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

Review

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

Following the recognition of Navajo “code talkers” who served the US with distinction during World War II, and for the many men working in espionage in what have been depicted as dangerous and romantic postings, women who assisted in the war effort as codebreakers are finally recognized and appropriately regaled by bestselling author Liza Mundy.

Drawing from US Army and Navy archives, Mundy managed to get data declassified in order to access oral histories and contact roughly 20 surviving participants, like Dot Braden, a high school teacher with a facility for languages when she was hired to work for the US Army Signal Intelligence Service at nearly twice her former salary. In some cases, the codebreakers were recruited from women's colleges, indicating their intellectual status at a time when few women ventured beyond secondary education.

"Tracking their work and personal lives, almost on a daily basis, Mundy brings back the tensions and rigors of that seminal time in our history, while paying homage to a group of heroines unsung until now."

They were initially trained and housed at Arlington Farms in northern Virginia. Freed from household chores and plunged into work within weeks, they and the other women crowding into the Washington area to aid in the war effort became known as "g-girls." The code girls would eventually be inducted into the newly formed WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service). Battling the usual bias against women, they were drawn in for the tasks of cryptanalysis mainly because, like “Rosie the Riveter,” they were there and men were not.

Among those whose lives during and after the war are explored in this fascinating work is Genevieve Marie Grotjan. It was Grotjan who cracked the Purple code, a Japanese machine-based cipher said to be unbreakable. Her feat was described by an expert as “by far the most difficult cryptanalytic problem successfully handled and solved by any signal intelligence unit in the world.” Breaking the Purple gave the allies a way into the thinking of the Japanese at the diplomatic level, as well as the ability to follow their military strategy. Of course, Grotjan, like others on her team, would receive no public credit for her work.

Despite the tedium of the work and the strict military rules, fun was not ruled out. “Fraternizing” occurred between the WAVES and their male counterparts --- and among female counterparts, though lesbianism, like pregnancy even for married participants, would have meant instant dismissal. Yet they were far from the undisciplined group the military was leery of when it recruited civilians. The code workers took their jobs very seriously and knew the consequences of breaking the secrecy oath.

An epilogue traces the later lives of these intrepid women. Some used the GI Bill to further their education; many suffered the same old discrimination that had existed pre-war, watching men get the best jobs; some lived "happily ever after" while others suffered lingering depression. Some in the group instituted a round-robin letter to maintain contact. One small edge that women had over men in the military was that their lives were not as closely scrutinized post-war. Friends and family noticed the complex thinking processes of these remarkable females; one man remarked that, when asked directions, his mother had to “start with the address and work backward,” harking back to the tedious work she had done with Japanese address codes.

There is no doubt that the code analysis carried out by these women shortened the war, and since nearly all of them had family members in combat, this was the ever-present goal, even as the last days of WWII brought heart-rending slaughter. Tracking their work and personal lives, almost on a daily basis, Mundy brings back the tensions and rigors of that seminal time in our history, while paying homage to a group of heroines unsung until now.

Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on October 19, 2017

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

  • Publication Date: October 10, 2018
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Hachette Books
  • ISBN-10: 0316352543
  • ISBN-13: 9780316352543