Last Oscar season a major movie — “Hidden Figures” — cleaned up at the box office without winning any awards except for the actors portraying black women who laboured at NASA during the introduction of the American space program. These women possessed mathematical skills to rival early computers.
Based on a non-fiction book, the movie was enjoyable because it revealed a glimpse into history, didn’t depend upon exploding vehicles to capture viewer interest, and let us discover the lack of amenities and deference for these brainy females who happened to be black.
They were so little respected, during their shifts they had to exit the building, go outside and walk ten minutes even in rain to reach a bathroom designated for blacks.
Now another non-fiction book has been published revealing the secretive doings of a large female labour force that helped to win the Second World War without any of us knowing about their part.
During World War Two when the United States was seeking to hire dozens of bright young women for a special assignment, recruiters asked applicants two key questions: “Do you like puzzles?” And, “Are you engaged to be married?”
Asking if a woman liked puzzles was an odd question until you learned what the work entailed.
These women were being selected to learn cryptography or deciphering secret writing. Their task would be to uncover movements planned by German and Japanese armies and navies. In all, the U.S. engaged some 10,000 women in this exacting work forming the intelligence structure during the combat years.
The recruiter’s second question would break current labour laws. The Army retained code breakers who became pregnant during their employment, going so far as to provide them with daycare. Not so the Navy; their code breakers were forced to resign if they became pregnant. Army women who became pregnant after hiring but remained unmarried were accepted; it was assumed their ‘intended’ had been shipped overseas before they could wed.
Recruiting concentrated on young college grads particularly schoolteachers. Sitting for hours alone – though sharing a room with plenty of others similarly occupied — concentrating on a search for patterns among squiggles originating in a foreign language and hoping for a breakthrough, had to be mind-numbing. Hence the similarity to teaching?
Applicants who were Jewish, African American or of recent-European descent were barred from the program. The government doubted their commitment to America.
Recruits worked long hours, in shifts around the clock, aware their work was vital to saving the lives of American servicemen. Their code work proved particularly valuable before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour.
The women were able to pinpoint where the Japanese army was, on islands in the Pacific, where they were likely to be moving, where radio signals were originating from, and construct location and movement of troops called ‘order of battle’.
Orders of battle were compiled daily, immediately sent on to the Pentagon and then to the Pacific, making the information mapped by the women an integral part of military operations.
Sworn to secrecy, even today, some 70 or more years since, surviving code breakers – though few — still maintain their silence. In many cases, even their families have not heard stories of these women’s behind the scenes activities during the war.
That changed when survivors who could be located were interviewed by journalist Liza Mundy for her non-fiction book, “Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War Two”, published October, 2017 by Hatchette.
I’m hoping this book will become a movie too.