I’m currently listening to an audio book by Liza Mundy called “Code Girls.” It’s the recently declassified story of the women code breakers in World War II. The book is basically a big thank you to the unsung heroes, who were not given much credit in their day, because, primarily, the work they did was Top Secret, and also because they were women in an era when women were not all that welcome in the military.
Codes and code breaking go back centuries, and most wars had their spies. The United States had its fair share of spies, until their number was greatly reduced during the Herbert Hoover Administration. President Hoover believed that “Gentlemen do not read other gentlemen’s mail.” Years later, the sneak attack bombing of Pearl Harbor taught us that Governments entrusted with protecting the lives of their citizens had damn well better start opening and reading the mail of those who threatened that safety.
At the beginning of World War II, while all available men were quickly being trained to do the fighting, the U.S. Government hired women mathematicians to break the enemies’ codes. Part of the training included informing them that the work they were doing was Top Secret, and that if they made any breach in this secrecy, they just might find themselves in front of a firing squad. Thus warned, the young women didn’t even tell their mothers what they were doing, and they remained unsung heroes until just recently.
I was drawn to this book, because I, too, had once been involved in the field of intelligence gathering when I was in the Navy. I worked on the Top-Secret Spy in the Sky Program. We were not threatened with facing a firing squad if we revealed our mission, but we were informed that a breach of security would entitle us to free room and board in the Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. Fortunately, the Spy in the Sky program was declassified a few years ago, so I am now free to talk about it. The Discovery Channel even had a show about it a few years ago.
We’ve all heard the admonition, “Loose lips sink ships,” and during my training we were treated to a few anecdotes about just how costly a slip of the tongue can be. My favorite was about the Cuban Missile Crisis, which I remembered well from my days of hiding under school desks to protect myself from atomic bombs. You probably already know that American spy planes flew over Cuban and photographed the installation of Russian missile sites there, but do you know why President Kennedy sent the spy planes there in the first place? That’s the part I learned during my training.
The Intelligence community monitors all sorts of foreign communications, and one day they intercepted a telegram sent from Russia to Cuba. It was a simple thing, along the lines of “Happy Birthday, Ivan. Love, your wife.” Seems pretty harmless, because Cuba was a vacation spot for many Russians, but why didn’t the wife go on the vacation trip with her husband. Maybe the man wasn’t on vacation after all. Who was he? A little research turned up the fact that he was a Russian missile scientist. What was a Russian missile scientist doing in Cuba? Are the Russians building missile sites in Cuba? A few passes with spy planes and we had the answer. They were, and as Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes would say, the game was afoot.
So far, my favorite story from the Code Girls book concerns the Battle of Midway. The Japanese had already delivered a crippling blow to the American Navy at Pearl Harbor. Now they wanted to deliver the coup de gras somewhere else. The “Code Girls” deciphered a Japanese message that the Japanese were planning a major attack on “AF” on a certain day. So, we knew when a major attack was coming, but we didn’t know where. We didn’t know what “AF” stood for. The Japanese had used secret two-letter codes for all the major targets instead of spelling out the complete names.
To get the Japanese to tip their hand, the women had the Navy send out different false messages from the most likely targets. One of these messages was sent from Midway declaring that they were desperately low on fresh water. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. intercepted and deciphered a coded Japanese message that they had learned that AF was running out of fresh water. That confirmed it. We now knew that AF was the secret Japanese code for Midway, and the Navy rushed everything they could to Midway. The historic victory in the Battle of Midway became the turning point for the U.S. in the war in the Pacific. It also became a blockbuster movie.
On January 3rd I celebrated the 47th anniversary of my Honorable release from active duty. I’m glad that the Spy in the Sky project was finally declassified and I can stop worrying about going to Leavenworth for being a blabbermouth. I will wait a while before telling any revealing stories about the program, though, just in case the Intelligence community is monitoring this blog.
Peace & Love, and all of the above,