Discover the Secret Weapon of the Second World War

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Cryptology may look old-fashioned today, but these experts were among the first to inspire women into tech and science careers.

As we celebrate Women’s History Month, it’s worth taking a closer look at some women who have been overlooked or erased from the past. The United States Postal Service is honoring an overlooked group of women as part of their Women’s History Month stamp. This stamp honors the women cryptologists of the Second World War, who helped play an important role in the Allied victory. 

According to the National Cryptologic Foundation, roughly 600 women joined the Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) in 1943, working around the clock to solve German Enigma messages during World War II.

These women helped work on more than 120 US Navy Cryptanalytic Bombes (machines), which solved problems and found incoming threats in the Atlantic Ocean. Each one weighed about 5,000 pounds. One is currently on view at the National Cryptologic Museum in Annapolis Junction, Maryland. 

The women working for Navy WAVES were high profile. Their jobs were so secretive that they often didn't know the full story of what they were decoding. They also weren't allowed to speak to anyone about their jobs. They were a secret weapon of the Second World War, but never properly credited or honored until long after many of them had passed.

The new USPS stamp features an image taken from a WWII-era recruitment poster for the Navy WAVES in hues of gray and blue. The image is overlaid with encrypted code that can be deciphered to reveal keywords written on the back of the stamp. The designer director for the stamp is Antonio Alcala.

The first American who learned WWII had ended in 1945 was a woman code breaker named Virginia D. Aderholt. She was given the task to decipher and translate a message from Japan. Her message was given to the 33rd President, Harry S. Truman, who announced to the public that the Second World War was over.

Aderholt was one of over 10,000 women who decoded messages for the US Army and Navy that helped save the lives of the troops and come out of the war safe. They helped aid communication for Pearl Harbor and the invasion of Normandy as well. 

The reason women were tasked with decoding work was because it wasn’t prestigious to men at the time. They wanted to be heroes on the battlefield, so women were given these so-called “boring” jobs. The women were recruited by the Army and Navy around the country, and had to lie to their families about doing “secretarial work.”

Learn more about these overlooked women in history by reading Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Female Code Breakers of WWII, a book by Liza Mundy. Her book is a key resource for understanding their efforts during the war, as she interviewed 20 women about their experiences.

As Mundy writes in her book Code Girls: "The recruitment of these American women — and the fact that women were behind some of the most significant individual code-breaking triumphs of the war — was one of the best-kept secrets of the conflict."

Tags: Groundbreaking Women, Women's History, Women's History Month, KNOWHERNAME

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Nadja Sayej

Nadja Sayej is journalist based in New York City writing about design, architecture and culture for Architectural Digest, Vanity Fair and Barron's, among others. See Full Bio

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