416 pages

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS - League of Their Own, A

If you were ac­com­plish­ing re­mark­able things in an un­usual field of ex­per­tise, would you be able to main­tain to­tal secrecy about your suc­cess? Per­haps if your ac­tions could bring home from war those you loved, you might. Or if you’d been freed from an unin­spir­ing ca­reer and un­leashed into an ex­cit­ing, un­known one, then you could keep silent.

Liza Mundy’s metic­u­lously re­searched look at the man­ner in which the Army and Navy re­cruited at least 10,000 women after the bomb­ing of Pearl Har­bor and of­fered them life-chang­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties to do ur­gent work for their coun­try — and how those women made them­selves cru­cial to the Al­lied World War II ef­fort — is told us­ing two fo­cal points. One is bi­o­graph­i­cal, through sto­ries of spe­cific women em­bark­ing on this life-chang­ing ad­ven­ture, and the other is tech­ni­cal, through de­scrip­tions of the of­ten com­plex par­tic­u­lars of crypt­anal­y­sis, or code-break­ing.

Mundy jux­ta­poses per­sonal and his­tor­i­cal de­tails with the largely un­re­counted tale of women’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in World War II in an “ob­scure and even slightly crack­pot pro­fes­sion,” cre­at­ing a sus­pense­ful nar­ra­tive even though we know its fi­nal out­come. The author pro­vides en­gross­ing de­tails of work life in the over­heated code-break­ing cen­ters where the women toiled in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and Ar­ling­ton, Vir­ginia. She ex­plores the pro­gres­sive so­phis­ti­ca­tion with which the women worked to de­velop meth­ods of in­ter­pret­ing codes and ci­phers. (Codes are words that are switched, such as when the word “ap­ple” is used to mean some­thing other than ap­ple, say, “meet­ing at dusk.” Ci­phers re­place let­ters rather than en­tire words; for in­stance, if each let­ter in the pre­vi­ous phrase were re­placed with the next let­ter in the al­pha­bet, it would be a ci­pher that reads as “nf­fu­joh bu evtl.”)

By com­bin­ing the per­sonal and pro­ce­dural, Mundy makes the women’s ex­pe­ri­ences vivid and their suc­cesses deeply felt. The cen­tral fig­ure is Dot Braden, a school­teacher re­cruited by the Army who is now ninety-six. El­ize­beth Smith Fried­man, Agnes Meyer Driscoll, Ruth We­ston, Anne Barus, Genevieve Grot­jan, El­iz­a­beth Bigelow, Bea Nor­ton, Bets Colby, and many oth­ers are pre­sented so vividly that you can al­most see the bounce in their steps as they board trains for Wash­ing­ton, D.C., to take on their top-se­cret tasks. The book also presents a de­tailed look at the dif­fi­culty of wartime re­la­tion­ships, the tri­als faced by the first women in civil­ian and mil­i­tary roles, and the ob­sta­cles these women ex­pe­ri­enced even in find­ing lodg­ing, food, and ba­sic ne­ces­si­ties in wartime Amer­ica.

Pledged to ab­so­lute secrecy, the women worked to break coded com­mu­ni­ca­tions used by Ja­pan and Ger­many against the Al­lied pow­ers. Even while de­ci­pher­ing in­creas­ingly com­plex mes­sages sent by both mil­i­tary and diplo­matic chan­nels in Tokyo and Ber­lin, the women’s salar­ies and po­ten­tial ca­reer choices re­mained lim­ited com­pared with those of men. Yet Mundy’s nar­ra­tive doesn’t dwell on this, or on the in­sult­ing phrases in of­fi­cial use at the time such as “pa­tri­otic pul­chri­tude,” but cel­e­brates the strength, de­ter­mi­na­tion, and suc­cess of the de­vel­op­ing meth­ods that broke ever more so­phis­ti­cated ci­phers. There’s con­scious­ness of, but lit­tle dwelling upon, the slights and un­fair­ness the women had to en­dure. In­stead, the book is un­apolo­get­i­cally and un­sen­ti­men­tally about a spir­ited sis­ter­hood that helped the war ef­fort.

In the Eu­ro­pean theater of the war op­er­a­tions, the women also suc­cess­fully cre­ated false com­mu­ni­ca­tions that ham­pered the Ger­mans in the lead-up to the Nor­mandy in­va­sion, and they tracked Ja­panese ships and Ger­man U-boats. Through her ex­ten­sive archival re­search, Mundy shows that the code-break­ers saved count­less Amer­i­can and British sailors’ lives. But they also came to know the feel­ing of tar­get­ing a spe­cific sub­ma­rine, freighter, or Ja­panese of­fi­cer and see­ing mor­tal re­sults swiftly; it seems safe to as­sume none of them left Wash­ing­ton the same as when they ar­rived. In a a touch rem­i­nis­cent of the 1992 movie

about the All-Amer­i­can Girls Pro­fes­sional Base­ball League that played from 1943 to 1954, Mundy closes the book with sev­eral where­are-they-now sto­ries. These, along with the poignant and light­hearted mem­o­ries shared by the women them­selves, seal the first­hand na­ture of an un­ex­plored and ex­cit­ing chap­ter of Amer­i­can his­tory.

— Pa­tri­cia Leni­han

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