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