"Code Girls"

With “Code Girls,” author Liza Mundy has written a compelling account of the 11,000 women who served as code breakers during World War II. In the fall of 1941, the military sent letters to a group of college women attending the Seven Sisters Colleges who excelled in science, math, languages and astronomy. The letters invited them to individual interviews conducted by senior professors who asked mystifying questions about their interests and direct questions about their marriage status. Those women who “passed” the test were asked to join a top-secret government project.

The coeds were offered training in code breaking with the guarantee of a government civilian job after the war. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, recruitment was ramped up. In addition to college students, the Army sought small-town schoolteachers who were eager to support the war effort and to receive a civilian job in a major city. As a result, during the war years, at least 80% of Navy code breakers and almost 70% of the Army’s code breakers were women.

Mundy’s well-researched and mesmerizing book describes how thousands of American women spent the war years in Washington D.C. deciphering intercepted messages sent by the Japanese and German militaries. This massive hiring of women in a time when well-educated females weren’t encouraged to have careers or to compete with men for jobs was a drastic cultural shift.

Similar to “Hidden Figures” by Shetterly, and ‘The Girls of Atomic City” by Kiernan, “Code Girls” redacts Second World War history to report the enormous contributions women played in winning the war. It also gives long-overdue credit to the math and science accomplishments of 20th century women.

Their work at cryptanalysis was often frustrating and tedious as they tried to untangle columns of numbers and letters 12 hours a day, seven days a week. These untiring workers learned to spot patterns and to interpret ciphers—one letter substituted for another letter. Eventually they built “bombe” machines which they operated to decode the countless German messages sent only by the complicated Engima machines. Much of their work was done in conjunction with code breakers in England.

There are thrilling moments in the story when the women succeed in breaking codes. Their skill, intuition and persistence lead to the sinking of enemy supply ships, the downing of enemy aircraft and the successful defense of American personnel and hardware. Their work was emotionally hard:

“Some of the women broke messages warning about attacks before they happened, but were helpless to avert them.” Many of these attacks occurred in areas where decoders’ family members were serving the military.

This previously untold history provides a much-needed update to the canon of World War II literature. Mundy is a good story writer. Her narrative is easy to read, clear and accessible. In remarkable investigative style, she sought out primary sources including interviews with more than 20 former code breakers, most of them in their 90s. She also did extensive research with recently declassified information.

Liza Mundy is a former Washington Post reporter. She is a Senior Fellow at New America, “a think tank committed to renewing American politics in the Digital Age.” Hachette Books is the publisher; 460 pages, plus several glossy pages of photographs.