York Times bestselling author Liza Mundy’s new book, Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II. It is a captivating assemblage of stories that, had Mundy not undertaken such a vast dig for details at VHP and the National Security Agency, may have been lost to history.

To help kick off Women’s History Month, Mundy presented a book talk on Friday, March 2 in the Library’s Jefferson Building, room LJ-119.

She shared with the audience how a personal interest in women’s military history turned into a major research project, resulting in a groundbreaking book that pays homage to a group of women whose stories suspiciously seemed to be all but erased from official records.

Mundy also discussed the vital role VHP first person narratives played in her research process. If you missed the talk, view it above on the Library’s YouTube channel.

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