I thought I knew a little bit about code breaking and World War II because I was aware of Bletchley Park, Alan Turing, and Enigma. And I was correct, I did know a little about it. Surprisingly (and maybe sadly?), I was unfamiliar with the story of 10,000 American women who served as codebreakers for both the U.S. Army and Navy during World War II. Code Girls tells the remarkable story of the work, lives, and patriotism of these women.
I have to confess that it took me a little longer than I expected to be won over by this book. Liza Mundy takes pains to explain the status of the war at various points in the story as well as provide background about cryptography. While these specifics provide important context, they are less interesting to me than the lives and challenges of the individual women involved. Where the book really shines is when Mundy provides details about the friendships and relationships between the women and their struggles in, let’s face it, a man’s world. While the women’s services were honored, they encountered a type of sexism that only women can understand. For example, although partying and general “high spirits” were tolerated by the military brass, the one thing that would absolutely kill a woman’s “career” in the Navy was to get pregnant (even if the woman was married). Mundy writes, “The penalty was discharge–and humiliation. Jaenn Coz remembered that ‘when we all lived in the barracks, several girls got knocked up, and it was a sad thing because she had to stand captain’s mast and watch as they stripped off her buttons and ripped off her chevrons and just humiliated her to death.’ ” That pregnancy was punished so severely in spite of the critical work the women were doing is shocking. Equally as insulting was the belief of many Americans that military women “were just prostitutes in uniform, admitted to the military to service the men.” This idea was probably buoyed by the fact that the Navy had height and weight requirements for enlisted members (at least 5 feet tall and 95 pounds), and there seemed to be an unwritten (and unconfirmed) rule about attractiveness. According to Millie Weatherly, a North Carolina telephone operator who went to a recruiting office with a friend, the recruiter accepted Millie but declined to take the friend, saying she wasn’t pretty enough. On a slightly more amusing note, Mundy shares details about the designing of navy women’s uniforms, in which pockets were omitted because the designers felt they would spoil the lines of the suit. Even in 1943, in the midst of war, a working woman couldn’t get a damn pocket!
It is better to look good than to have a functional pocket, even when you are serving your country and helping to win a world war.
That the work was critical can’t be overstated. The Army’s cryptography teams at Arlington Hall cracked Japanese codes so successfully that they were able to read messages before the intended recipients. When Japan finally approached the Swiss with their intention to surrender, the teams intercepting codes knew about it before the President. None of this was easy on the women. They knew well that much of the work they did resulted in the the sinking of ships containing actual human beings (enemy soldiers, sure, but human beings nevertheless). They celebrated the Allies’ successes but never lost sight of the human toll. For their part, these women suffered their own personal tragedies, as their husbands and brothers fought overseas. Jimmie Lee Hutchison Powers worked one of the machines that helped decipher messages sent from the German Enigma-machine. When she got word that her husband Bob Powers, a pilot, had been killed in action, she was denied her request to attend his funeral in Oklahoma. The military wasn’t heartless; the work these women were doing was just too important to stop. Mundy writes, “There were other bombe operators getting the same telegrams, and they could not be allowed to leave. Jimmie Lee stayed at her post. Her father died not long after. She was never able to go home and unburden herself, never able to talk to her father about how much she missed her husband. Nor had she been able to tell her own father goodbye.”
Code Girls reveals an important piece of history, and I recommend it for anyone interested in World War II, cryptography, or girl power. While the structure of the book could have been better, in my opinion, I cherished the stories of these women and their friendships, and how they teamed together to support the Allies’ victories.