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Remembering Fran

“One of my great aspirations is to know that I’ve left a

legacy, as best I could, of peace.”

Remembering a heroine of our times. Fran passed away

last evening at home on the ranch, surrounded by

loving friends, family, and music. You will be remembered

Fran. Thank you for all you did.

This narrative is a combination of

my conversations with Fran over several years and

an interview with her by Bostonia, the publication of

her alma mater, Boston University, back in 2019,

and excerpted from They Roared.

Fran Pearlmutter was born in June 1923

and grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Her mother was a seamstress and her father

manufactured top-of-the-line men’s

overcoats. During the war, Fran’s father donated jackets to

soldiers and sailors. “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, at over 100,

dresses very fashionably, has her hair 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!

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 greatgrandchildren,

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.

The Navy sent letters to about10,000 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 personnel 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 driven the six

miles to 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.

They all knew that the order of silence was to be taken

very seriously. Fran’s parents understood she was doing

covert work, though they didn’t know exactly what. They

did know she wasn’t sharpening pencils. Whenever

anyone asked, and they did frequently, what had

become of Fran, her parents feigned complete

ignorance. This must have been difficult because

they were very proud of their only daughter who was

involved in the war effort. But they did as they were


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. She says

the film The Imitation Game, produced in 2014,

glamorized code-breaking. In reality, it is quite

tedious work involving statistical analysis and

searching for patterns in those dots and dashes,

using a grid to translate them back into Japanese

and then into English. It was a time-consuming

pursuit and sometimes very frustrating. Not at all

glamorous according to Fran. She 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 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.

Not all their time was spent nose to the grindstone,

or grid. Most maybe, but Fran talks about taking

long, leisurely walks on Sundays with a friend to

clear her head and loosen up her body from the

intensity of their work. There was a lovely cemetery

close to their Arlington barracks where they enjoyed

picnicking and walking. One Sunday they were

lounging on the grass, talking, and they let time get

away from them. What they did not realize was the

cemetery had iron gates that were locked each day

at dusk and not opened until the following morning.

It also had very high walls surrounding it. It was just

after dusk. They were locked in! Fran said they

considered their plight for a while, but then just

scrambled up the wall and got back to their rooms. It

seemed the only egress available to them. They were

a bit bedraggled, stockings in tatters, and a few

scrapes, but at least they didn’t have to spend the

night in the cemetery.

When Fran was asked by an interviewer if she had a

particular heroine, she replied almost instantly,

Eleanor Roosevelt. When she was a Girl Scout, Fran

met Eleanor Roosevelt who made a lifelong

impression on her. Her Girl Scout troop took first

place in cookie sales one year, winning them a trip to

Washington, D.C. The girls were each picked up and

driven in a big, fancy limousine. Eleanor greeted

them at the door and had tea with them. Fran was

very impressed and remembered Mrs. Roosevelt as a

very classy, sincere, and warm woman. “She was

gracious,” Fran said. “That’s one word I would use

for her.”

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. Liza Mundy who wrote an article on women

cryptographers for Politico, says they “came from a

generation when women did not expect to receive

credit for achievement in public life.” In her book

Code Girls, Liza exposes the work those women did

long ago and long forgotten. She says, “They did not

make up the top brass, and they did not write the

histories afterward, nor the first-person memoirs. It

completely hid their efforts for over 70 years, their

contributions mentioned only in passing.”

When Fran told me she never, ever, spoke of her

work, even to her husband, this surprised me.

Certainly, at the time it was critical to keep their

work secret, but so many years later? Her children

grew up thinking their father was the only war hero.

He was a lieutenant colonel with Bronze and Silver

Stars, a Purple Heart, and a key to the city of Feltre,

Italy, where he served as a provisional governor at

the end of the war. His were the stories that were

told, and his were the stories that Fran’s daughter,

Debby, heard growing up.

Fran says she thought little about the past. She

enjoyed traveling, and she traveled the world,

working as a travel agent, cruising down the Nile,

rafting in Canada, and taking tour groups to the Far

East, Turkey, Greece, Romania, and what was then

the Soviet Union. Fran gets a faraway dreamy look in

her eyes when she talks about her travels. Those

trips were the highlight of her life. Her daughter

Debby says, “She was nonstop traveling. I mean,

nonstop, for several years. There aren’t many places

in the world she hasn’t been.” Fran smiled and said,

“I enjoyed taking people out on trips to show them

the breadth and scope of our nation.”

Fran often tells her daughters about a memorable

trip to Alaska during the 1986 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog

Race. She relates how she watched American

musher Susan Butcher become the second woman to

win the Iditarod: “She was holding the reins of these

huge, wonderfully strong animals. When she came

by, it was unbelievable; her legs were the size across

of five women.” Susan became the second woman to

win the Iditarod. Libby Riddles was the first in 1985.

Much later when Fran wasn’t traveling as often, she

took the time to reflect on her life. It was then she

realized all she had accomplished. She joined the

Jewish Veteran’s group and shared some of her

wartime experiences with her family. Debby says

stories still come out in bits and pieces. Her children

are proud of her and have expressed gratitude that

she served her country. Fran always told her

daughters, “There’s no restrictions on what you can

be or do. Be whatever you want to be as a woman.”

Wise words.

Note: A quick refresher on history and why these

women code breakers were so critical to the war

effort. When Adolf Hitler invaded Poland, WWII

began. This conflict spread around the world. The

Axis powers were Germany, Italy, and Japan. The

Allies were Britain, France, Russia, and China. With

the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941,

the United States, which had previously been

neutral, entered the war.

Tensions were running high, and many countries had

developed “codes” containing secret, disguised, war

strategies and/or names of people, places, and battle

plans. The “code breakers” looked for patterns, using

complex mathematical skills and developing

technology to assist them. Long strings of letters and

numbers that looked like nonsense were studied and

it was never easy. The women took shifts and

worked around the clock. They knew their work was

essential and they took it very seriously. One woman

code breaker Ann White said, “Everyone we knew

and loved was in this war.”

The women cipher experts even tested American

codes to ensure that the enemies could not break

them. Women code breakers were doing the exact

same work as the men, sometimes better because of

their attention to detail, but were paid less than their

male counterparts. Often, they were treated with

disrespect and assigned to “housekeeping” tasks,

like washing windows.

Men often took credit for the accomplishments of

women and that is no secret! For example, J. Edgar

Hoover, the first director of the Federal Bureau of

Investigation, said that he and his group broke up a

Nazi spy ring in South America. Untrue!! It was

Elizebeth Smith Friedman, America’s first code

breaker, who actually uncovered this spy ring.


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