Vassar Quarterly - Spring 2018 - 53
National Archives and records Administration / Courtesy of Edith reynolds White
The women went to work immediately. Many were responsible for breaking
codes, but others performed vital tasks such as keeping a library of war details-
ship names and locations, troop movements, convoy routes, etc.-and sifting
through thousands of intercepted messages and identifying those that seemed
At the outbreak of the war, the army and the navy operated separate cryptanalysis units. The navy took possession of a private girls' school and erected barracks
to house 4,000 female code breakers. The army converted a former girls' finishing
school into Arlington Hall, which served as its massive code-breaking facility.
Those who didn't find lodging on-site were housed in hastily built barracks and
city boarding houses. Some of the women pooled their money together to rent small
apartments, taking turns sleeping in the sole bedroom as they worked different
The women performed high-pressure and often monotonous work in one of
three shifts within the navy and army's 24-hour, around-the-clock schedules. Most
would spend the next few years deciphering codes that obscured vital information
on strategy, troop movements, shipping itineraries, political alliances, and more.
Those working for the navy had to contend with Japanese messages, which were
created using several codebooks, each with hundreds of pages of ciphers. Those
working for the army tackled messages from the European theatre, where
Germany's dreaded Enigma machine seemed impossible to crack. The women,
working in small groups, would be given intercepted messages. They would search
for keys to unlock the meaning of the messages, poring over them for hours, days,
weeks, and sometimes months. They scanned for common numbers used in
identical sequences, or other clues that would help decipher some of the letters.
Women worked with male counterparts in Great Britain and Australia, and with
U.S. servicemen overseas, pooling their knowledge with the hopes of deciphering
"It was boring, tedious work, except when it wasn't," wrote Mundy. "Elizabeth
Bigelow ['44], an aspiring architect recruited from Vassar, also began working on
JN-25 (the Japanese fleet code). ... She at one point was given an urgent but badly
garbled cipher and asked to decipher it, which she did, in a matter of hours. It told
of a convoy sailing later that day. When she was told that her work had helped to
sink the convoy, she later said, 'I felt terribly pleased.'"
While there might be fleeting feelings of elation, the women never forgot the
task at hand. Nearly all had family members, friends, or fiancés serving in the war.
Bigelow lost a brother who was fighting in the Pacific. More than one code breaker
deciphered a message that told the fate of a loved one.
The women were forbidden to talk about their work and were advised of the
harsh punishments that awaited those who leaked information. The female code
breakers were paid less than their male counterparts, and in many instances,
weren't eligible for advancement (most were civilians contracted to work for the
armed services), though some, like Bibba Arnold, were so remarkable that they
were put in charge of entire units.
Each year through 1944, new summonses were sent to students at the Seven
Sisters and other women's institutions of higher learning. Reynolds was only 16-
she had skipped two grades in elementary school-when she received a letter
inviting her to a private meeting in Thompson Memorial Library.
Along with other Vassar alumnae, Reynolds and Bigelow eventually became
members of the navy's women's reserve, Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency
Service (WAVES). More than 10,000 WAVES worked in Washington, DC, during the
war; a few hundred of them worked in the navy's cryptanalysis unit. In total, 7,000
women made up 70 percent of the army's cryptanalysis unit and another 4,000
Left: Women at work breaking naval codes. Above: Edith
reynolds White '44, center, with other members of the
women (WAVES and civilians) comprised 80 percent
of the U.S. Navy's program.
A secret unit of African American women was also
recruited to tackle commercial codes, "keeping tabs on
which companies were doing business with Hitler or
Mitsubishi," the book notes.
Women code breakers helped with major victories
during World War II, including the Battle of Midway
and other Pacific theater successes such as shooting
down Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of the
Pearl Harbor attack. They were responsible for breaking major code systems, keeping track of German U-boat
and Allied convoy locations, and operating the machines that attacked the Enigma ciphers, Mundy notes.
"During the most violent global conflict that
humanity has ever known-a war that cost more money,
damaged more property, and took more lives than any
war before or since-these women formed the backbone
of one of the most successful intelligence efforts in
history," Mundy wrote.
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