Code Girls – The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of Work War II

Code Girls by Liza Mundy – is the fascinating story of the thousands of women who worked on the top secret project to crack the German and Japanese codes during World War II.  These woman were not just a part of the project, they were the key component and often leaders of the code breaking success. I can proudly say that my own mother was one of these code breakers; which is what lead me to this book. I recently posted a description of my mother’s work on code breaking. This post was followed almost immediately by both of my sisters calling me and telling me all the details I had gotten wrong. One of my sisters sent me Code Girls, and it turned out to be a fascinating read.

Liza Mundy, author of Code Girls
Liza Mundy, author of Code Girls

Unlike me, Liza Mundy has not missed any of the details. Code Girls was meticulously researched, and Liza Mundy met with many of the surviving people who were part of the World War II code breaking effort. The result is that Code Girls not only gives the technical details of the work, but also has moving personal stories about many of the women.

The Navy recruiting women in World War II
The Navy recruiting women in World War II

The first thing to realize is that the position of American woman at the onset of World War II was vastly different than it is today. At the time, American women were in many ways a huge, yet undiscovered, resource. It was unusual for a woman to attend college, and even more unusual for a woman to study science or mathematics. There were no woman in the Army or Navy, except for nurses.

The American Navy was the first branch of the services to realize how much women would be needed to help win the war. The Navy secretly started searching for the top female talent at the top universities. The American Navy has always been elitist, so it began recruiting at the Seven Sisters of the Ivy League, and at other top universities. Navy officers surreptitiously contacted key Professors to help in the search.

Code Girls were secretly recruited from the Seven Sisters
Code Girls were secretly recruited from the Seven Sisters

 The professors secretly contacted the students they thought would be best suited to the work. The students were given tests and crash courses in code-breaking and the top women were asked to join. Brown University was actually blackballed, since one of the Professors could not resist talking about this exciting project. Once that happened, Brown was scratched off the list. My own mother was at Barnard College of Columbia University when she got the secret nod.

My mother in her Navy officer's uinform in World War II. The mere Army Private is the man who became my father
My mother in her Navy officer’s uinform in World War II. The mere Army Private is the man who became my father

The Navy was also the first to bring the woman in as officers and enlisted women instead of just civilian workers. They began the famous WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). As you can tell from the acronym it was assumed that allowing women into service would be a temporary measure.  (Of course, the woman were so successful at their jobs that they ended up changing the composition of the Navy forever.)

Not only did the Navy want the most brilliant women, they also wanted them to look sharp. Consequently, a huge amount of attention was devoted to designing a beautiful uniform, which even today, many of the Code Girls say was the most flattering outfit they ever owned. As silly as that may seem, the female officers uniforms sent a message that these were important women who mattered.

The American Army was late to the game, and the Navy made it clear that the Ivy League was Navy territory and that the Army better not try to recruit any Ivy League women. Consequently, the Army recruited at colleges throughout the country, especially the South. The Army found that female Southern school teachers were eager to join up, and were very good at code breaking.

By the end of World War II over 200,000 women were in the American Navy and Army, and their work was essential to winning the war.

There were giant code breaking facilities around Washington D.C. mostly staffed and run by women.  The amount of work was staggering. Many thousands of messages in code were constantly being sent by the Germans and Japanese. The more that would be broken the more lives of Allied Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen could be saved. This put tremendous psychological pressure on the code breakers.  They knew that they were not just dealing with columns of numbers and letters and solving complex mathematical problems. They knew that if they failed in their jobs, men might die as a result.

As the war progressed, the code breaking efforts became more and more successful. This was particularly helpful to American submarine warfare. The Pacific Ocean is unimaginably huge, and the possibility of an American sub just happening to find a Japanese ship is almost nonexistent.  The Allies were able to intercept Japanese messages about shipping routes and times, de-code the messages, and transmit instruction to an American sub in time to catch and sink the Japanese ships.

When you think about the staggering distances involved, and the short time available to decode the message, and re-route the submarine, you realize how incredible were the achievements of these code breaking women. In fact, the Japanese thought the American submarine fleet was many times larger than it actually was. There were times when every single American submarine was on route to verified targets due to the code breaking women in Washington D.C.  

Without the Code Girls, World War II would have been much longer than it was, and many more people would have died.

Who knew that my mother had secretly been a code breaker in World War II?
Who knew that my mother had secretly been a code breaker in World War II?

So what became of the Code Girls when the war ended? They blended back into American life, not allowed to talk about what they did during the war. Men had heroic stories to tell, but these women had to lie and pretend they had not done anything much during the war.

Of course, men may not have realized it at the time, but World War II had forever change the position of American women in the world. At the most frantic period of the war there was a huge competition for American Woman.  The Army and the Navy wanted them, but so did factories and offices. Women were given good pay and huge responsibilities.

After the war, most American women became those 1950s American housewives that Hollywood loves to make fun of. But that was not the end of the story. Most people think the feminist revolution began in the late 1960s, but it actually started in World War II. These 1950s housewives had not forgotten what they were capable of. They taught their daughters how truly important women are to society. They made sure their daughters got good educations, and made sure their daughters realized that they were capable of anything.

Well, I hope I have properly gotten all the details of Code Girls correct.  If not, you can be sure that I will soon receive 2 phone calls. One from each of my sisters.

One thought on “Code Girls – The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of Work War II

  1. Loved the book and the review! Great insight that these women were the first feminists and raised daughters who who break barriers in the next generation.

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