WW II’s Unsung Heroes: The Code Girls



by Fran Withrow

Imagine the year is 1942 and you are a highly intelligent young woman about to graduate from college. Your professor calls you into his office to inform you that the U.S. Navy has a job for you. You don’t know what the job entails, but you leap at the chance and off you go to D.C., where you are catapulted into several weeks of intense training. You learn some cursory Japanese (or German, or another foreign language), and massive amounts of math and cryptanalysis. You are warned you will be shot if you talk about your work with anyone. And by the way, your job is crucial to the Allied hopes of winning WWII.

Congratulations! You just became a code breaker. Your mission: decode messages from Axis countries. You will be paid very little, work seven days a week in Washington’s heat and humidity, and bunk with several other women in tight quarters. You will work feverishly to decipher messages from the Axis, knowing that if you can figure out Japanese navy encryptions, you can save American lives. Or if you can unlock the secret of the German codes, you can discover where their U-boats are lurking off the coast of Britain.

You will never receive recognition for your work, because you have taken a vow of silence. Even your roommates don’t know what you are doing. It’s tough work, but your brother and your fiancé are overseas, fighting, and this way you can help too.

Liza Mundy did massive amounts of research, talked to the surviving code breakers, and read reams of correspondence to write this insightful and informative book. I was astounded at just how intricate these wartime codes could be: encrypted and then encrypted again, with pages and numbers that stretched on and on. Code breakers might toil for weeks or months before making a breakthrough. And just when they discovered the key, the Japanese would change the code and they would have to start all over again.

This is a must-read about a little known segment of our history and how these intelligent women made an integral difference in winning the war. The competition between Army and Navy code-breaking teams, the sexism faced by the women, the little known African American code breakers: it is all revealed right here.

Mundy does not forget the tragedy of war: some code breakers read messages that indicated their loved ones’ ships were targeted by Axis forces, but could do nothing about it. Others experienced a death in the family but could be given no time off to mourn. Many code breakers (like many soldiers) were never the same after the war. The intense urgency of their task, the daily tedium and pressure, and the inability to talk about their work took its toll.

This book highlights a crucial time in American history. Personal, personable, and engagingly written, it marks a milestone for women who wanted to do more than teach or be a homemaker.

The silence is over. It’s time to share their stories.

Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II

By Liza Mundy


416 pages

Hachette Books




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