Much of this information contained here was gathered by Laura Erlich and appeared in the BU Arts and Sciences Magazine in 2018. Photographs by Abie Livesay.
Thanks to my sweet friend, Karen C., for sharing the love and passion of women's history and Fran, with me!
Yesterday, I met a truly amazing and lovely woman, Fran Pearlmutter. She lives in my own little town. She traveled from her nearby home to the Library, where I was working, to meet me.
Fran is 95 years young and as a companion describes her, “she is a kick ass lady.” After meeting her, I would have to say It it true. She really is. Fran is retired now, still living a moderately active life, but nothing like her earlier life.
You see, she was a codebreaker during World War II. When the war was over she married, raised a family, then became a travel agent and traveled all over the world. As I spoke with this woman, holding her hand, I felt so honored and blessed to be in the presence of this legendary elder. The energy was electric. She is clear, lucid and a very warm and intelligent woman. She is one of the last living codebreakers alive and until 20 years ago no one, not even her husband or children knew what she had done.
Fran grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts, where ironically, I spent a great deal of time as a child. Her mother was a seamstress and her dad was also a clothier, making overcoats. During the war he donated jackets to soldiers and sailors. Fran always had a fascination and ability with languages, she speaks five. In the early 1940’s she enrolled in Boston University to study linguistics at a time when only 3.8% of the women in this country were enrolled in any kind of higher education.
When the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor thrust the United States into World War II, the US Navy sent 10,000 well-educated women a letter asking two simple questions: “Are you engaged to be married?” and “Do you like crossword puzzles?” Apparently she fit the bill, because when Fran graduated in 1944, she was recruited as a “cryptanalytic aide” in the Army’s codebreaking division, the Signal Intelligence Service (SIS).
The Army sent Fran a train ticket to Washington, D.C. where they picked her up at the station in a military car and drove her to a 100 acre campus, the Arlington Hall Junior College for Women, in Arlington, Virginia. This was their headquarters and barbed wire fences, barracks and makeshift offices was home to 10,000 codebreakers, more than half of them were women. They were all sworn to secrecy and not keeping this secret was treason they were warned. While her parents knew what she was doing they too were sworn to secrecy. The answer given to anyone asking what Fran was doing in Virginia, was “sharpening pencils.” “Almost everybody thought we were nothing but secretaries,” one of the women would say years later.
As an aside here, it must be noted that nearly 350,000 American women served in uniform, both at home and abroad, volunteering for the newly formed Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAACs, later renamed the Women’s Army Corps), the Navy Women’s Reserve (WAVES), the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve (SPARS), the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPS), the Army Nurses Corps, and the Navy Nurse Corps. General Eisenhower felt that he could not win the war without the aid of the women in uniform. “The contribution of the women of America, whether on the farm or in the factory or in uniform, to D-Day was a sine qua non (an essential condition; a thing that is absolutely necessary) of the invasion effort.”
Women in uniform took office and clerical jobs in the armed forces in order to free men to fight. They also drove trucks, repaired airplanes, worked as laboratory technicians, rigged parachutes, served as radio operators, analyzed photographs, flew military aircraft across the country, test-flew newly repaired planes, and even trained anti-aircraft artillery gunners by acting as flying targets. Some women served near the front lines in the Army Nurse Corps, where 16 were killed as a result of direct enemy fire. Sixty-eight American service women were captured as POWs in the Philippines. More than 1,600 nurses were decorated for bravery under fire and meritorious service, and 565 WACs in the Pacific Theater won combat decorations. Nurses were in Normandy on D-plus-four.
Back to Fran. She was shown to a tiny, cramped room room in Arlington, Virginia, and told she must learn Japanese. Learn she did working long hard hours. She was soon interpreting messages written in Japanese, then encrypted them and transmitted them to the Pentagon. Every day, the “code girls,” as they were called, determined the location of the Japanese army on Pacific islands and composed an “order of battle” outlining their strategies. The information was critical in the Allied defeat of Japan. Not only did their work bring the war to a close, but the women’s codebreaking advancements helped establish the National Security Agency; their strategies for safeguarding data laid the groundwork for modern cybersecurity.
“Translating from one language to another—for instance, French into Spanish or French into English—that I can do,” Pearlmutter says. “However, when you’re working with Japanese on a large, 12-by-14-foot board balanced on a table or on your lap—that was not easy. I learned to use the grid and when the dip dip dips came over the airwaves, I was able to help crack the code.”
When the war ended in 1945, the “code girls” went home without fanfare. Their efforts were almost completely ignored or hidden for more than 70 years and their contributions then only mentioned in passing.
After the War, Fran married Bernard Pearlmutter who was a lieutenant colonel and a war hero. He was awarded the Bronze and Silver Stars and a Purple Heart. Fran never spoke about her work in the war as a codebreaker. Her children heard stories about their father, but not their mother.
Fran worked as a travel agent after raising her children. She cruised down the Nile, rafted in Canada and took tour groups to the Far East, Romania, Turkey, Greece and the Soviet Union. According to her daughter, Debby, there aren’t many places in the world Fran has not been.
“I enjoyed taking people out on trips to show them the breadth and scope of our nation,” Pearlmutter says. She often tells her daughters about a memorable trip to Alaska during the 1986 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, when she watched American dog musher Susan Butcher become the second woman to win.
When she slowed down a little and stopped traveling as much, she began to take stock in what she had accomplished in her life. She joined a Veterans Group and felt proud of what she had done to help in the war effort. Her family says that details of her work are still coming out in bits and pieces. Her daughter say that she always told them “there’s no restrictions on what you can be or do. Be whatever you want to be, as a woman.”
Fran now lives in rural Colorado where she says, “I stay up reading well past my bedtime, which by the way is midnight” and her bedroom walls are filled with her father’s oil paintings of their Brookline home and portraits of the family. She says “I look out my window at the tall trees that have been standing here for centuries. They’re huge and those trees were planted never by a man; they were planted by the Almighty. He wants us to make good use of our land.”
These days Fran spends her days sketching the landscape, writing poetry, corresponding with friends and traveling, yes! She still travels although a little closer to home now. She still loves to get out and explore. She also loves her great grand children. While she was meeting with me at our library she asked about books, that they might enjoy, that she could read to them. About her two year old, the youngest of the lot she says, “He’ll hoist himself onto my lap and turn the pages of a book with me. And I love that. I have high hopes for him. I want to give to him whatever I can.”
This is a truly remarkable woman and when I said I found her a treasure and her story quite inspiring, and the fact that she received no credit, she quickly replied, “we did not do it for credit!” I said I knew that, but we, women of this generation and others to follow needed to know her story. She was a role model and we needed that. She answered, “One of my great aspirations is to know that I’ve left a legacy, as best I could, of peace.”
For further reading about the women who were codebreakers, I suggest Liza Mundy is author, most recently, of Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II (Hachette Books, 2017),
For a shorter version as appears in Politico Magazine, see The Secret History of the Female Code Breakers Who Helped Defeat the Nazis.
The Navy and Army recruited more than 10,000 women as ‘cryptanalysts’ to decipher enemy codes during World War II. But their story has never been fully told. By LIZA MUNDY October 10, 2017