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Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II Paperback – Illustrated, October 2, 2018
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Recruited by the U.S. Army and Navy from small towns and elite colleges, more than ten thousand women served as codebreakers during World War II. While their brothers and boyfriends took up arms, these women moved to Washington and learned the meticulous work of code-breaking. Their efforts shortened the war, saved countless lives, and gave them access to careers previously denied to them. A strict vow of secrecy nearly erased their efforts from history; now, through dazzling research and interviews with surviving code girls, bestselling author Liza Mundy brings to life this riveting and vital story of American courage, service, and scientific accomplishment.
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"Code Girls...finally gives due to the courageous women who worked in the wartime intelligence community."―Smithsonian.com
"Code Girls is a riveting account of the thousands of young coeds who flooded into Washington to help America win World War II. Liza Mundy has written a thrilling page-turner that illuminates the patriotism, rivalry, and sexism of the code-breakers' world."―Lynn Povich, authorof The Good Girls Revolt
"Code Girls is an extraordinary book by an extraordinary author. Liza Mundy's portraits of World War II codebreakers are so skillfully and vividly drawn that I felt as if I were right there with them--mastering ciphers, outwitting the Japanese army, sinking ships, breaking hearts, and even accidentally insulting Eleanor Roosevelt. I am an evangelist for this book: You must read it."―Karen Abbott, NewYork Times bestselling author of Sin in the Second City and Liar,Temptress, Solider, Spy
"Code Girls reveals a hidden army of female cryptographers, whose work played a crucial role in ending World War II. With clarity and insight, Mundy exposes the intertwined narratives of the women who broke codes and the burgeoning field of military intelligence in the 1940s. I cannot overstate the importance of this book; Mundy has rescued a piece of forgotten history, and given these American heroes the recognition they deserve."―Nathalia Holt, NewYork Times bestselling author of Rise of the Rocket Girls
"Mundy is a fine storyteller.... A sleek, compelling narrative.... The book is a winner. Her descriptions of codes and ciphers, how they worked and how they were broken, are remarkably clear and accessible. A well-researched, compellingly written, crucial addition to the literature of American involvement in World War II."―Kirkus (starred review)
"Similar to Nathalia Holt's The Rise of the Rocket Girls and Margot Lee Shetterly's Hidden Figures, this is indispensable and fascinating history. Highly recommended for all readers."―LibraryJournal (starred review)
"Mundy's fascinating book suggests that [the Code Girls'] influence did play a role in defining modern Washington and challenging gender roles--changes that still matter 75 years later."―Washingtonian
"Fascinating.... Addictively readable.... [Mundy] displays a gift for creating both human portraits and intensely satisfying scenes."―Boston Globe
"Like Hidden Figures, this well-crafted book reveals a remarkable slice of unacknowledged U.S. history.... Captivating."―The Christian Science Monitor
"Extraordinary.... Mundy's book is expansive and precise. It's anecdotal enough to make it an entertaining read for the layperson, and there's plenty of technical detail to interest the crypto-nerd."―Houston Chronicle
"Salvaging this essential piece of American military history from certain obscurity, Mundy's painstaking and dedicated research produces an eye-opening glimpse into a crucial aspect of U.S. military operations and pays overdue homage to neglected heroines of WWII. Fans of Hidden Figures (2016) and its exposé of unsung talent will revel in Mundy's equally captivating portraits of women of sacrifice, initiative, and dedication."―Booklist (starred review)
"Astonishing.... Mundy, who mined US National Security Agency archives and interviewed survivors for the book, joins authors such as Margot Lee Shetterly and Nathalia Holt in giving the women behind great twentieth-century scientific endeavors their due."―Nature
"Mundy unveils the untold story of a very important part of American History that otherwise would have been kept secret."―Miami Herald
"Fans of Hidden Figures .... will love this true story of the women who cracked German and Japanese military code during World War II."―Entertainment Weekly (Grade: A-)
"The book not only shines a light on a hidden chapter of American history, it also tells the kind of story of courage and determination that makes you want to work harder and be better."―Denver Post
"Women who helped bring victory achieve visibility, at last, in this history."―Military Times
"Enlightening... riveting and engaging...Liza Mundy's richly detailed account of their experiences will, hopefully, help give these dedicated and patriotic women the long overdue recognition they deserve."
―Finger Lakes Times
About the Author
- Publisher : Hachette Books; Reprint edition (October 2, 2018)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 448 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0316352543
- ISBN-13 : 978-0316352543
- Item Weight : 13.6 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.5 x 1.25 x 8.25 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #22,508 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
About the author
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If you've read much about how the Allies won World War II, chances are you're familiar with two massive breakthroughs in signals intelligence: the British success in cracking the German Enigma code, and the American success with the Japanese Purple code.
With Enigma broken, the Allies were able to anticipate German troop movements, including Nazi preparations for the Normandy landing. The achievement didn't produce a single dramatic Allied victory but contributed to victories in major ways on several fronts.
Breaking Purple made it possible for the US Navy to rout the Japanese at the Battle of Midway, which is often identified as the turning point in the Pacific War.
The people most frequently credited with those two breakthroughs are the English mathematical genius Alan Turing and the celebrated American cryptographer William Friedman. Admittedly, those two accomplishments were extraordinary. Their impact was enormous. But they're only part of the story. To place their achievements in context, read Liza Mundy's brilliant account of the American women who worked on both projects.
During World War II more than 10,000 women worked on cryptography for the US Army and Navy in Washington, DC. They were sworn to secrecy about their work, and to this day some of those who survive, now in their 90s, are still reluctant to talk about it.
The amazing Code Girls who helped win World War II
As Mundy reveals in Code Girls, there were in fact not two but three breakthroughs in untangling Axis codes that were decisive, and most of those who worked on all three were women.
Alan Turing did, indeed, lead the successful effort at Bletchley Park to defeat the supposedly unbreakable Engima code. But he didn't work alone. Far from it. Ten thousand men and women worked at Bletchley Park, and many of them worked closely with Turing. Moreover, the Enigma machine was redesigned in February 1942, making it even more difficult to penetrate. It was American women working for the US Navy who broke that much more complex code. It was this breakthrough, not Turing's, that enabled the Allies to locate and destroy German U-boats preying on the cross-Atlantic traffic. The British had never managed to read German naval communications.
When World War II broke out, William Friedman was already a legend in cryptographic circles. He wrote many of the textbooks in the field and played a leading role in organizing American codebreaking efforts. But the protracted search for a solution to Japan's diplomatic code, Purple, involved hundreds of women. Several brilliant "girls" made contributions to the successful effort that were easily as impressive as those of the men they were working for. And it was women who identified the key to breaking a different Japanese code that enabled the Americans to shoot down the plane of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack and the revered head of the Japanese Navy.
Breaking the Japanese shipping code
A third outsized achievement in cryptography that also played a strategic role in the Allies' victory is rarely mentioned but was decisive in the Pacific. As Mundy notes, it "was one of the most important of the war. It was every bit as vital as the breaking of the Enigma or the Midway triumph." The Japanese Navy had pressed huge numbers of civilian vessels into service to supply its bases and Japanese soldiers scattered throughout the seemingly boundless expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Code girls broke the communications system used on these ships that made it possible for the Americans to send submarines and airplanes to their locations. "More than two-thirds of the entire Japanese merchant marine and numerous warships . . . were sunk." The impact of the resulting loss of food, ammunition, equipment, and personnel was devastating to the Japanese.
A singular achievement in popular history
Liza Mundy's story of the code girls is difficult to put down. The extensive documentary research she conducted and her use of fifteen oral histories by code girls lends a wealth of intimate detail to the account. Dozens of women figure in the story, yet we feel close to them because of Mundy's skill in bringing their day-to-day experiences to the surface. And we learn a great deal about the deplorable treatment of women during World War II, when millions were temporarily drawn into war work only to find themselves restricted to their homes once again after the war was won. Now, in the 21st century, it's difficult to grasp just how deep-seated the sexism was back then. As Mundy reveals, "many Americans persisted in the view that military women were just prostitutes in uniform, admitted into the military to service the men."
Mundy's account of the bitter inter-service rivalry between the Army and Navy is also eye-opening. This involved a lot more than the annual Army-Navy game between West Point and Annapolis. The conflict between the two branches of the US military frequently led to avoidable inefficiency and sometimes to lost opportunities that might have been seized through cooperation.
Casting light on the vast scale of the codebreaking operations
Mundy also illuminates the massive scale of American codebreaking operations. For example:
** "Between 1943 and 1945, more than ten thousand Purple messages were delivered to American military intelligence." Every one of those messages had to be painstakingly decoded by hand. There were no computers available to run complex algorithms that might do the job today.
** Similarly, in the fourth quarter of 1943 alone, naval code breakers received 126,000 messages per month transmitted in a different Japanese military code. Individual women (and some men) also had to tackle every one of those messages, one at a time.
** And the codebreaking operations couldn't focus exclusively on the large numbers of German and Japanese codes. For example, the Navy's codebreakers found themselves "working the codes of some twenty-five nations, enemy and neutral," including those of such countries as Finland, Argentina, Ireland, and Liberia.
Those three examples illustrate the Navy's challenges. The Army faced a similarly daunting task. Its "toughest assignment was breaking a fiendish tangle of Imperial Japanese Army codes, which were separate from those of the Imperial Japanese Navy." And the Army met this challenge: "the breaking of all the Japanese Army codes—shipping, administrative, air force—contributed to the success of Operation Cartwheel, MacArthur's island-hopping campaign."
This book is a singular achievement in popular history. It's not just the story of the Code Girls who helped win World War II. It's a vivid portrait of American society during that all-important conflict.
According to this book, the women worked for seven days straight, with their eighth “off” day spent on shopping, errands, and probably housework as well. However, my mother did not mind the long hours. On her commute from Washington, she even ran into Eleanor Roosevelt one morning around 6; Roosevelt said she took early walks to evade the Secret Service. Like other women in this book, my mother roomed with another woman who was also a code breaker and who became a close friend, and she enjoyed the camaraderie of her whole code-breaking group.
Author Liza Mundy weaves a number of narrative strands. She discusses the work done at not only Arlington Hall, but at the separate Navy code-breaking facility (where most code breakers were WAVES) and at Sugar Camp. Sugar Camp was an NCR rustic retreat outside Dayton, Ohio used in peacetime to train salesmen; during the war it housed WAVES who wired the bombes that NCR manufactured to break the German Enigma codes. Mundy gives as much technical detail on code breaking as the average, nonspecialist reader can probably handle. This includes work done during World War 1 and between the wars. Some World War 1 code breakers carried right on into World War 2.
I was disappointed that almost all the World War 2 information focuses on the Japanese codes. It’s true that the Japanese codes were extremely challenging. They were complex, the Japanese used several different codes, and the codes were changed constantly. It was hard to find Americans who knew Japanese. The code breakers were given some basic relevant vocabulary. Then--Mundy mentions only in passing, late in the book--the decoded messages were passed to translators, many of them missionaries or children of missionaries who had lived in Japan. Mundy also mentions somewhere that the messages of many other countries were decoded at Arlington Hall. (I’d assume this was also true of the Navy facility.) But that’s all she says. The organization of the code-breaking facilities seems to have been complex, with people working in many different groups for both efficiency and secrecy. I gained little sense of the overall organization or what the groups were. I have no idea what my mother worked on, but my guess is messages in French. She had a BA in French, she was fluent in French, and I’d assume Vichy France was pumping out messages at the same phenomenal rate as other countries.
Mundy may have focused primarily on the Japanese code-breaking group due to her choice to tell the personal stories of a number of code breakers, especially Dorothy (Dot) Braden, now Dorothy Braden Bruce. Dot worked in a Japanese group and Mundy interviewed her extensively for this book. Dot’s personal life included her close friendship with her roommate, code breaker Ruth Weston; Dot’s on-off engagement to a soldier named George Rush; and Dot’s postwar marriage to another soldier named Jim Bruce. Dot also had brothers in the war. In between handling all that coded text, Dot and other code breakers wrote huge numbers of letters, to husbands, fiancés, brothers, even soldiers they’d never met who wanted pen pals. The workforce was mostly female—my mother said there was only one man in her group, an elderly Egyptologist who had worked on cracking hieroglyphics. But the code breakers’ lives were full of men, to the extent that (Mundy relates) pregnancies were not uncommon among unmarried women at Arlington Hall. (The Navy was much tighter and required even married pregnant women to quit work.) I can’t help wondering whether my 30-ish mother was also feverishly writing to soldiers and dating numerous men when they were on leave. Certainly not my father—they did not meet till after the war and in any case, he was rejected by the draft due to a medical condition.
Although Mundy goes back and forth between code-breaking organizations and various personal stories, she manages to move through the war narrative more or less chronologically. Her descriptions of military and naval action are mostly focused on the end of the war, especially the excitements of D-Day and the Japanese surrender. My mother said that two of her coworkers always joked that “by the end of the war they’d be cutting out paper dolls.” When my mother and others came in after their day off, they discovered those two coworkers had spent that day making paper dolls, using every scrap of paper they’d saved up, and had hung the dolls all over the office. Mundy mentions that people danced in the streets of Washington.
However relieved the women code breakers were, their immediate experiences were not altogether joyous. The Arlington Hall workers were given a speech encouraging them all to quit work as soon as possible. Most did, at least after they married or had a child. (A few did stay into the Cold War and beyond.) The US mounted a reverse recruitment campaign, telling all women it was their patriotic duty to turn over their jobs to returning men. Women married the fiancés they’d been corresponding with and proceeded to have babies. Some were happy housewives; some were not. Many, including my mother, missed the sense of challenge and purpose they’d had as code breakers, and went back to work. After the war my mother got a graduate degree in mathematics, which my father (a physicist) never understood. Her verbal skills were so much stronger, he said; why was she determined to study mathematics? But mathematics was needed and valued at Arlington Hall, and many women did not discover their aptitude for it until they worked there. My mother waited till her children were old enough, then spent the rest of her career as a college math professor. Most of the code breakers still alive are now in assisted living facilities. It’s good that Mundy interviewed some, because they were told their work was top secret and should never, ever be revealed. Many revealed nothing substantive while they were alive, including my mother, though it was clearly one of the happiest times of her life.
When I was 12 or 13, my mother sat me down and taught me the rudiments of code breaking. This was just the beginning, she said; the work at Arlington Hall was much harder. What she was teaching me was not classified. But I should learn something about breaking codes, because I’d never know when I might need to.
Congratulations for finally getting the recognition and respect they deserve.
Top reviews from other countries
Thank you Amazon.co.uk for sorting out my 'mis order' so quickly and efficiently.
The early 1940s, America „joins“ WW2, men are leaving to fight... and intelligent, weil-educated women with a disposition to solving puzzles enter the war effort ... as code breakers for the Navy and the Army.
Well deserved credit to women who might well have changed the outcome and the length of this war. This book tells their stories, how they came to join the war effort and what happened after - in a time where women where to be house wives - and even the best of them hardly had a chance for a good college / university education and make use of it other than becoming a school teacher.