Bostonia is published in print three times a year and updated weekly on the web.
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?”
Those who answered no and yes, respectively, were recruited as “code girls” to intercept and decrypt messages coming over the airwaves from Japan.
Fran Pearlmutter (CAS’44) was one of them. Recruited by the US War Department just after graduation from BU, she and a cadre of codebreakers lived and worked in secret on a 100-acre campus in Arlington, Va. They deciphered tens of thousands of messages a month, and their expertise was instrumental in ending the war.
Now 95, Pearlmutter is one of the last living codebreakers. Until about 20 years ago, no one, not even her husband and children, knew what she’d done.
Pearlmutter grew up in Brookline, Mass. Her mother was a seamstress and her father manufactured men’s overcoats; during the war, he donated jackets to the soldiers and sailors. A passion for languages drew Pearlmutter to BU, where she studied linguistics at a time when only 3.8 percent of American women were enrolled in higher education.
After graduation, in 1944, she was recruited as a “cryptanalytic aide” in the Army’s codebreaking division, the Signal Intelligence Service (SIS).
The Army sent Pearlmutter a train ticket to Washington, D.C., picked her up at the station in a military car, and drove her six miles to Arlington Hall Junior College for Women, which they had seized as their headquarters. Barbed-wire fences, barracks, and makeshift offices dominated the campus, home to 10,000 codebreakers, more than half of them women.
They were ordered to keep their work secret at the risk of committing treason. If asked what they did at Arlington Hall, they were told to say they sharpened pencils.
While Pearlmutter’s parents knew about her covert work, they claimed ignorance when, for example, their mailman asked why Pearlmutter had gone away.
At Arlington Hall, Pearlmutter was taken to a small room “where I was told I must learn Japanese,” she says. “I stayed up until maybe midnight, and then 14 hours later I was still doing the same thing.”
The messages Pearlmutter would soon be interpreting were written in Japanese, then encrypted and transmitted as dots and dashes representing syllables, punctuation, and emphasis. While films like 2014’s The Imitation Game glamorize codebreaking, it was tedious statistical analysis work that involved searching for patterns in those dots and dashes and using a grid to translate them back into Japanese, and then into English.
“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.”
Every day, the code girls determined the location of the Japanese army on Pacific islands and composed an “order of battle” outlining their strategies. The information went straight to the Pentagon, where it 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, and their strategies for safeguarding data laid the groundwork for modern cybersecurity.
But when the war ended in 1945, the code girls went home without fanfare.
They “came from a generation when women did not expect—or receive—credit for achievement in public life,” journalist Liza Mundy writes in an article for Politico; she revealed the women’s long-forgotten work in her book Code Girls. “They did not constitute the top brass, and they did not write the histories afterward, nor the first-person memoirs. Their efforts were almost completely hidden for more than 70 years, their contributions mentioned only in passing.”
I was told I must learn Japanese. I stayed up until maybe midnight, and then 14 hours later I was still doing the same thing.
Pearlmutter never spoke about codebreaking. As far as her children knew, their father, Bernard Pearlmutter, was the World War II hero. A lieutenant colonel, with Bronze and Silver Stars and a Purple Heart, he’d received a key to the city of Feltre, Italy, where he had served as provisional governor when the war ended. His were the stories Pearlmutter’s daughter, Debby, heard as a kid. “I didn’t hear her stories,” Debby says.
Pearlmutter was too busy traveling the world to think about the past. She worked as a travel agent, cruising down the Nile, rafting in Canada, taking groups to the Far East, Romania, Turkey, Greece, and what was then the Soviet Union. “She was nonstop traveling. I mean, nonstop, for a number of years,” Debby says. “There aren’t many places in the world she hasn’t 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. “She was holding the reins of these huge, wonderfully strong animals,” Pearlmutter recalls. “When she came by it was unbelievable; her legs were the size across of five women.”
It was later, after Pearlmutter had stopped traveling so much, that she started taking stock of what she’d accomplished, her daughter says. She joined the Jewish veterans group, “proud that she had helped in the war effort,” Debby says, and began sharing her wartime experiences with her family. The details are still coming out in bits and pieces. “I’m glad that she used her abilities so she can look back and be proud of her accomplishments,” Debby says.
Pearlmutter lives at Debby’s 83-acre Thunderbird Ranch, in Mancos, Colo., where, “I stay up reading well past my bedtime, which by the way is midnight,” she says. Her bedroom walls are filled with her father’s 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,” Pearlmutter says. “Those trees were planted never by man; they were planted by the Almighty. He wants us to make good use of our land.”
Pearlmutter spends her days sketching the landscape, writing poetry, corresponding with friends, and traveling—a little closer to home, now—to local attractions like Telluride, Skywatch Observatory, and Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. She talks often about her great-grandchildren, the youngest of whom is two. “He’ll hoist himself onto my lap and turn the pages of a book with me. And I love that,” she says. “I have high hopes for him. I want to give to him whatever I can.”
Debby says her mother always told her, “There’s no restrictions on what you can be or do. Be whatever you want to be, as a woman.” She expected a lot from her daughter; as a child, Debby was on the swim team, participated in 4H and Girl Scouts, took ballroom dancing, ballet, and piano lessons—“Pushy, pushy, into all different things,” says Debby, who acknowledges that this pushiness became especially poignant once she learned her mother’s story. “Academics and intellectual stimulation and striving to achieve were big for her.”
And still are, Pearlmutter says. “One of my great aspirations is to know that I’ve left a legacy, as best I could, of peace.”