Today is the A to Z Challenge’s third Sunday break for the month but since I usually post every day or just about, I thought I’d write one of my normal Saturday segments.

Throughout history women have made their mark in a wide variety of ways.  In WOW, I usually highlight one of these remarkable women and write about their life from birth to the grave.  Last week I wrote about the wonderful women codebreakers of Bletchley Park.  One of the readers of my blog pointed out that American women were involved in codebreaking too.  Today I write about American women who contributed to the war effort through science and mathematics but only about that aspect of their life.

Anges Meyer Driscoll

Agnes_meyer_driscollAgnes Meyer Driscoll (July 24, 1889 – September 16, 1971) was, known as Miss Aggie or Madame X, an American cryptanalyst during both World War I and World War II.  One Navy admiral described her as “without peer as a cryptanalyst”. Meyer attended Otterbein College from 1907-1909. In 1911 she received a B.A. degree from Ohio State University, majoring in mathematics and physics, while also to some extent studying foreign languages, statistics, and music.  She was fluent in English, French, German, Latin, and Japanese. From her earliest days as a college student, she pursued technical and scientific studies. After graduation, she moved to Amarillo, Texas, where she was director of music at a military academy, and, later, chair of the mathematics department at the local high school.

On June 22, 1918, about one year after America entered World War I, Agnes Meyer enlisted in the United States Navy – America had just started allowing women to enlist. She was recruited at the highest possible rank of chief yeoman and after a stint in the Postal Cable and Censorship Office she was assigned to the Code and Signal section of the Director of Naval Communications. After the war ended she made use of an option to continue working her post as a civilian. Except for a two-year hiatus, when she worked for a private firm, she would remain a leading cryptanalyst for the U.S. Navy until 1949.

Her efforts were not limited to manual systems; she was involved also in the emerging machine technology of the time, which was being applied both to making and breaking ciphers. In her first days in the Code and Signal section, she co-developed one of the U.S. Navy’s cipher machines, the “CM.” This cipher machine would become a standard enciphering device for the Navy in the 1920s. In 1923, Agnes solved a puzzle published in a magazine that was advertised as impossible. The creators, fledgling Hebern Electric Code Company was attempting to create a cipher machine; He offered her a job as technical advisor which she left the Navy to take. She worked on developing an early cipher machine. Although Hebern’s company ultimately failed, its work in rotor technology would affect machine cryptography for years to come. She returned to the navy in the spring of 1924. In August 1924 she married Michael Driscoll, a Washington, D.C. lawyer.

In early 1935, Agnes Driscoll led the attack on the Japanese M-1 cipher machine (also known to the U.S. as the ORANGE machine), used to encrypt the messages of Japanese naval attaches around the world. At the same time Agnes sponsored the introduction of early machine support for cryptanalysis against Japanese naval code systems.

In her thirty-year career, Agnes Driscoll and Lieutenant Joseph Rochefort broke Japanese Navy manual codes—the Red Book Code in after 3 years of work in 1926, and the Blue Book Code in 1930, and in 1940 she made critical inroads into JN-25, (Remember codebreaking for Battle of Midway) the Japanese fleet’s operational code, which the U.S. Navy exploited after the attack on Pearl Harbor for the rest of the Pacific War. She would be unable to finish this work, however, because she was transferred to a team working to break the German naval Enigma cipher.

After getting the work against JN-25 started, Driscoll headed up a new group to attack the German Enigma ciphers using a catalog approach. Unfortunately the U.S. and U.K. did not communicate effectively and her approach was both fruitless and had been tried by the British who determined it was unlikely to work. Ultimately this work was superseded by the US-UK cryptologic exchanges of 1942-43. She worked under Laurance Safford and Joseph Rochefort.  In 1943 she worked with a team to break the Japanese cipher Coral. It was broken two months later, although Driscoll is said to have had little influence on the project. In 1945 she appears to have worked on attacking Russian ciphers.

Mrs. Driscoll was part of the navy contingent that joined the new national cryptologic agencies, firstly the Armed Forces Security Agency in 1949 and then the National Security Agency in 1952. While with the Armed Forces Security Agency she may or may not have contributed to attacking a cipher called Verona.  She retired from Armed Forces Security Agency in 1959.  She died in 1971 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Elizebeth Smith Friedman

Elizebeth Friedman

Elizebeth Friedman

Elizebeth Smith Friedman (August 26, 1892 – October 31, 1980) was a cryptanalyst and author, and a pioneer in U.S. cryptography. She has been dubbed “America’s first female cryptanalyst”.  She was the wife of William F. Friedman, a notable cryptographer credited with numerous contributions to cryptology, whom she introduced to the field. She also enjoyed many successes in her own right.

After briefly attending The College of Wooster in Ohio, she graduated from Hillsdale College in Michigan with a major in English literature and was also a member of Pi Beta Phi. Having exhibited her interest in languages, she had also studied Latin, Greek, and German, and minored “in a great many other things.” Only she and one other sibling were privileged to attend college.

At Riverbank Laboratories Friedman found one of the first such facilities in the US to seriously study cryptography and other subjects. Through the work of the Friedmans, much historical information on secret writing was gathered. Until the World War I creation of MI8, the Army’s Cipher Bureau, Riverbank was the only facility in the US seriously capable of solving enciphered messages. Military cryptography had been officially deemphasized after the Civil War. During World War I, several US Government departments asked Riverbank Labs for help or sent personnel for training. Among those was Agnes Meyer Driscoll who came on behalf of the Navy.

Among the staff of fifteen at Riverbank was the man Elizebeth would marry in May 1917: William F. Friedman. The couple worked together for the next four years or so in the only significant cryptographic facility in the country, save Herbert Yardley’s ‘Black Chamber’. In 1921 Mr. and Mrs. Friedman left Riverbank to work for the War Department in Washington, D.C.  Mrs. Friedman’s employment as a cryptanalyst for the U.S. Navy followed in 1923, which led to her subsequent positions with the U.S. Treasury Department’s Bureaux of Prohibition and of Customs. Her career at both is quite significant and embraces cryptography against international smuggling and drug running in various parts of the world. The smugglers and runners resorted to encrypted radio messages to support their operations, presuming they would be able to communicate securely.   It was work under the Volstead Act (Prohibition) that consumed her skills in the 1920s.

Finally, Mrs. Friedman left her mark on the life of one of espionage’s most notorious spies, Velvalee Dickinson, whose path to and role in espionage are noteworthy. Following high school and some college, Velvalee married the head of a brokerage firm that had Japanese-American clients. The Dickinson’ interest in Japan grew so much that they joined the Japanese-American Society, where they began to rub shoulders with members of the Japanese consulate. When the brokerage firm’s success suffered a downturn, so too did the Dickinson’ role as proponents of good Japanese-American relations. At some point, the couple became spies for Japan. Velvalee became a major player, and her successful doll shop was a cover for her espionage. Known as the “Doll Woman,” she corresponded with Japanese agents using the names of women she found in her business correspondence.

This would be her downfall. Her correspondence, which contained encoded material addressing significant naval vessel movement in Pearl Harbor, was analyzed and solved by Mrs. Friedman. This analysis resulted in a guilty verdict against Mrs. Dickinson.

Although Mrs. Friedman worked closely with her husband as part of a team, many of her contributions to cryptology were unique. She deciphered many encoded messages throughout the Prohibition years and solved many notable cases singlehandedly, including some codes which were written in Mandarin Chinese.

During World War II Mrs Friedman’s Coast Guard unit was transferred to the Navy where they solved a difficult Enigma machine code used by German Naval Intelligence.

After World War II, Mrs. Friedman became a consultant to and created communications security systems for the International Monetary Fund.  Mrs. Friedman died on October 31, 1980 in Plainfield, New Jersey, at the age of 88.

Ann Caracristi

women_caracristiAnn Caracristi came to work as a cryptanalyst with the Army Signal Intelligence Service in 1942. Initially, she sorted Japanese Army messages but quickly advanced to cryptanalysis and then supervision. She helped pioneer the application of early computers in cryptanalysis and established a laboratory for studying new communications phenomena.

Her expertise and professionalism responding to tough intelligence problems brought her rapid advancement at NSA. In 1959, she was promoted to supergrade and in 1975, she became the first woman at NSA to be promoted to GS-18. She was the first woman to be named NSA Deputy Director in 1980. Also in 1980, she received the Department of Defense Distinguished Civilian Service Award, the DoD’s highest civilian honor. After her retirement, she served on many intelligence community panels and boards.

In addition, the following link is an article from Wheaton College and their code breakers http://wheatoncollege.edu/quarterly/2011/03/17/code-breakers-secret-service/


4 responses

  1. kristin says:

    I will have to look for the doll spy. I never thought of code breakers being used against booze smugglers during prohibition, but of course they would have tried to talk to each other secretly through code.


  2. Birgit says:

    # great women who helped so much during the wars and in between as well. I never heard of the Doll Spy but what a shame! Glad she was found out and by another woman.


  3. a gray says:

    I am very pleased to see this post today. The Bletchley Park ladies get lots of press and credit, but the U.S. had to have had more than its share of lady code breakers. It is time to hear more of them, and I suspect this may just be a start. Come on ladies, let us hear of your mothers and grandmothers during World War II.