In 1941, the U.S. Navy began quietly recruiting male intelligence officers from elite colleges and universities around the country as it prepared for their inevitable involvement in World War II; they were specifically looking for codebreakers to aid in deciphering the enemy’s cryptic language.
Just months before on July 9, 1941, Alan Turing and his team of 8,000 female ciphers broke the impossible German Enigma code at Bletchley Park; a feat that turned the tide of war in the Allies favor.
By 1942, male enlistment abroad created a shortage in manpower on the home front and President Roosevelt designated a new division in the Navy for women; they were known as WAVES or, Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service.
One of these volunteers was Judy Parsons, a 21-year-old graduate of Carnegie Mellon University who signed up for the officer training school in 1942. She was sent to the Navy’s intelligence headquarters in Washington DC where she was shuffled into a room among other WAVES graduates.
‘Does anyone know German?’ they asked.
Parsons had studied it for two years in high school and was immediately assigned to OP-20-G, a codebreaking division that became the US Navy’s version of Bletchley Park. She is one of the 11,000 untold stories of American women responsible for some of the most impressive codebreaking triumphs of the war.
The surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941 led to the United States’ formal entry into World War II. Overnight, a sleeping nation was forced to wake up to the fact that it was woefully unprepared for war.
The home front mobilized its human and material resources for the war- effort which created an unprecedented opportunity for women to enter the workforce outside the domestic sphere. Epitomized by Rosie the Riveter, many women rolled up their sleeves to work in factories that built bombs, ships, tanks, and aircraft.
Far less known are the stories like Judy Parsons, who joined the WAVES after discovering that the Navy was accepting women for its officer training program in a newspaper ad.
By 1945, 11,000 women were hired to work as codebreakers for the Army and Navy but their work was to be kept entirely secret for almost 70 years. ‘We were told that we would be hung at the gallows,’ said Parsons to CNN. ‘They really laid it on thick that we were not to talk.’
‘I never told my husband, I never told anybody,’ she said. It wasn’t until the 1990s, when information became declassified that Parsons began discussing the work she did among friends and family.
If asked what they did, they were told to tell people that they emptied trash cans and sharpened pencils. ‘It was kind-of a blow to my pride not be able to talk about it because everybody assumed I was a secretary,’ said Parsons.
Others improvised a more cheeky response and said their job was to sit on the laps of commanding officers.
‘I would love to have said, I had such a good job you wouldn’t believe, but I couldn’t say that,’ lamented Parsons.
They worked hard at dispelling the myth that women were gossipy rumormongers and bad at keeping secrets. ‘The top bananas said that women couldn’t keep a secret and we showed them that we could,’ said Parsons.
According to Politico, one team of women agreed that if anyone ordered a vodka Collins while out at a bar together – it would be a signal that someone was showing too much interest in their work and they were to scatter to the ladies room and flee the situation.
The WAVES were not expected to succeed either. Virginia Gildersleeve, Dean of Barnard College, recalled to the Washington Post how some Naval officers believed that ‘admitting women into the Navy would break up homes and amount to a step backward in civilization.’
Until 1942, all cryptoanalytic work was done by men and before arriving at their new job posts in Washington, the recruits received welcome packets that read: ‘Whether women can take it over successfully, remains to be proved.’ Adding later, ‘We believe you can do it.’
They were dressed in exquisitely tailored uniforms designed by the American couturier, Mainbocher and housed into hastily modified barracks throughout Washington D.C. and Arlington, Virginia. Years later, some remarked that it was ‘the most flattering piece of clothing they ever owned.’
The WAVES got to work at the Navy’s cramped, downtown intelligence headquarters that were converted from a former seminary campus on Nebraska Avenue. Within a year, 4,000 women worked in the U.S. codebreaking unit.
‘There’s a bit of a misnomer, in that Bletchley Park is often discussed as the primary center where German codes and ciphers were being broken down,’ said Commander David Kohnen, a historian at the Naval War College to CNN. ‘In fact, after 1943, most of that work was being done in Washington, DC, at Nebraska Avenue by WAVES like Judy.’
Historians estimate that the invention of the Enigma decoding ‘Bombe’ machine and the painstaking work done at Bletchley Park in the UK, shortened the war by two to four years. Without the Bombe machine (a hulking 5,000 ton computer designed by Alan Turing) – the odds of breaking the diabolically difficult German Enigma code were impossible: 1,600 million billion to one.
The Bombe was a boon for the Allies who were suffering under Hitler’s unstoppable reach. It allowed them to access top-secret German intelligence that eventually resulted in an Allied victory.
Much like Bletchley Park, the WAVES worked around the clock in three rotating shifts to decipher German intelligence. Aided by the Bombe, teams of women unraveled coded messages, translated documents and built libraries that kept track of shipping inventories, speeches, and important enemy names.
Once a code was broken, it had to be exploited and re-broken daily as the German key was reset every 24 hours. Speed was always of the essence.
They also tested the security of America’s own intelligence in what would be the precursor to what is now commonly known as ‘information security.’
In the grand plot to fool German forces on D-Day, they created fake radio signals that fooled Hitler into believing the Normandy invasion would take place further up the coastline in Calais or far away places like Norway.
Parsons’ unit focused primarily on decoding messages sent to the German U-boats that wreaked deadly havoc on the Allied forces at sea. Overtime, she developed kindred feelings for the submarine captains that she tracked so intimately. ‘We really felt kind-of unhappy when they were killed, because we felt like we knew them. When somebody died in the family, they got a message, happy birthday type things.’
One of the captains was expecting a baby. ‘It wasn’t a week later that the submarine was sunk and I felt so bad about that. He’ll never know his father,’ said Parsons to CNN. ‘It was an odd feeling to know that you had part of somebody’s death.’
Intelligence acquired by the WAVES resulted in the entire fleet of German U-boats being sunk or captured by the end of the war – completely eliminating their ruthless control of Allied shipping channels.
In some ways, women were thought to be better suited for codebreaking work; but that ‘wasn’t a compliment,’ explained Liz Mundy, author of Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II. It merely meant they were considered better at undertaking the boring tasks that required tedious attention to detail.
Women did the painstaking grunt work while the giant ‘leaps of genius’ were reserved for their male cohorts said Mundy. They ‘came from a generation when women did not expect—or receive—credit for achievement in public life.’
Men were considered to be more brilliant but impatient, volatile and a security risk when it came to women and liquor. According to Politico, when the Army began training young soldiers to work as radio intercept operators, a memo was sent out among top brass that read: ‘youth is a time for sowing of wild oats and under the influence of women and liquor, much is said that the speaker would not dream of saying when uninfluenced.’
However, the WAVES were subject to stricter sexual and social punishments than enlisted men. Lesbianism, abortion were not tolerated and pregnancy, even for married women, resulted in a discharge.
American cryptoanalysts played a crucial role in shortening the war with Japan; an enemy that Mundy said ‘was willing to fight to the death.’ The WAVES intercepted 30,000 water-transport messages per month in 1944 and made sense of the jumbled numerical deluge by searching for patterns with a few ‘golden guesses.’
Breaking the Japanese codes allowed Allies to destroy every single supply ship that attempted to forge through the Pacific; crippling the Imperial Army’s troops.
After the war, the Army and Navy’s clandestine communications operations merged to become what is now the National Security Agency
The WAVES, like so many other women who partook in the home front effort were expected to give up their jobs, go home and start having families. ‘The Navy thanked us profusely, sent us home and it was back to the kitchen,’ said Parsons.
New York Representative Clarence Hancock heralded the codebreaking forces as a great success in a rousing speech to the House on October 25, 1945. ‘They are entitled to glory and national gratitude which they will never receive,’ he said. ‘I believe that our cryptographers … in the war with Japan did as much to bring that war to a successful and early conclusion as any other group of men.’
‘That more than half of those ‘cryptographers’ were women was nowhere mentioned,’ said Liz Mundy.