Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers in World War II
Author Liza Mundy in conversation with Dr. Jessica Restaino, director of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Montclair State University
Tuesday, May 29, 7 p.m.
Montclair Public Library,
50 South Fullerton Ave.
Event is full; arrive at 6:20 to join standby line.
By PATRICIA CONOVER
For Montclair Local
It’s time to recognize the heroines — the women who worked diligently, unrecognized and unsung — behind the scenes during World War II. Women like Dot Braden, a young schoolteacher who was recruited by the U.S. Army Signal Intelligence Service. She, along with approximately 10,000 other young women, broke enemy codes and provided information that aided the United States and its allies in victory.
Liza Mundy tells Braden’s story, and the story of others doing the same job, in her new book “Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers in World War II.”
She will discuss the book with Dr. Jessica Restaino, director of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Montclair State University at the Montclair Public Library on Tuesday, May 29.
Mundy brings great humanity to the Dot’s life and the lives of all the code girls, many away from home for the first time. They were brilliant, adventurous, loyal and conscientious. And they were sworn to secrecy. Many carried their secrets to their graves. Their husbands and children never knew the important work they did, until now.
Thousands of college women and the new college graduates received cryptic letters that asked them about their crossword puzzle acumen and their post-college plans. (Code Girls could not be married.)
Braden didn’t receive a mysterious letter full of questions. Instead, she was interviewed for government work in her Virginia hometown. She didn’t know what exactly she would be doing in Washington, D.C., but she was ready to serve her country. She learned cryptology and began cracking enemy codes with other college educated young women.
Mundy spent many hours filing declassification review requests so that she could examine the archival material stored in the National Archives in Maryland firsthand. Due to her efforts, thousands of pages of archival material regarding the female code breakers were declassified. After the war, many of the code girls were promoted to top tier jobs at the National Security Agency (NSA.) The NSA monitors communications for national security threats.
You’re a whiz at research and you segue between hard facts and fun memories and you make it look easy. What is your writing routine?
I rewrite a lot. This book was challenging on several fronts. Understanding the hard facts of war and the intricate details of women’s lives and bringing it all together was a demanding task. My editor thought that there should be a central character and that created some challenges chronologically. I have to forgive myself for my first draft — I’m not too hard on myself — whatever I write initially is not going to be a finished book. I sit in a chair for eight hours and I just try to keep moving forward. This book was difficult because I was mining documents and keeping everything organized.
It’s interesting that these women who were brought in were accomplished in math and language. Most men were resistant to women being included in the war effort. Was there a man who was ahead of his time in including women and giving them credit for their code breaking efforts?
William Friedman believed in hiring women. He was married to Elizebeth Smith Friedman, a cryptanalyst, author and cryptography pioneer. William Friedman was an equal opportunity employer. He recruited mathematician Genevieve Grotjan to work as a cryptanalyst for the Army’s Signals Intelligence Service (SIS.) In 1940, Grotjan worked with her SIS colleagues to decipher the code being used by Japan’s “Purple” encryption machine. That breakthrough enabled the U. S. to eavesdrop on Japanese communications, gain strategic intelligence, and save thousands of lives. Included in the decoded messages: Japanese Admiral Yamamoto’s fleet movements. This information led to the U.S. Navy’s victory at the Battle of Midway in 1942.
“Hidden Figures” (the Oscar-nominated film) and “The Bletchley Circle” (the British television miniseries) were both hits that portrayed women heroes. Is Code Girls headed to Hollywood?
Actor Jim Parsons’ That’s Wonderful Productions has optioned the film rights. Parsons wants to bring more of these stories to the screen. There’s a wonderful screenwriter on board. It may take a while, though.
Were there African American code girls — like the young women in “Hidden Figures?”
The U.S. Army was segregated, but there was an important African American code-breaking unit at Arlington Hall in Virginia. These were incredibly accomplished women who were college educated at a time when only about 4 percent of women earned college degrees. The African American unit — which was mostly women — was assigned to monitor the private sector. Just as banks encrypt communications today, banks and companies encrypted their communications. The unit deciphered communications to be sure that no American company was working with our enemies. The records on that unit are not plentiful. WWII was our first national experiment with inclusion and it was successful. It was an all hands on deck moment for the U.S.”
How were you uniquely qualified to write this book—in terms of your childhood—was there a childhood memory or did your parents inspire you in some way? Who influenced you along the way?
I come from Southwestern Virginia — and the teacher I focus on, Dot Braden, grew up in Lynchburg. I was familiar with most of the women’s colleges in my book. My mother went to Hollins University here in Virginia and she would have been an amazing codebreaker. Also, the history of women in the workplace — I’m familiar with the challenges women faced in the workplace during that time. Now I live in Arlington, VA where the army’s massive code breaking units were housed. A lot of the housing complexes here were built to house those women. These women established a tradition of public service in my community — many people have approached me to say that their mothers and grandmothers were code breakers. That’s extremely gratifying.