Rediscover STEAM
Published in

Rediscover STEAM

Dorothy Braden, Crypotgrapher

World War 2 was a crucial time in history and remains an important part of American culture. Movies, literature, and history classes tell us the stories of remarkable heroism and devastating tragedies. Despite all of our efforts to teach our children and preserve our history, we seem to only focus on the men in the line of fire. Don’t get me wrong — they absolutely deserve our attention, but there was more to the war than those on the battlefield. In fact, there was a whole side of the war that has largely been ignored by typical history classes, movies, literature, and anecdotes: cryptography.

Dorothy Braden, given the nickname “Dot” in college, was born on June 11, 1920. She grew up with three siblings in Lynchburg, Virginia and was cared for by her single mother. Her mother believed in the value of education and encouraged Dot to attend Randolph-Macon Woman’s College. At that time, she was part of the 4% of women in America that graduated from a four-year college. Dot financially supported herself through college by working at a flower shop and grading papers for the college physics department.

After graduating from college, Dot became a teacher at Chatham High School in Virginia. Although she had never taught before, the school was eager to have her as a new staff member. By 1942, most male teachers, who were already scarce in schools, had been drafted, and other female teachers left schools to get married before their loved ones went to war. This left Dot with a more than full-time job: “she was now the high school’s eleventh and twelfth grade English teacher, its first and second-year French teacher, ancient-history teacher, civic teacher, hygiene teacher, and calisthenics teacher” (Mundy, 2017). She soon also became an advanced physics teacher after she accidentally let it slip that her graduation certificate was in physics. All of this work only amounted to around $5 per day or $900 per year.

Despite her meager pay, she refused to quit teaching and abandon her students. When asked by friends and colleagues why she would not leave her job, she could not quite explain it. She was “persistent and tenacious by nature” (Mundy, 2017) and her headstrong personality was what kept her returning to work every day. Although she saw a lack of material benefit from teaching, she inspired several young girls to take physics in college, which felt incredibly rewarding. Nonetheless, she was grateful when the school year ended and rushed home where she could finally relax.

However, her summer would not be as relaxing as she had assumed. Once home, she learned the government was recruiting female school teachers and women who had recently graduated from college for an unclear job in Washington, D.C. Dot learned that the recruiters were from the U.S. Army and Navy. Since she fit the prerequisites, she decided to have an interview at a hotel in Lynchburg on September 4, 1943. Even after the interview, she was not sure exactly what she had applied for. Nevertheless, when she was accepted for a job in the Signal Corps, she did not hesitate to accept. She would start off making $1,620 per year, almost double what she made as a teacher, and Dot was excited to go to D.C. for the first time.

After arriving in the nation’s capital, Dot was sent to work at Arlington Hall. It was there that she would learn that she would be part of the thousands of people working for the Army to decipher enemy codes and messages, a process called cryptography. All of this work was incredibly secretive. Some classified details about the women’s work have come out recently, and the women were not allowed to discuss their work with anybody — not even their family! They were afraid to discuss their work with others and would only do so while at their job.

“Code Girls” — Cryptographers

Dot, along with many other women, would spend her long workday sitting in a room, waiting for messages from the enemy to come in. Once they did, she would get to work on cracking them! The encryption methods would often change, so sometimes the enemy messages were much more difficult to decipher, and the women would have to identify the new patterns used to encrypt the messages. Although the process was long and arduous, Dot felt that cryptanalysis was meant to be her life’s work, and, along with many of the women, Dot felt that her job gave her a real purpose.

Although the specifics about the work of each individual woman was largely kept secret, Dot aided in the cracking of several high-profile messages. She even knew that the war was over before president FDR heard the news. Dot also “helped the U.S. Navy pinpoint and sink almost every supply ship heading to the Philippines or the South Pacific” (Code Girls Declassified, 2018).

Even after the war, Dot was required to keep her secret. She remembered the words in a 1946 letter from the War Department that stated, “You must never disclose this to anyone in your lifetime” (Code Girls Declassified, 2018). It was very hard for her to share her story with her family, even once she was given explicit permission. Dorothy Bruce Braden died at the age of 99 on July 25, 2019, due to complications from an infection. Although her work and the work of the thousands of women during the war is largely unknown by the general population, those who know Dot’s history must share it and give these women their due credit.

by Margaret Jones

Inspiration

Around 10,000 women in America became cryptanalysts during the war - a figure far outnumbering male cryptanalysts. In one unit of the Naval Annex, there were 254 military men, 33 civilians, and 1,252 military women. Part of this division was because of sexist beliefs. It was thought that men wouldn’t have the patience to spend all day deciphering codes and that women would not only be more patient but would be better suited for the “boring” stuff. Women were also more trusted to keep a secret, and men claimed they were more logical (the latter of which I can get behind!).

Despite these sexist stereotypes, it is undoubted that these women were fit for the job as they were intelligent, brave, hard-working, and dedicated. They wanted a chance to prove themselves and to do something that would fulfill their passions, and that’s what they got: the backbreaking, mind-numbing, tedious work of cryptography. They proved to themselves that they could handle such a crucial task as national security, even when they couldn’t prove it to others for being sworn to secrecy.

I chose to research Dot Braden for several reasons. For one, there was a lot of information available about her experiences. As you can imagine, for a whole piece of the war to be kept quiet for such a long time, there isn’t much information about the lives of individuals. The only reason I had access to substantive information about Dot and many other women in the field was because of Liza Mundy’s book, Code Girls (which I highly recommend to anyone interested in this history of the war). Without the information that Mundy gathered through interviews and extensive research, I wouldn’t have been able to research her.

Another aspect of Dot Braden’s life I found interesting was her experience as a school teacher and an employed female, which was uncommon for many women. It’s true that Dot was fortunate enough to go to college, and that her career as a teacher was atypical due to the array of classes she taught. But, her experience as an underpaid and overworked and yet highly intelligent woman in America was shared by countless females. By researching Dot and detailing her struggles as a teacher and as a cryptographer during the war, I give you insight into the experience of thousands of other women during the war effort. For all their work, Dot and thousands of teachers were paid $5 a day. For all their work as cryptographers, Dot and thousands of others receive very little recognition, even today when it is safe to discuss.

Dot Braden was an extraordinary woman, and so was everyone who worked in cryptanalysis. Their bravery, humility, perseverance, and unity helped us win the war, and the least we can do is tell their stories.

References

Code Girls Declassified: Dorothy Braden Bruce ’42 can finally reveal her secrets as a WWII codebreaker. (2018, October 23). Retrieved from https://www.randolphcollege.edu/news/2018/03/declassified-code-girls/

Dorothy Bruce Obituary — Midlothian, VA. Retrieved from https://www.dignitymemorial.com/obituaries/midlothian-va/dorothy-bruce-8761827

Managingeditor@localnewsllc.com | on July 10, 2. (2019, July 10). Code Girl passes at 99. Retrieved from https://www.chesterfieldobserver.com/articles/code-girl-passes-at-99/

Mundy, L. Code Girls Gallery. Retrieved from https://www.lizamundy.com/code-girls/gallery-2/

Mundy, L. (2017). Code girls: The true story of the American women who secretly broke codes in World War II. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store