Her Histories from World War II
Researched and written with vibrant detail, the book runs a thriller’s pace. Blurbs call out “Astonishing…” “Captivating…” “Addictively readable.” Exactly right; I couldn’t put it down.
This book is not a novel, not espionage fiction and not a memoir. This book is about the history of World War II. It’s about American Women’s History.
Secret teams of American women–thousands and thousands of women–were recruited before they graduated from universities and colleges or they were schoolteachers or intelligent young women in need of a job and eager to serve their country. More than 10,000 women were civilians working for the Army or enlisted in the Navy. All were trained in code-breaking, cryptology and sworn to secrecy. For years, they cracked multiple ever-changing German and Japanese communications code systems.
At the time, it was thought that women were more careful and had a better temperament for repetitive work than men. Yes, they could do the tedious repetitive analytic tasks and recognize patterns, compute numbers mentally and break cipher keys as well. Mundy writes: “To a real extent, the same prejudice against women persists to this day. Even now, the disciplines that are hardest for women to break into–like math and laboratory and computer science–are the ones that are believed to depend on innate genius, a trait long, and wrongly, associated chiefly with men. … But all along there have been female geniuses whose contributions are as important. It’s just that far less attention has been paid to them, and often these women were denied the top spots that would have brought them more recognition.”
Thanks to round-the-clock shifts of enlisted and civilian women (and men who were not assigned to combat roles) deciphering coded messages in Washington, the Allies kept just in front of German and Japanese maritime movements and supply chains. The majority of the code-hackers and linguists were women, working at the U.S. Navy Communications Annex near American University in Washington and at Arlington Hall in Virginia for the U.S. Army. During 1943-44, hundreds of female recruits were assigned to the NCR factory in Dayton, Ohio to build and test the Bombe code-breaking machines designed by Alan Turing to counter the German Enigma enciphering machine.
By the run-up to D-Day, the contents of intercepted cables were solved and relayed by the code-cracking women in Washington to their counterparts at Bletchley Park and vice versa. Decoded communications reached Allied brass around the world almost as fast as encrypted messages were transmitted by the enemies.
During 1942-45, my Mother was working on arial photography interpretation and my Father on topographic models for bombing logistics at RAF Medmenham. Like many of the women profiled in Code Girls, my parents met while on active duty.
Liza Mundy has researched and written an outstanding book about the long-hidden achievements by American women who worked to defeat authoritarian dictators and fascism that exalts nationalism and race.
Code Girls The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II
Liza Mundy, New York: Hachette Books, 2017.
Includes: Appendices, Reading Group Guide, Notes, Bibliography, Photographs and Index. 434 pages. Paperback edition: $16.99 US, $22.49 CDN.