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Calling all Code Girls

Some time ago, while I was doing my research of influential women during the Cold War, I had heard of teams of women who broke military codes during World War II. However, since it was prior to the timeline I was researching, I put it in the back of my mind. Then I came across the book “Code Girls” by Liza Mundy, published in 2018. I bought it and read it in a week, which was a feat considering my schedule. These women were recruited for their minds, their patience, and their willingness to help in the fight while their brothers, friends, and husbands were sent to the front lines. This was a common war-time strategy, hire women for important jobs that they are incredibly capable of so that the men who would normally be slotted for these jobs could fight. The term for this new cadre of women were called the Women Accepted for Volunteer Exceptional Service or WAVES. Calling it “volunteer” and “Exceptional” calmed anyone worried that these were permanent positions, because heaven forbid!

Coding and code breaking had been a counter-espionage activity in the interest of defense, commercial competition, and of course, intelligence since the Revolutionary War. New technology brought increased challenges. When WWII broke out in Europe, the need for code-breakers who could tackle machine-driven ciphers became urgent. That urgency became more acute after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and Roosevelt declared war on the Axis. Men started joining the military in droves, but there were many more jobs to be done to support the war effort. So the government started sending out letters to women who excelled in various areas of study at the Seven Sister universities (Wellesley, Smith, Bryn Mawr, Barnard, Radcliffe, Mount Holyoke and Vassar) and other women’s colleges. These women were interviewed on site and asked if they were married, or intended to be married, and liked crossword puzzles. If they answered no to the former and yes to the latter, they were given some background on coding and ciphers, as well as homework in the form of puzzles along with strict instructions not to tell anyone at the school what they were doing. After they completed this introductory “training”, depending on how they did, they were invited to Washington, DC. However, they still weren’t told what they were there for right away. When the purpose of their training - code-breaking - was revealed to them, they were sworn to secrecy upon penalty of death. There were also recruitment sessions at the Mayflower Hotel, where college students were invited for initial interviews and testing.

Other women who the government sought for the purpose of code-breaking were teachers. Since the pay for a teacher was typically low, they were easily incentivized by moderately better pay, interesting work, and a sense of patriotism. Recruiters also believed that teachers would have greater amounts of patience (teachers typically do). One of these teachers was Dot Braden. Dot was from Lynchburg, VA, and she had responded to an advertisement that the military was recruiting women for the war effort. With an academic background in languages and physics, she was deemed a good fit and found herself on a train to DC. From Union Station a taxi took her to Arlington Hall, a former boarding school for girls that had be requisitioned by the War Department and transformed into the Army‘s Signal Intelligence Service (Arlington Hall is now the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute).

A black and white neo-classical building with six columns, a driveway, and the American flag flying on the right side of the photo.
The main building of Arlington Hall, now the campus of the State Department's Foreign Service Institute.

The other major center of code-breaking for the Navy was at first in the "tempo" buildings that were hastily erected during the WWII era. Eventually the codebreaking teams were getting so large that they had to be moved to another location, Potomac Academy, another former private school which sits on Nebraska Avenue still today as a Navy building.

Tempo Buildings on the National Mall Mount Vernon Seminary Main Building

Many of the women who worked at Arlington Hall, including Dot, lived nearby at Arlington Farms, a set of ten buildings quickly erected by the government to house female government civilians, WAVES, and female officers. Arlington Hall was referred to as "28 acres of girls," and was a pretty social and popular place for some of the enlisted men to visit according to this awesome photo exhibit by the Vintage News blog. Some lived in the District itself, grouping together at boarding houses and short-term rentals. Below are just a few of the NSA's Cryptology Hall of Famers who lived in Washington, DC.

Agnes Meyer Driscoll

The mother of Cryptography was arguably Agnes Meyer Driscoll, who used to live at 2123 I Street NW (now a GW hospital building). She was proficient in a variety of studies, receiving her degree in Math, Physics, Music and Languages at Ohio State University. Up until 1918 she was a teacher in Amarillo, Texas, but feeling called to service during the war she enlisted in the Navy at the rank of Yeoman (F) (for female). She was one of the first cadres of women who worked for the Navy, period. She monitored telegram traffic and letters, and later worked on encoding Navy telegrams. Making codes was the perfect training for breaking them, and she would develop an incredible talent for cryptology. She cracked codes created by the first cipher machines, and helped to invent better ones. After she married she worked in private industry for a couple of years, but returned to government work in 1924, in which she eventually became known for her proficiency in holding her own in a man's world. In the interwar period, she played a critical part of cracking Japanese codes. The Japanese were trying to expand their holdings after defeating Russia in the Russo-Japanese War, and the US was worried that their ambitions would extend to control of American holdings in Southeast Asia such as Guam and the Philippines. Her office was in one of the "tempo" shown above (left). This is where most of the Navy’s early code-cracking happened, before they moved to the Mount Vernon Seminary building (right). Throughout the 20s and 30s she sat at her desk, breaking different Japanese fleet codebooks. She used to say “Any man-made code could be broken by a woman.” In 1940 she cracked the JN-25 code, which had been thought to be unbreakable. While they weren’t able to prevent the attack on Pearl Harbor from happening, her work on the JN-25 codes would help the Navy gain an edge in the battle for the Pacific, in particular the Battle of Midway. By the end of the war, she was recognized as a giant of decoding and in 2000 was inducted into the decoder Hall of Honor.

Elizebeth Smith Friedman

Elizebeth Smith was a code breaking trailblazer as well, and a rival of Agnes Driscoll (at least in Driscoll’s mind). Also multilingual and educated in the mid-West, Elizebeth discovered her talent for code breaking when she was hired by an eccentric and very wealthy textile merchant named George Fabyan. Fabyan was financing a project proposed to him by another Elizabeth, Rolls Gallup. She was obsessed with the theory that Shakespeare's works were in fact written by Sir Francis Bacon, and that Bacon had encoded the language with a code he invented called a “bilateral cypher” that could prove as such. Fabyan had an entire operation dedicated to breaking this “code” at a building on his estate called “Riverbank Laboratories,” outside of Chicago. Even though Elizebeth Smith had no experience, she knew she wanted to do something with her life that was not “run-of-the-mill,’ and working with authentic, original Shakespearean texts certainly fell in the category. She impressed Fabyan with her wit and was added to Gallup’s team. While working at Riverbank she met William Friedman, who was also working on the Bacon project among other things. They fell in love, and while they eventually came to see the Bacon project as a dead end, they both learned a great deal about cryptology, which would help both of their careers in the future. When WWI broke out, Fabyan offered his facility to the U.S. government to use as a code-breaking center and Elizebeth and William were put in charge. Eventually they would leave Fabyan’s service and work for the Army directly, with William traveling to Europe to develop codes for the front-lines, and Elizebeth working on decryption in Washington, DC. Her salary was half the amount his was. They lived in a home at 3932 Military Road NW.

The home of William and Elizabeth Friedman at 3932 Military Rd NW.

After the war, the Friedmans focused their decoding efforts on domestic crime syndicates, in particular during the Prohibition era. In fact, she was partially responsible for the breaking up of Al Capone’s rum runner rings in New Orleans. Apparently encrypted coding was used in arenas other than war! But war would come again soon enough, when aggressions by both Germany and Japan threatened to destabilize the world. On the European front, the Germans had developed an encryption machine dubbed “Enigma” by the Allies. The machines churned out complicated coded messages that stumped most code-breakers. However, Elizebeth was undaunted and in 1943 she broke one of the Enigma codes that revealed Nazi operations across the Western Hemisphere, specifically across Latin America. She became the bête noire of German spymaster Johannes Siegfried Becker. Due to her efforts, US agencies were able to break up the spy rings and eliminate any potential threats from South America, allowing them to focus on Europe and the Pacific theater. J. Edgar Hoover took full credit for her success however, and she wouldn’t be acknowledged as the driving code-breaker behind that effort until the 21st century.

Ann Caracristi

Ann Caracristi, a New York native, would go on to have a full career in information security. She was one of the many college girls who were recruited in the early years of the war. She was recommended by the dean of Russell Sage College, and was first given a series of puzzles and tests, at which she excelled. She was invited to the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC for the initial induction, then entered into training. She was hired for the Army Cryptology team, and began her career sorting messages that would be analyzed by the team studying enciphered messages from Japanese communication systems. She quickly advanced as she herself became an expert in analyzing enciphered Japanese messaging traffic. One of her big breakthroughs was cracking the code for addresses, along with her colleague Wilma Berryman. While a small piece of information, identifying addresses meant they could identify where messages were coming from, which meant identifying the locations of the Japanese. This was Arlington Hall’s first huge victory against the Japanese Army's coded messaging system. Ann Caracristi used the break to build a key to the patterns and meanings of different codes. She became known for “book-breaking,” which meant cracking the code patterns for entire codebooks. Due to her work, the U.S. Military had an advantage in dedicating resources according to the Japanese’s movements.

In an interview for the Veterans History project, she described DC during the war as being a "great deal of fun." She and her cohorts rode the streetcars (an above-ground system at the time) to work, dined at local restaurants, and she describes a general sense of excitement. They went to National Theater, where she saw “Uncle Homer.”

She also mentions that trains to New York were almost intolerable, being crowded and uncomfortable. It's an interesting snapshot into what war-time Washington was like from a civilian's perspective .

Ann Caracristi and Gert Kirtland's home at 1222 28th Street NW.

After the war ended, she went into the private sector, but like Agnes Driscoll soon found it incredibly boring. So, she returned to Arlington Hall after the war and put her experience to good use in the Cold War era, working out ciphers for Soviet weapons systems. She would have a hand in the Venona Project, a entire cadre of women who did exactly what was done during WWII, but targeted at the rising Communist threats. She rose through the ranks of the NSA, was give the National Security Metal, and awarded the Distinguished Civilian Service Award. She was even invited to Ronald Reagan’s White House. By that time she was living in a cozy home in Georgetown at 1222 28th Street NW, with her longtime partner Gertrude Kirtland, an author. She was inducted into the NSA Hall of Honor in 2011, and died five years later at 94 years old.

Genevieve Marie Grotjan (photo: Wikipedia)

Genevieve Marie Grotjan

One of the Navy's star codebreakers was Genevieve Marie Grotjan, who was hired by the Navy as Junior Cryptanalyst in 1939. A New York native, Genevieve had majored in math, was proficient in Latin, and belonged to the International Relations Club. She had aspired to be a college math teacher, but as a woman found it difficult to find an institution willing to hire her. So she found a position as a clerk in the government, calculating retirement payouts. While living in Washington, she lived in a boarding house at 1439 Euclid Street, close to the Meridian Park. She was found by the Signal Intelligence Service when she tested high on a math exam she took to qualify for a pay raise. She joined the SIS and quickly rose to become one of their most prominent codebreakers of the WWII era. Her biggest success was breaking the cipher system used by the Japanese.

The apartment building where Genevieve lived at 1439 Euclid Street NW.

Their cipher machine was churning out complicated codes that had stumped US codebreakers. Color-coding the cipher machines identified by codebreakers, this one was named "Purple." Frank Rowlett was supervising the effort, and for a year his team had failed to break the Purple code. Genevieve patiently studied the codes coming out of Purple from dawn to dusk, while Rowlett and the rest of the team tried to figure out the signal mechanism and patterns coming out of the communications. Finally, in September of 1940, Genevieve approaches the team and wants to show them something. She had identified a pattern that was repeated often enough that it was revealing the cycles that would point to the messages. She had broken the code that an entire team of far more experienced men couldn't break. It was a combination of talent, determination, and concentration. Frank Rowlett told William Friedman, who unbelievingly congratulated a thrilled and gratified Grotjan. The Purple cipher was considered to be one of the most difficult in crypto-analytical history to that point. The military and intelligence communities usage of the messages decoded from Purple would be invaluable, though unfortunately it would not be enough to alert the Navy of Japan's plan to bomb Pearl Harbor. Nonetheless, it gave them information on Japan's conversations with the Nazis, and gave the US an edge in the battles of the Pacific theater.

You may notice that all of these women are white. Unfortunately, whatever acceptance there was into expanding the workforce to include non-white-male employees, that open-mindedness did not generally extend to the African American community, and even less so to Black women. Even though under Franklin Delano Roosevelt African Americans would be given positions of some influence in his "black cabinet," when it came to the individual departments, in particular the conservative Department of War, African Americans primarily served in either custodial or clerical positions. It wouldn't be until the post-war era and the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement that black women would be accepted into professional or analytical positions.

However, I would like to highlight at least one African American woman who entered the codebreaking world, even though it was a few years after the end of WWII.

Iris Carr, a former teacher in Texas, moved to Washington, DC in 1944 searching for better paying and secure job opportunities. She first worked in the Office of Recorder Deeds, then taught gave English classes to African American WWII veterans for the Hilltop Radio Electronics Institute. She met Bernice Williams, who worked for a new all-Black unit in the Russian Plaintext Office, and with her help was hired in 1950 as a statistical clerk. She worked through the early Cold War years decoding Russian messages, which despite the discrimination and racial climate of the country at the time, still gave her a sense of patriotism and pride. She would retire after 21 years of service in 1971.

These women are but just a small percentage of the thousands who served their country during two of the worst wars in history. Post-war, many married and left the working world once they had children. Some remained in Washington and found careers, either in intelligence or other fields. What struck me was how many of these women who were specifically sought out for their intelligence and contributed to victory for the Allied forces, were actively discouraged from continuing to work after the war was over. Despite their capabilities, their place was once again back in the home and what jobs there were should be made available to the men. Society has a habit of acknowledging the intelligence and usefulness of certain sections of the population during wartime that it denies opportunities to otherwise during peacetime. It’s a glaring hypocrisy. While we have made so many strides today, there still seems to be a persistent need to fight for recognition of the intrinsic value and intelligence of individual human beings, whatever their gender or race. It is only in the last couple of decades that the contributions of these women have even been publicly recognized. This is why their stories need to be and deserve to be told. Happy Women's History month!

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