U.S. Army Signals Intelligence Service cryptologists at Arlington Hall, Virginia. ca. 1943 (U.S. Army Archives)
In 1942, reeling from Japan’s devastating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States military launched a secret program to recruit young female college graduates to act as codebreakers in the newly ramped-up war effort.
Recruited from settings as diverse as elite women's colleges and small Southern towns, more than 10,000 women served as codebreakers for the U.S. Army and Navy during World War II. While their brothers, boyfriends, and husbands took up arms, these women went to the nation's capital to take on highly demanding top-secret work involving complex math and linguistics.
Running early IBM computers and poring over reams of encrypted enemy messages, they worked tirelessly in a pair of overheated makeshift codebreaking centers in Washington and Arlington from 1942 to 1945. Their achievements were immense: they cracked a crucial Japanese code, which gave the United States an acute advantage in the Battle of Midway and changed the course of the war in the Pacific Theater; they helped create the false communications that caught the Germans flat-footed in the lead-up to the Normandy invasion; and their careful tracking of Japanese ships and German U-boats saved countless American and British sailors’ lives.
Liza Mundy, author of Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II (Hachette Books) discusses how the work of the these remarkable young women helped secure an Allied victory—before their vow of secrecy nearly erased their vital contributions from American history.
Copies of Code Girls are available for purchase and signing.
This program is presented in advance of the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Awards on November 29.
America’s code girls had their British counterpart in the women of Bletchley Park. Smithsonian.com reports on their secret wartime work and spotlights a film interview with Jean Valentine, one of the operators of the massive Bombe machine, an early computer that provided the key to cracking the Enigma code.
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