February 02, 2018

Women breaking naval codes. Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration.

During World War II, a flurry of coded messages were sent by the Axis powers. Data on troop movements, supplies, ship locations... all transmitted via code. But these messages didn't necessarily stay coded for long. The Allies were able to intercept, decode, and learn the vital wartime secrets contained within many of these transmissions. These codebreaking efforts were vital in ending the war. And the people who actually did a lot of this work were women - over ten thousand of them. Liza Mundy is the author of Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II, and she tells us about this little-known part of American history. 

Three Takeaways:  

  • After Pearl Harbor, millions of American men were sent to fight the Axis powers overseas. This presented a problem, as there weren't enough men to break codes. The solution? Recruit thousands of smart, college-educated women. The Navy primarily looked for women at women's colleges, while the Army recruited female teachers. 
  • The work that these women did was absolutely critical. "It's impossible to overstate how many Japanese ships and German U-boats we were sinking due to the intelligence reports that the women were drawing up," Mundy says. 
  • After the war, their contributions were largely overlooked. Since their work was classified, the women were told not to talk about their experiences, and for the most part, they kept quiet. The history of WWII codebreaking was mostly written without them.  

More Reading (And Listening)  

  • There was a woman who wanted to become a codebreaker, and was instead assigned to work on something new, a computer. Her name was Grace Hopper, and she became one of the most important programmers ever. We recently did a story about her; take a listen
  • It wasn't just the Americans that were working on codebreaking. The British were breaking codes, too, under the direction of Alan Turing. WIRED looks at his legacy.  
  • One of the most interesting codebreakers Mundy came across was a woman named Dot. Mundy tells her story: 

World War II, Culture, codebreaking, Liza Mundy, cryptography

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