My Mother was A World War II Codebreaker


My mother was a naval counterintelligence officer during World War II, something no one would have suspected of this tiny woman with bright dyed-blond hair. (Her whole life she insisted that the hair color was natural). 

America was in World War II when Elsie White graduated from Barnard College of Columbia University. She immediately joined the Navy and after a 3 month training course was commissioned an Ensign. Regular Navy officers derisively called these new Ensigns the “90 day wonders”.

Elsie White marries Jack Farrell during World War II
Elsie White marries Jack Farrell during World War II

Elsie did not start her military career with an exciting assignment. Like most women who joined up, she was relegated to back-office work. Elsie worked in New York City processing Navy payroll. That’s when she noticed something odd about a certain Admiral’s paycheck. It looked to her like the Navy was paying the Admiral the wrong amount. Her supervisors were not interested, but Elsie worked on her own time to research the back reports. Sure enough, Elsie was able to prove that the Navy had been under-paying the Admiral for years. The Navy owed the Admiral thousands of dollars, and Elsie saw to it that he was reimbursed in his next paycheck.

No one would ever suspect that the 1950s house wife was once a secret code-breaker during World War II
No one would ever suspect that the 1950s house wife was once a secret code-breaker during World War II

The Admiral took the time to find out who had discovered the error and gotten him his money. About a month later Elise received a formal invitation to join the Admiral and his officers for lunch aboard the Admiral’s ship.  It was a thrilling experience for Elise, but she never thought anything would come of it. The next day she was back at work in the payroll office.

But the Admiral had not forgotten about the tiny Ensign. The Admiral realized that someone as intelligent, detail oriented and persistent as Elsie would be perfect in the counterintelligence branch of the Navy.

A blurry old photo of Elsie White's commission as a United States Navy Ensign September 21, 1943
A blurry old photo of Elsie White’s commission as a United States Navy Ensign September 21, 1943

Soon Elsie was ensconced deep in the sub-basement of a building on Church Street in New York City. She was the newly appointed officer in charge of a team of Navy code breakers. Just to get to work was no small task. Two Marine guards checked ID’s at the entrance of the building. Two more Marines guarded the elevator to the sub-basement. In the sub-basement itself, 4 fully armed Marines stood ready

During one inspection, Elsie was given a formal reprimand for not wearing a fully loaded .45 caliber side-arm per regulations. She did not want to admit that she could barely lift the weapon, much less hold it out straight to aim at anyone.

Elsie may not have been proficient at combat, but she was good at solving puzzles, which is how she approached codes. While the British were busy cracking the German code and its Enigma machine, the Japanese codes presented a much different problem to the Americans. Instead of having 1 code, the Japanese had numerous codes which they changed continuously. Teams of Americans in the Pacific and in the U.S. were given stacks of Japanese codes to crack.

Elsie’s New York code breaking group was an odd assortment of misfits. Most were quiet introverts and a few were alcoholics who smuggled flask bottles of gin into the underground lair. The Navy tolerated all these oddballs, as long and they broke codes. And break codes they did.

Elsie recalled one mousy woman who worked at a back desk and had never spoken to anyone in the unit. One night the mousy woman came up to Elsie and whispered in an respectful tone, “I am sorry to disturb you Ensign, but I think I just broke this code.” It turned out that the little mouse had, in fact, broken the code.

No one knew of Elsie’s wartime adventures until 20 years after World War II had ended. That’s how long all Navy officers in code breaking units were required to keep silent about their duties. As far as most people knew, she had been processing payrolls her whole time in the Navy.

The other day I walked by the office building on Church Street in New York which had once been the site of the secret Navy code breaking unit. Nothing from its outward appearance would every lead anyone to guess its secret past. Much in the same way, no one would ever have guessed that Elsie White Farrell, the tiny blonde mom in her blue Buick station wagon had once worked in the sub-basement serving her country during war.

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