Happy 100, Fran!!
Late post, my computer is on it's last legs. It would not cooperate until this morning. I am putting it to rest. I am getting a new one, but all will not be completed until June 10, so the next post will probably not be until June 12. I will be back! But since I have access today - sort of - I want to wish a very wonderful woman a Happy Birthday!
Happy Birthday, Fran - Thank you for your Service!
Fran Pearlmutter was a code breaker during WWII. She was born in June 1923 and grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts. “I was very fortunate in that I was born to a mother and father who really loved me,” she said. “And they never failed to show me daily that they loved me. And more than that, they loved each other.”
Fran is a beautiful woman who celebrates her 100th birthday this month. She dresses very fashionably, her hair is done regularly, her nails are painted the latest colors, and she proudly wears a Veteran’s cap. Fran is a tiny woman, but her heart and spirit are enormous! A bit unsteady on her feet these days, Fran uses a little chair to get around, and get around she does! She is always off on some adventure or another. Fran is a thinker, often pausing to analyze things. She is extremely well-spoken with a clear, slow voice, and careful enunciation. She loves libraries, her family, especially her great-grandchildren, reading, and life!
Fran remembers that she really had a passion for linguistics. This drew her to Boston University at a time in history when only 3.8 percent of American women were enrolled in any kind of higher education. After graduating in 1944, it didn’t take the Army long to identify her as someone that could help the war effort. They recruited her as a “cryptanalytic aid” in their code-breaking division, the Signal Intelligence Service (SIS) which provides timely and accurate cryptologic support, knowledge, and assistance to the military cryptologic community while promoting partnership between the Armed Forces Security Agency, which later became the National Security Agency (NSA), and the cryptologic elements of the Armed Forces.
Fran recalls that after the attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States entered WWII, the U.S. Navy sent letters to about 10,000 well-educated women asking two simple questions: “Are you engaged to be married?” “Do you like puzzles?” Presumably, the government obtained vital information about these women from the colleges or universities they attended. Those who answered no and yes respectively to the above questions, were recruited immediately as “code girls,” to intercept and decrypt messages coming over the airwaves from Japan. These women were critical ppersonnel during World War II.
The Army sent Fran a train ticket to Washington, D.C. and upon her arrival, she was picked up at the station in an official military car and drive six miles to the Arlington Hall Junior College for Women. The government had commandeered it as their headquarters. It was all very cloak and dagger. Barbed-wire fences, barracks, and makeshift offices were everywhere. This college campus had become home to 10,000 code breakers. More than half of them were women.
Under the threat of treason, they were all ordered to keep their work secret. If the women were asked what their occupation was at Arlington Hall, they were told to respond that they sharpened pencils.
At Arlington Hall, they took Fran into a small room. “I was told I must learn Japanese. I stayed up until maybe midnight, and then seven hours later, I was doing the same thing.” Fran was soon interpreting messages written in Japanese, encrypted, and transmitted as a series of dots and dashes representing syllables and punctuations.
Fran talks about the difficulty of this type of cryptology: “Translating from one language to another—for instance, French into Spanish or French into English—that I can do. There’s a commonality among languages. You know one, you can learn from another. However, when you’re working with Japanese on a large, 12-by-14-inch 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.”
Each day the code girls determined the location of the Japanese army on the Pacific Islands and put together an “order of battle” that outlined their proposed strategies. This information went straight to the Pentagon where it was critical in the Allied defeat of Japan. The work of these dedicated women (and men) helped to bring the war to an end. It was their advancements in code-breaking that helped establish the National Security Agency (NSA). Those increased strategies for safeguarding data laid the groundwork for modern cybersecurity.
When the war ended in 1945, all the code girls were simply sent home without fanfare and with little recognition. Fran has often told me she didn’t do the work for recognition. She never wanted it or expected it. Fran worked for her country, not the glory.
Fran now lives with her daughter Debby on an 83-acre ranch in Montezuma County. Fran says she doesn’t sleep much these days, “I stay up reading well past my bedtime, which, by the way, is midnight,” she says. Her bedroom walls are filled with oil paintings of their Brookline home and portraits of their family. “I look out my window at the tall trees that have been standing here for centuries. They’re huge. Those trees were planted never by man; they were planted by the Almighty. He wants us to make good use of our land.”
A full chapter on Fran is in my new book, They Roared, which is going to print and will be available in a few weeks!