Culture of U.S. Army Codebreakers, 1943

From Code Girls, by Liza Mundy (Hachette, 2017), Kindle pp. 207-209:

Unlike the Navy operation, the Army’s code-breaking operation at Arlington Hall was polyglot, open-minded, and nonhierarchical. Anybody could be in charge of anything. There was a wide assortment of ages and backgrounds working at its wooden tables. Bespectacled middle-aged men labored alongside pin-curled young women with names like Emerald and Velvet. Which is not to say that there wasn’t sexist condescension: One of the bookish men, a New York editor named William Smith, referred to Arlington Hall’s contingent of female southern workers as the “Jewels.” It was a lofty and rather snide reference to the number of women working there whose parents had seen fit to name them after precious stones. He wasn’t wrong: In addition to a profusion of Opals and Pearls, the workforce included a real Jewel—Jewel Hogan—who worked in the machine section. And there was Jeuel Bannister, the band director recruited out of South Carolina.

At Arlington Hall there also were “BIJs,” or born-in-Japans, the term for people who grew up in missionary families and worked in the translating section. There was the actor Tony Randall—later famous as Felix Unger in The Odd Couple—clowning around (at one point he danced on a table) as he waited for the intelligence summary to be taken to the Pentagon. There was an extended group of siblings and cousins—the Erskines—who had relocated as a family unit from Ohio. There was Sumner Redstone, the future billionaire media magnate, now a young officer in the translating unit. There was Julia Ward, former dean of students at Bryn Mawr, czar of a well-run library unit. There were nannies, beauticians, secretaries, restaurant hostesses. Josephine Palumbo at eighteen was virtually running the personnel unit, plucked out of McKinley High School in Washington. Tiny Jo Palumbo, daughter of an Italian immigrant laborer, was the person who swore in newcomers, and the sight of her administering the grave secrecy oath had inspired one code breaker to write a lyrical poem in her honor.

Unlike the Navy, Arlington Hall also had an African American code-breaking unit. This was not so much because the place was unusually liberal-minded, but rather because Eleanor Roosevelt—or somebody at the top—had declared that 12 to 15 percent of the Arlington Hall workforce should be black. It was poor recompense for the fact that many of Arlington’s black residents had been pushed out of their homes by the construction of the Pentagon and other military edifices, but work was welcome and this was better than nothing. Arlington Hall’s African American workers had to take segregated transport to get there, and many, even those who were college graduates, were given menial jobs as janitors and messengers. But there also was a special code-breaking unit whose existence was unknown to many of the white workers. The African American unit monitored the enciphered communications of companies and banks to see what was being transmitted in the global private sector and who was doing business with Hitler or Mitsubishi. They kept a library of 150 systems, with careful files of addresses and characteristics of all the world’s main commercial codes. There was no shortage of qualified people to staff it: Despite its segregated school system and the inequality of resources that accompanied segregation, the city of Washington had a number of highly regarded black public schools, as well as Howard, one of the country’s premier historically black universities. One of the team members, Annie Briggs, started out as a secretary and rose to head the production unit. Another, Ethel Just, led the expert translators. The team was led by a black man, William Coffee, who studied English at Knoxville College in Tennessee, started out as a janitor and waiter at Arlington Hall, and rose to this position.

In short, in its eclecticism and, often, its eccentricity, the atmosphere at Arlington Hall was unlike anything the U.S. military had ever produced.

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Filed under democracy, education, labor, language, military, nationalism, science, U.S., war

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