T HE COD E
EDUCATED WOMEN WANTED
January 8, 1945, eighteen-year-old Jean Stillwell 44Ox left Atlanta for Washington, D.C., a city she had never visited.
Fresh from two years of study at Emory at Oxford, all she knew when she boarded the Pullman sleeping car was that she had a “good-paying” job with the US Army Signal Corps and that she was to report to the Arlington Hall Station. Only later did she learn that this facility was the home of the Signals Intelligence Service and that she would be joining the ten thousand talented and patriotic women who served as code breakers during World War II.
The work of these women is the subject of a best-selling book by Liza Mundy, Code Girls: The Untold History of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II.
In the opening chapter, titled “The Secret Letters,” Mundy describes how Pearl Harbor was a wake-up call to American military intelligence that they needed reinforcements. Specifically, they were looking for a few smart women.
“Months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US Navy was beginning to realize that unprecedented action would be needed to address the nation’s intelligence deficit,” Mundy writes. “Thus, a handful of letters materialized in college mailboxes as early as 1941.”
Female science majors at top women’s colleges, such as Wellesley and Smith, were summoned to mysterious meetings, where each of them was asked two questions: Did she like crossword puzzles? And was she engaged to be married?
According to Code Girls, “At the time these schools were founded, many considered higher education to be poorly suited for girls. Now the views had changed. Educated women were wanted. Urgently.”
That sudden shift in perspective meant that ultimately these women would serve as World War II code breakers—for them, an unexpected chance to do thrilling, top-secret work, get a rare taste of city life and independence, and use their brains to advance the war effort.
“The US military’s decision to tap ‘high-grade’ young women—and the women’s willingness to accept the summons—was a chief reason why America, in the aftermath of its entry into World War II, was able to build an effective code-breaking operation practically overnight,” Mundy writes.
CONFIDENT AND COMPETITIVE
Stillwell is part of that story. Born in 1926, she grew up in Covington, Georgia. Her father had little formal education. Her mother was a schoolteacher and, in Stillwell’s words, was the “adventuresome type.” Stillwell graduated from Emory University Academy—then a high school—when the highest grade was the eleventh. She excelled in all subjects, especially math. In fact, Stillwell was so good with numbers that she earned money tutoring local schoolchildren in a time when every dollar counted to Depression-era families.
Alongside her self-confidence ran something of a competitive streak.
“Like most anybody, I wanted to be the best,” she says, when it came to academics. Even now, with perhaps a hint of regret, she remembers never ranking first in her class. A male classmate always seemed to “beat me out.”
Stillwell enrolled at Oxford in 1943. There was no dormitory for women, so she commuted the two miles to campus. Tuition was $60 per quarter. She aspired to go to Emory School of Medicine, though she was aware that women were “few and far between” in the medical profession.
“I felt academically capable of doing it,” Stillwell says, “and my mother thought it was great.”
She displayed a knack for French and German in addition to her aptitude for science and math. Unbeknownst to her, she fit the template almost perfectly for military recruiters searching for women with code-breaking potential.
Stillwell met Glenn Reed, her husband-to-be, on the steps of the Oxford Science Building. She describes him as her “first and only love.” Reed planned to go to Emory’s dental school. They wanted to marry and believed—unrealistically, Stillwell admits in retrospect—that she could go to medical school while Reed was in dental school. Their parents believed them to be too young and discouraged the idea of marriage. For the time being, she and Reed acceded to their wishes.
This posed a quandary for Stillwell. When she graduated from Oxford in December 1944, Reed was in dental school, and she put her dream of medical school on hold. What to do in the meantime?
Stillwell’s “adventuresome” mother came up with an interim plan. She had seen an ad in an Atlanta newspaper about jobs in Washington, D.C., for women. The pay was good, Stillwell recalls. She answered the ad and was invited to an interview at a downtown Atlanta hotel.
Her father drove her the thirty-five miles to the interview, where several women waited in the lobby, all serious and a bit anxious. The interviewer was an officer in the US Army Signal Corps, polite and professional. He questioned Stillwell mostly about her Oxford transcript. He revealed nothing about the work Stillwell would be doing in Washington if she was lucky enough to be hired. Nor did he mention that the army would do a background check to determine whether she might be a security risk.
This would not have been a worry to Stillwell, since, as she says, “there would not have been much to find out about an eighteen-year-old girl from Covington, Georgia.” She remembers being “pretty calm during the interview” and “thinking I had a good chance at getting the job.”
Her instincts were correct. A couple of weeks later, Stillwell got the exciting news: She was hired. She can’t remember whether she received a phone call, a telegram, or a letter. But she was told to report to Arlington Hall Station in Virginia. She was about to leave Covington and home for the first time.
ARLINGTON HALL'S LATEST CRYPTOGRAPHER
Her father gave her enough cash to cover room and board until her first paycheck. The atmosphere on the train was overwhelming, nothing like the sedate train rides Stillwell had taken as a younger girl to visit relatives in Tennessee and West Virginia. The Pullman sleeping car was crowded and very loud. Soldiers moved about everywhere. People sat in the aisles. The only privacy was minimal—the curtain of her sleeping berth. She occupied the lower bunk and a stranger slept in the bunk above her. Stillwell can’t remember whether her roommate was a man or a woman, but, she says, “It was wartime, and people didn’t complain.”
Stillwell arrived in Washington the following afternoon. Cavernous Union Station teemed with people; she remembers looking up with awe at the ornate, vaulted ceilings of the central waiting area. Her immediate concern was to find housing near Arlington Hall Station, where she was to report the next day.
She found her way to the housing desk, where a “very kind woman” told Stillwell about a room and gave her an address and a phone number. Stillwell called ahead to confirm the availability of the room and thereafter was on her own. The weather was cold, and she quickly realized that her knee-length coat was too light. She took a bus across the Potomac to Arlington, Virginia, and got off at a stop that, to her dismay, was more than a mile from the rooming house. Hungry, tired, and getting colder by the minute, Stillwell was fearful that a taxi might be too expensive.
Suitcase in hand, Stillwell trudged the entire distance, reaching the rooming house just before dark. There she got yet another dose of wartime reality. The private room that she hoped for was reserved for married couples. Stillwell had to share a room with a young woman from Minnesota, also a newcomer to Washington. Though she got along “okay” with her surprise roommate, Stillwell was later relieved to get a private room at the Arlington Farms complex, which was the largest of the government homes for the many women who flocked to the national capital during World War II. Arlington Farms was labeled “Girl Town” by a writer for the Washington Post but, among its residents, it was known wryly as “No Man’s Land.”
Even after reporting for duty, Stillwell was kept in the dark about Arlington Hall Station’s code-breaking mission. By some accounts, the existence of the Signals Intelligence Service was never publicly acknowledged. Security was extremely tight. During orientation, Stillwell took a series of tests and performed exceptionally well. She learned that she would be a cryptographer and received top-secret clearance. She was told not to discuss the nature of her work with anyone, including coworkers. Almost immediately, Stillwell set about decoding Japanese message intercepts.
“WOMEN'S WORK” IN SERVICE TO COUNTRY
“I was so young to have that much responsibility,” she says. The fighting in the Pacific was “rough” in early 1945 and everyone was worried that Japan would have to be invaded.
The work was grinding and round-the-clock. Thousands of Japanese intercepts came in daily. Stillwell was on duty six days a week, often taking the swing shift, 4:00 p.m. to midnight. The tools of the job were simple: a pencil, sheets of paper, and captured Japanese code books. The challenge was to figure out which code book applied to the intercept, then convert the message into the format used by the Japanese to read it. Army translators took over from there, sending the message in English to the appropriate commands in the Pacific.
Avani Wildani, Emory assistant professor of mathematics and computer science, says the work would have been “very tedious.”
“The most famous World War II codes, including the Enigma codes from Imitation Game and the Japanese Purple Machine, encoded and decoded phrases based on a machine that rotated through letters to perform a substitution and a shared secret key that was passed regularly to operators,” Wildani explains. “Rotor-based codes are only as strong as the key phrase, which itself needs to be passed around secretly. Today, we use the fact that large prime numbers are hard to factor to avoid having to rely on key phrases.”
In the 1940s, Wildani says, computing was considered women’s work. “In fact, the term ‘computer’ originally referred to women who did calculations for scientific and financial projects,” Wildani says. “One way to break codes like these is to simply try every option and lock down what makes sense. The army sought out, specifically, women who were good at crossword puzzles for code work.”
Occasionally, their supervisors—all men—would share fully decoded intercepts with them so they could see how much their work mattered. “I felt a sense of pride,” Stillwell recalls.
As you might expect, the women at Arlington Farms were a magnet for the many young servicemen in Washington. But that was not for Stillwell, who read in her spare time and corresponded faithfully with her family and Reed, then in his first year of dental school.
In April 1945, Reed came to Washington to see Stillwell. She has vivid memories of his visit. His train was the last one to depart Atlanta before President Roosevelt’s funeral cortège passed through. Against that sober backdrop, the couple decided to marry.
She recognized that she could not go to medical school while Reed was in dental school and accepted the fact that she would never become a doctor. She resigned her position at Arlington Station effective April 30, 1945, and returned home to marry Reed that June.
Stillwell never told anyone about her code-breaking stint in Washington until after VJ Day in August 1945. She is still not sure whether the revelation to Reed and her family was permissible.
The couple had a happy life together with three daughters, two of whom graduated from Emory. At ninety-two, Stillwell says she has no regrets.
“I’m especially thankful,” she says, “that the women who served as code breakers during World War II are now gaining recognition for their contributions to victory.”
Mundy’s Code Breakers is helping to bring those skills to light. But the book also laments the fact that most of those ten thousand women never got the credit they deserved in the years after the war—nor did they receive opportunities to continue the important work and the new lives they had begun.
Marriage and family were the deal-breakers for many of them. “For a woman with children, there were few resources to make a career feasible,” Mundy writes. “The nation lost talent that the war had developed. The 1950s and 1960s would not bring another critical mass of women to succeed the wartime code breakers, and in the 1970s and 1980s, women at the NSA [National Security Agency] would have to fight a battle for recognition and parity all over again.”
EQUALITY IS STILL A WORK IN PROGRESS
Women still struggle for equal status in the math and science fields. Formal programs like Emory’s Initiative to Maximize Student Development are deliberate efforts to diversify the pipeline to STEM careers.
Emory's Wildani started on the STEM path when she got her first computer at three years old. But it hasn’t been an easy ride.
“As an undergraduate, I would have felt more comfortable if there had been more women in the room,” Wildani admits. “I was the only female in most of my computer science classes.”
Her current research focuses on the problem of data storage—the widening gap between the volume of digital information and the secure space available.
She also has developed a website to highlight important research by women working in computer science.
“I think it’s important to make it clear that women are not just asking for equality, but leading teams, doing impressive science, and getting results,” Wildani says. “The default assumption for women is that you’re not competent. You have to prove yourself.”
Happily for both Wildani and Jean Stillwell, they already have.
Additional images courtesy of Emory University Archives and Arlington Public Library