Female code breakers: The hidden figures of the greatest generation

Navy women broke enemy naval codes used across the world, helping in the effort to shoot down the plane of Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto.

Story highlights

  • Liza Mundy: Women who were recruited as code breakers helped America and its allies win World War II
  • The hidden story of these patriotic women deserves to be more widely known, Mundy says

(CNN)Do you like crossword puzzles and are you engaged to be married?

Those were the questions asked of many college-age American women by their professors, college presidents, or military officers to assess their suitability to do secret work breaking German and Japanese codes during the Second World War.
    From students at the Seven Sisters colleges in the Northeast to schoolteachers from across the South, some 10,000 women answered the call and became the backbone of America's intelligence infrastructure. Their efforts saved lives and shortened the war. Code breaking was pivotal to the Allied defeat of Japan at sea and on the Pacific Islands, as well as to neutralizing the threat posed in the Atlantic by Nazi submarines.
    Unlike the fits of genius dramatized in the films "Enigma" or "The Imitation Game," code breaking was actually a marathon of tedium, an activity defined by comparing and recognizing patterns. In this, women's abilities were thought to be superior to men's. Though they went about recruiting women quite differently, both the Army and the Navy saw in American women an untapped resource for improving America's odds for winning the war.
    In her new book "Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II," journalist Liza Mundy tells the stories of many of these women who, because they were sworn to secrecy about the nature of their work, have been all but forgotten. Just because these women agreed to be invisible to the enemy, however, doesn't mean they need to be invisible to history.
    Liza Mundy
    Some of these barrier-breaking code breakers are still alive and in Mundy's estimation would be "delighted" by developments like the renaming of a residential college at Yale for Grace Hopper, "the queen of code" and "mother of computing" who was a pioneering American computer scientist and United States Navy rear admiral.
    Says Mundy: "We need a few more buildings to be renamed or named after some of these figures and I hope that happens. I think it will."
    On the occasion of the publication of "Code Girls," and International Day of the Girl on Wednesday, CNN Opinion spoke with Mundy about her experience writing a book about the women she calls "the hidden figures of the greatest generation."
    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and flow.
    CNN: Can you describe how you came to this project?
    Liza Mundy: In a way, it's thanks to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He insisted that the government consider declassifying its records around the Russian code-breaking project Venona, which started during the war and then continued for many decades during the Cold War. And because he prevailed, there was a document that was declassified, in which a wonderful NSA historian named Lou Benson wrote about the recruitment of a number of schoolteachers to work on it. Almost alone among historians, Lou not only noticed that there were a lot of women working on the Venona project, but he also thought that it was worthwhile to interview them. So while it was still possible, he interviewed a number of schoolteachers who were recruited during the war. And in many cases these women continued working on it for decades for the NSA. And I thought, "Well that's an interesting kind of small story for an article of a short book."
    So I went out to the Cryptology Museum at Fort Meade [Maryland], which is attached to NSA. It's our own little version of Bletchley Park [the central site for British code breakers during World War II]. There were three wonderful women working there -- an NSA historian named Betsy Smoot, the curator of the museum, Jennifer Wilcox, and the incredible librarian there, a woman named Rene Stein, and they just laid out this incredible story about how it wasn't just the Russian code-breaking project, it was this much, much larger recruitment of schoolteachers and women college graduates. It was almost as if they'd been waiting for someone to come along who wanted to tell that story. And they were wonderful connecting me with further research and ultimately, with some of the families.
    CNN: One of the most interesting moments to me was your assessment that without the intelligence groundwork that had been laid in the years before the war, largely through the innovations of women, the attack on Pearl Harbor could have been even worse. Can you elaborate?
    Mundy: It's really the work of Agnes Driscoll, who was working on the Japanese fleet code throughout the 1920s and 1930s and kept diagnosing and re-diagnosing it as it was changing. If Agnes Driscoll had not diagnosed overall how their system worked, we would have gone into World War II with no ability to read the naval communications of the Japanese. It had taken her years to diagnose that entire system of code. We would have been a lot worse off if she hadn't spent more than a decade working on that code system and then teaching it to the male naval officers who would go out to the Pacific and then ultimately write the memoirs and get the credit.
    At Arlington Hall, Ann Caracristi (far right), an English major from Russell Sage College, worked to develop "order of battle" shwoing the location of Japanese troops