In 1942, the U.S. Army sent its most handsome officers to women’s colleges across the South. The soldiers came to Virginia, and to Mary Washington, to recruit graduates to break German and Japanese codes.
Southern women, the Army believed, were more susceptible to the charms of a good-looking man.
Sworn to secrecy, the women—more than 10,000 by the war’s end—never spoke about their work. More than seven decades later, a woman with her own connection to UMW would reveal the contributions that cut short a world war by a year and saved scores of lives.
Best-selling author Liza Mundy returned to UMW last week, where she told the story she chronicled in Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II.
The Great Lives lecture, which accompanies the Great Lives honor courses that began in 2004, drew a crowd of 1,100. They packed Dodd Auditorium last week to learn about the female code breakers Mundy calls the “hidden figures of the Greatest Generation.” Among those who came to listen was retired faculty member Jane Gatewood, whose mother was a code girl.
Years earlier, Mundy, then a high school student, had spent a summer at the University for Governor’s School, she said during her presentation. On its campus, she and her classmates created a newspaper they called The Merry Washington Post.
“We thought we were very clever,” she said.
Mundy told how the idea for Code Girls was born in 2014 after she read a declassified report about a code breaking project from World War II. Afterward, she arranged an interview at the National Cryptologic Museum in Maryland.
There, the author first met Elizabeth “Betsy” Smoot ’82, a National Security Agency historian whose knowledge helped lay the groundwork for her book.
Smoot was Betsy Rohaly when she graduated from Mary Washington with a degree in geography. She recently retired from the NSA after 34 years.
During that first meeting in 2014, Mundy talked for an hour with Smoot and another woman who would play a key role in the author’s research, the cryptologic museum’s curator Jennifer Wilcox.
“Those two people happened to be women. They were particularly glad to see someone interested in this story,” Mundy said in an interview this week.
Smoot directed Mundy to National Archives records and contacted code breakers’ families.
“Betsy answered questions I had along the way and helped in any way that she could,” Mundy said, just as the NSA historian would have done for anyone who asked.
“This school has been very important to me at many different stages of my life,” Mundy said at Dodd Auditorium Jan. 25.
Her meeting with Smoot marked the second stage. The third would come when she found amid piles of declassified records the name of a Mary Washington graduate. Virginia Urbin ‘43 was one of thousands of Southern women recruited by the Army for the life-saving work.
Finally, last week, Mundy returned to the school for the first time since her days of Governor’s School. Only now she was an award-winning journalist and best-selling author.
Mundy recounted how the Army, in the beginning of America’s involvement in World War II, targeted four southern states—Virginia among them—in the misguided belief that its women would come to Washington, D.C., “eager to make a marriage.”
“The great irony of that strategy,” Mundy said, was that “many were looking for an opportunity to get out of a marriage they weren’t quite ready to enter into.”
Mundy would go on to track down, and interview, more than a dozen women for Code Girls. Their recollections, along with a mine of declassified records, ultimately unearthed their long-held secrets.
Many of them wouldn’t—and still can’t—quite fathom the depth of their contributions.
The work was among the most important code-breaking efforts of World War II, Mundy said. Day after day, school teachers from the South broke messages that pinpointed the locations of Japanese supply ships.
Over and over, the ships were bombed, she said. The women were so good at their jobs, in fact, that “most of the deaths in the Japanese Army were due to disease because they weren’t getting the supplies they needed.”
After the war, the U.S. military thanked the women for their service, gave them a medal and told them never to talk about what they’d done. And they didn’t, the author said, even as “the oath of secrecy lifted in the ’80s and ’90s.”
Until Mundy came along.