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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.


The Pentagon plans to spend $391 billion on new fighter planes. The National Parks Department has $11 billion in unmet maintenance needs, including a leaking pipeline that is the only source of water at the popular South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Anyone choose water?

Sixty percent of farmworkers are undocumented immigrants. That’s almost two in every three workers. Anyone want to pick strawberries or plant lettuce? Anyone want to pay the higher prices that understandably will come with their deportation?

Anyone notice that this year’s state budget is over $260 million larger than last year’s? Anyone want to bet that Republican Rick Scott nonetheless will campaign against Democrat Bill Nelson on reduced government spending?

“Some Kind of Hush, Hush Business”

I recently reviewed a book for “World War II Magazine,” which is one of several magazines on military history issued by HistoryNet. The book I was assigned is titled (more than a little repetitiously) Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II. Having published two books on women during that war, I knew a fair amount about these female cryptologists, so initially I was a bit put off by the author’s “geez whiz, it’s a dog talking” attitude – but I guess that’s understandable today, when even historians know so little of what older women have done.

And yet I abhor the way that women’s history often loses credibility because of authors’ tendency to drama. A quote prominently placed on the front piece of this book typifies: A woman writing to her mother in 1945 said, “I’m in some kind of hush, hush business. Somewhere in Wash. D.C. If I say anything I’ll get hung for sure.” That’s so over the top! It is true that cryptologists, or code breakers, were sworn to secrecy – but so were lots of other “government girls,” and no one ever came close to hanging.

The melodramatic approach continued with “secret letters” late in 1941 to talented young women at prestigious Seven Sisters colleges in the Northeast. When the “secret” was revealed, these were letters recruiting women who could pass extensive tests and were willing to work as military code breakers, usually in Washington. This work was important, as being able to read the enemy’s encrypted messages would prove a vital part of victory. The American military was far behind in this field at the war’s beginning, but cryptology showed its value already by the summer of 1942: at the crucial Battle of Midway, Admiral Chester Nimitz knew more about Japanese battle plans than many of Japan’s officers.

Both the Army and the Navy formed women’s military corps in 1942, but the author’s elitism grants much more attention to the Navy’s WAVES than to the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), which was first. There’s no mention of Oveta Culp Hobby of Texas, who had the tougher job of pioneering the earlier WAC, but Mildred McAfee, who left the presidency of Wellesley College to command the WAVES, gets plenty of attention. This matters because the WAC accepted minorities from its beginning, while the WAVES did not. Moreover, because WAVES were not allowed to go abroad, the important early-war story of WACS who worked at code breaking under difficult conditions in Britain is sadly neglected.

Nonetheless, the book is a valuable contribution to World War II scholarship, especially in spelling out how much of the crucial work of interpreting enemy messages was done by women. At Washington headquarters, at least 70% of code breakers were female, many of them former teachers or librarians or simply smart women. I also liked the book’s details on Arlington Hall Station, the Army’s facility near Arlington Cemetery (where Hubby served in the 1960s) and the Navy installation on Constitution Avenue (where my older sister Elaine, who now lives in Georgia, worked as a civilian in the 1950s).

The chief characteristics of these women were an ability to analyze and remember and find patterns -- and the persistence to do this day after day and year after year, keeping up with changes that the enemy created to disguise their communications. By the war’s end, we were reading messages between German and Japanese commanders before the intended recipient did. The work was tedious, with long days and nights behind locked doors, but bit by bit, puzzles were solved that led not only to victory, but also to computers and today’s encrypted world. Women were key from the beginning, and young people should know of their great-grandmothers’ experience.

No Sociological Quirks

At the same time, it’s also important to know that Sister Elaine lost her good job with the Navy for the crime of getting married. She had been recruited to DC from Minnesota, a state with a good educational system that Washington brass found appealing. She was not a cryptologist, but her work as a secretary to admirals was classified during this era of nuclear development. I’m a decade younger than she, and I was proud to take a copy of Life magazine to school and explain that my sister was connected to its story on the hydrogen bomb. I loved my new brother-in-law when they came to Minnesota for their wedding, but I was very disappointed to learn that Sis would have to give up her job because the Navy wanted only unmarried women.

Along with its dedication to the single state, the Navy wanted only what they saw as all-American girls. When an admiral addressed a letter to Ada Comstock, president of the Harvard-affiliated Radcliffe College, he proclaimed that he was looking for “bright, close-mouthed, native students” and added that “any sociological quirks would, of course, be undesirable.” Nor did the military want any “Czechoslovakians, Poles, Jews” or other people from “persecuted nations” who might be excessively motivated.

The admiral needn’t have worried, as Radcliffe in the 1940s was unlikely to accept non-Anglo students. His words, however, are a clear demonstration of an attitude that continues today with too many “intelligence” agencies, as they still are apt to exclude the people who have the most personal experience, language skills, and cultural knowledge. Moreover, then as now, ethnic bias was accompanied by gender bias – and fantasy on the part of clueless men.

A speech by Charles Taft, a member of Ohio’s dynastic Republican family, demonstrates this. Although he headed the Office of Community War Services, he began by insulting his audience, saying: “I was a little startled as I came around the curtain to see so many girls in one place.” Instead of recruiting serious young women for serious jobs, he went on to emphasize the wartime disruption of traditional norms and his apparent belief that “girls” had one illicit goal.

Describing Cincinnati’s train station, Taft said: “Starting with some of the professionals, and then extending down among the large number of amateurs, girls go down there and wander around in the station and find themselves a soldier and go out and sit in the park. The park is a very large one with trees and bushes and everything else.” What “everything else” was supposed to be is unclear, but the Republican leader went on to talk about “prostitution and promiscuity” and venereal disease that these loose women were spreading to innocent soldiers.

Yes. Just as when our current commander-in-chief speaks of women, I can only scratch my head and wonder.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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