Breaking Codes and Glass Ceilings in Wartime Washington
You might have already seen Lisa Taylor’s blog post on female code breakers in World War II—but the topic is so rich, I couldn’t resist revisiting it in my own post! Read on for more details about VHP’s holdings of women cryptanalysts.
Post by Megan Harris
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One of the things I love about studying history is that, quite often, stories of the past are hidden in plain sight, so close to home that you can trip over them walking down the street. Case in point: while exploring DC, I have spent a lot of time in the area known as “upper NW”–including Ward Circle, where Nebraska and Massachusetts Avenues meet.
Despite my familiarity with the neighborhood, it was not until I read Liza Mundy’s volume Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II that I learned the details of the Naval installation located at Ward Circle in World War II.
Hand-drawn sketch of the Naval Communications Annex. Included in a letter written by WAVE Ruth Kozcela, 1/5/1944. Ruth Kozcela Collection, Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, AFC2001/00/91889.
Known as the Naval Communications Annex, it was home to the Navy’s cryptographic operations—and, at the height of the war, women made up an astounding 80% of the ranks.
In her exploration of these female code breakers’ lives and careers, Mundy reveals their tenacity, dedication, and intense patriotism, and how their work played a critical role in winning the war.
Laden with evocative details unearthed from exhaustive research in numerous archives, including the Veterans History Project, Mundy’s book brings alive the world of the “Code Girls”: the grueling routine of round-the-clock shifts, the strict code of secrecy that ruled their lives, and the close friendships that developed between them.
Elizabeth Bennett’s collection materials, newly arrived at the VHP offices. Photograph by VHP staff.
Elizabeth McClure Bennett was one such code breaker, and her family recently donated her story to the Veterans History Project. A native of Indiana, known to her family as Betty, she had just started her senior year at Wellesley College when she received a secret letter inviting her to enroll in a class on cryptanalysis.
Following Naval Reserve Midshipman’s School at Smith College, she arrived at the Naval Communications Annex in September 1943 to work under cryptologist Frank H. Raven on an operation known as OP-20-G: code breaking.
Like Elizabeth Bennett, Elizabeth Bigelow Stewart was also recruited from an elite women’s college—in her case, Vassar—and attended training at Smith. Both women worked on breaking Japanese codes encrypted by the infamous “Purple” cipher. For Elizabeth Bigelow, the task was a very personal one, as she had two brothers stationed in the Pacific theater.
No matter their personal situations or family backgrounds, all of the cryptanalysts dealt with the tangible and overwhelming sense that their work directly impacted the fate of American troops and the outcome of the war.
The Naval Communications Annex was not the only site of code breaking activity in the Washington area. The Army also made use of female cryptanalysts, most of them civilians, and stationed them at Arlington Hall in Northern Virginia. For one such code breaker, Ann Caracristi, the excitement and importance of her work far outweighed the long hours and often tedious work. Her talent and passion for intelligence eventually led to a lifelong career with the National Security Agency.
Ann Caracristi (detail from oral history interview). Veterans History Project, Library of Congress, AFC2001/001/30844.
In pursuing intelligence as a profession after the war, Caracristi was the exception rather than the rule. Most female code breakers left the service after the war, and found themselves facing limited professional opportunities. Officially, they were veterans, but higher education and professional fields privileged returning male veterans over females, and the oath of secrecy they had sworn left them unable to tout their wartime accomplishments.
Interested in learning more about female cryptanalysts ? Check out the stories of some of the other “Code Girls” in VHP’s collection: Donna Southall, Ann Madeira, and Marjorie Scott. Elizabeth Bennett’s collection will be processed by VHP staff, and her service history record will be viewable online within four to six months. And don’t miss Liza Mundy’s book talk at the Library of Congress on March 30 at noon. This event is free and open to the public. RSVP at Eventbrite.com.
Post-publication note: very sadly, Elizabeth McClure Bennett passed away on Friday, March 16. VHP extends our condolences to her family, and our thanks for their recent donation of her oral history interview and photographs.