Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II by Liza Mundy, Hachette Books, US $28.00, Pp 432, October 2017, ISBN 978-0316352536
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. That changed everything for the Americans, the Japanese and the rest of the world. Months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US Navy was beginning to realize that unprecedented action would be needed to address the nation’s intelligence deficit. They needed to recruit small women to meet this intelligence deficit. Thus, they started sending out a handful of letters to college mailboxes as early as November 1941. In the aftermath of its entry into World War II, the US military decided to tap “high grade” young women to build an effective code-breaking operation practically overnight.
In Code Girls, Liza Mundy says that one of the most fruitful forms of intelligence that exists came into its own during World War II. She writes, “Listening in on enemy conversations provides a verbatim, real-time way to know what that enemy is thinking and doing and arguing about and worrying over and planning. It provides information on strategy, troop movements, shipping itineraries, political alliances, battlefield casualties, pending attacks, and supply needs.”
The women also played a central role in shortening the war. Liza Mundy says that code breaking was crucial to Allied success in defeating Japan, both at sea and during the bloody amphibious assaults on Pacific islands against a foe that was dug in, literally – the cave fighting toward the end of the war was terrible, as were kamikaze attacks and other suicide missions – and willing to fight to the death. In the all-important Atlantic theatre, the US and British penetration of the Nazi Enigma cipher that German general Karl Donitz used to direct his U-boat commanders helped bring about the total elimination of the Nazi submarine threat.
The women recruits were entering an environment of large and clashing male egos. Liza Mundy says that there was furious infighting between the US Army and the US Navy, to a degree that would have been comic if it were not taking place in the middle of a war. In such a competitive culture, it was easy for the women’s contributions to be overlooked. The women took their secrecy oath seriously, and they came from a generation when women did not expect or receive credit for achievement in public life. They did not constitute the top brass, and they did not write the histories afterward, nor the first person memories. Yet women were instrumental at every stage. They ran complex office machines that had been converted to code-breaking purposes. They built libraries and information sections that were vital sources of collateral,” the term for subsidiary material such as public speeches, shipping inventories, and lists of ship names and enemy commanders, which helped break messages and illuminate their content. Women also tested America’s own codes to make sure they were secure. They worked as radio intercepts at global listening posts.
The women were considered better suited for code-breaking work did not mean they were considered smarter. On the contrary, Liza Mundy says, women were considered better equipped for boring work that required close attention to detail rather than leaps of genius. This was a widespread view in the 1940s. It was a profound situation, psychologically. The women were brought in to free men to go forth and, potentially, die. Yet the work they were doing was intended to ensure that those men lived.
Code Girls is a fascinating and inspiring story of women who helped America win the World War II but who remain relatively less known. More importantly, Liza Mundy’s code girls established that women can do whatever men can do, sometimes, better than men. Their role in achieving gender equality cannot be overstated. This beautifully written book is a great tribute to women who fought for their country as well as their gender. Liza Mundy tells us the forgotten story we should all be proud of.