We called on them and relied on their intelligence and perseverance for the most vital code breaking work during World War II and then told them it was their patriotic duty to return home. This book had me mesmerized for every minute and only served to spurn my curiosity about the women codebreakers of WWII.
Recruited by the U.S. Army and Navy from small towns and elite colleges, more than ten thousand women served as codebreakers during World War II. While their brothers and boyfriends took up arms, these women moved to Washington and learned the meticulous work of code-breaking. Their efforts shortened the war, saved countless lives, and gave them access to careers previously denied to them. A strict vow of secrecy nearly erased their efforts from history; now, through dazzling research and interviews with surviving code girls, bestselling author Liza Mundy brings to life this riveting and vital story of American courage, service, and scientific accomplishment. from Goodreads.
I’m a sucker for stories about WWII, especially those on the Western Front. And I love codes, possibly because I cannot break even the simplest cypher. So, I knew about Bletchley Park and the enigma machine but, honestly, I was completely unaware of the work of any cryptologist that didn’t work with Alan Turing. Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II introduced me to the formation, work, daily life, and intelligence of the more than 11,000 women who answered the call to serve in this unique role during WWII. This book brought to life the female code breaking geniuses of America and the important work they did on both fronts of this terrible war.
Perhaps the reason I haven’t thought much of the American female codebreakers is because they were sworn to secrecy, and their work remained so, until very recently. In fact, it was just a few years ago that documents were declassified at the National Archive and author, Liza Mundy, brought all of these women’s stories back to life in Code Girls. Mundy interviewed twenty still-living code girls and poured over journals and documents to reconstruct the vital, but secret, service these women provided.
That element, bringing focus to individual women, in order to tell a story that has unfathomable depth and breadth is what makes Code Girls a gripping and fascinating book. The author attaches a story to a woman and reminds you through this small anecdote of who they were before she continues their journey. This allowed the story to progress on both a personal level while still detailing the enormity of what these women undertook and accomplished. I became so attached to Dot, Crow, Agnes and innumerable more by the end of the book but I understood that there were thousands more just like them whose names I will never know.
Before WWII, professions for women were limited to what was considered “suitable to their gender” and what was available after the men filled positions. After Pearl Harbor, as men were called up to serve their country, women took their place. This movement, men leaving a space and women filling it, continued until women outranked even new male recruits in the military. But that was after arguing about whether they had a place in the military at all. And after the men finished debating what kind of underwear women should wear and which gun wouldn’t ruin the lines of their uniforms…you know, really important stuff.
Do you like crossword puzzles? Are you engaged to be married?
Beginning at the Seven Sisters schools, those prestigious East Coast institutions, women were approached privately and asked these two questions. If women answered them correctly they were invited to attend a secret class to become “cryptanalysts.” If the class was completed successfully, they would have jobs with the Navy after graduation. Eventually this personal selection expanded dramatically but any woman with a knowledge of language and math became a target for the code breaking teams.
Prior to reading this book my visualization of a code breaker was nearly as accurate as my erroneously picturing all archeologists as Indiana Jones. I saw one lone woman with glamorous red lips sitting in a dark room with a morse code key receiving, breaking, and resending a message which is immediately relayed to a dashing submarine commander. When I first started reading Code Girls I was shocked by the sheer number of women, 11,000. Why did they need so many women?
Well, because, like archeology, code breaking is methodical and frequently mind numbingly repetitive. Furthermore, the work was broken down into pieces with some women just re-writing the numbers, others looking for patterns, some reassembling, some who spoke the language and on and on. This work caused more than one cryptologist to suffer mental collapse, especially when confronted with the Japanese codes.
All of this work came to a grinding halt at the end of the WWII when the men returned. The same propaganda that encouraged women to do their part during the war now told them that their patriotic duty was to make way for the men, return to their homes, and raise children. Even the GI bill was frequently denied to these women with the message, “We are saving all of our available spots for men.” Many of these women struggled to transition back to the home.
The only complaint I have about this book is that it only increased by curiosity about women’s role in WWII. I found myself repeatedly stopping the audiobook, taking notes on things to further research, and marveling that I had lived so long and not know about the Code Girls. I simply cannot recommend this book highly enough!
Tell me, please!
Did you know about these brave women? Do you have any other books on the subject to recommend?