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Breaking Codes — Written And Unwritten

Women Reunite to Remember, Celebrate War Contributions

On May 28, 1941, Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers introduced a bill to form the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC). One year later, five months after Japan left Pearl Harbor a scorched grave site, May 1942, the WAAC bill passed.

One of the most successful and unheralded products of that bill was the formation of Signal Security Agency (SSA) headquartered at Arlington Hall Station, Arlington, Va. But that did not occur until July 1943.

In the interim, the Army established an East Coast intercept station at Vint Hill Farms in Warrenton, and a West Coast station at Two Rock Ranch Station, Petaluma, CA. They became the homes of an elite corp of WAACs who became known as Code Breakers.

Their story is now a part of the History Office, Office of the Chief of Staff, US Army Intelligence and Security Command, at Fort Belvoir. A small remaining core of those indomitable females recently held their 59th reunion under the aegis of Karen Kovach, US Army Intelligence and Security Command History, Fort Belvoir.

All served at the Petaluma, CA, facility. They have different memories of their experiences, from enlistment to discharge. But, there is one common thread. They were unseen, unheard, and unrecognized for many years after the so called "Big One."

Sitting in Kovach's living room recently on Chaucer View Circle in Alexandria, were Mary Bromble, Glen Bernie, MD; Ann V. Hart, originally from Philadelphia, and since World War II of Petaluma, CA; Rheta Connor, Shelter Island, NY; and Lee Chamberlain, originally from Boston, and now of Monteca, CA. All representatives of the distaff side of Tom Brokaw's "Greatest Generation."

THESE WOMEN AND their counterparts in Virginia spent the war years listening to, and breaking the Japanese and German codes. Their efforts saved countless lives on the battlefield and served as the basis for the 80th Congress to pass the Women's Service Integration Act of 1948 establishing a permanent place for women in all branches of the armed services of the United States.

"We went to basic training school for 20 weeks in Kansas City," Bromble recalled. "A lot of us had been involved with one form of music or another."

Hart emphasized, "You had to have a good sense of rhythm. It helped in deciphering the international code and morse code."

Following training the women were given the choice of going to Vint Hill or Petaluma. "A lot of us thought it was a chance to get to the West Coast to see more of this country. We pictured the Pacific Ocean, the redwood trees and all that. What we got was a fake sheep ranch in camouflage," Bromble recalled. "There were no barracks for us anywhere."

Chamberlain recalled she was getting transmissions from the Philippines and as far away as Japan. One of the sending stations she was monitoring was Hiroshima. "One night it simply went off the air. I had no idea what had happened to it," she reflected.

Connor remembered that they had been trained in deciphering the International Code. "Then the Japanese changed their code and we all had to go back to school to learn the new code," she said.

"Others had cracked the new code and got it to us."

ONE OF THE DOWNSIDES to their service was that they were so secret they weren't even recognized as existing until years after World War II. "Nobody ever knew what we did and we were told not to talk about it even after we were discharged," Hart emphasized.

The WACs who served at Two Rock Ranch have been gathering biennially, in various locations around the nation, since the war ended, according to Kovach. "For many, this year's reunion was their first trip to Northern Virginia," she said. One of the highlights was a VIP trip tour of the Women's Memorial.

As stated in her chronology entitled, "Breaking Codes/Breaking Barriers," Kovach pointed out, "World War II served as a springboard for women's entry into the intelligence field. While a handful of women had been involved with cytology prior to the war, this was the first time women entered the field on a large scale."

Some of the rationales for joining the WACS and, particularly, the cryptology field, as reported by Kovach were:

* "I attended cryptanalysis school in Arlington Hall. There were a number of former school teachers in our battalion, with me being one of them." Frances Wolverton, cryptanalyst.

* "I was bored, wanted something different. I liked the Uncle Sam Wants You recruiting poster. I thought, wonderful, someone needs us." Alice Taylor, radio operator.

* "I went in because there was a war on. My country was at war, and I'm American. What else do you do? You go where you think you can be of help." Rheta Creighton, radio operator.

AS KOVACK STATES, "Most of the original WACs assigned to Vint Hill Farms and Two Rock Ranch served throughout the war, providing the raw data that revealed to analysts at Arlington Hall the intentions, preparations, and movements of enemy forces."

They kept their work so secret that, "As a result, their contribution to the Allied victory has not received the recognition that usually accompanies an exceptional accomplishment," Kovach explained.

"However, these WACS do not consider their efforts extraordinary, and instead, give credit to the soldiers who fought on the battlefield," she said.

But President Harry S. Truman saw it differently. Following the allied victory, he sent each of them a letter of commendation "for helping to end the war sooner and saving thousands of lives."