2017-11-08 / Featured / Front Page

Codes of Honor: During WWII, Dorothy Bruce was a secret weapon


Dorothy Bruce, a Midlothian resident, was one of many WWII female codebreakers, dispelling the notion that women aren’t suited for mathematical, tech-minded jobs. 
ASH DANIEL Dorothy Bruce, a Midlothian resident, was one of many WWII female codebreakers, dispelling the notion that women aren’t suited for mathematical, tech-minded jobs. ASH DANIEL Making her way through the crowd at Washington’s Union Station, Dorothy “Dot” Braden was astonished by the scale of the place.

A native of Southside Virginia, Dot had never seen anything like it. Nervously, she hailed a cab for the first time in her life, giving the driver the Arlington County address where she’d been instructed to report. As the Washington Monument passed by her window, she still wasn’t exactly sure what she was doing.

It was only after arriving at a former girls’ school called Arlington Hall that Dot was informed she’d be practicing something called cryptology, a word she’d never heard before. Soon, she learned, she’d be breaking Japanese codes. Soon, she’d be sinking ships. This scene is one of many from Liza Mundy’s engrossing and heavily researched new book “Code Girls,” which highlights the codebreaking contributions that more than 10,000 American women made during World War II. Now, after more than 70 years of being ignored, the role these women played in the war effort is finally being recognized through Mundy’s book, which has received favorable reviews from The New York Times, The Washington Post, Kirkus and Publishers Weekly.

Dorothy Bruce shares a moment with Liza Mundy, author of “Code Girls,” during a recent book signing at Spring Arbor Assisted Living in Midlothian. 
ASH DANIEL Dorothy Bruce shares a moment with Liza Mundy, author of “Code Girls,” during a recent book signing at Spring Arbor Assisted Living in Midlothian. ASH DANIEL Dorothy Braden Bruce, a resident at Spring Arbor Assisted Living in Midlothian, is essentially the star of the book. The lively 97-year-old is amused at her newfound fame.

“Don’t ask me revealing questions,” she says, obviously kidding. “Fame is just a little too hard.”

After a disastrous stint as a high school teacher (so many teachers had quit to get married before the war that Bruce scrambled to cover eight different subjects), Bruce was recruited by the Army in 1943. While the ever prestige-conscious Navy liked to recruit women from Seven Sisters colleges like Barnard, Vassar and Bryn Mawr, the Army looked for college-educated women in the South and Midwest.

Both military branches were looking for women who had pursued liberal arts educations that included foreign languages, science and math, as those skills would supposedly help with codebreaking. In 1940s America, that essentially meant Uncle Sam needed schoolteachers.

And so, Bruce arrived on the doorstep of Arlington Hall, a former girls’ school that served as the headquarters for the United States Army’s Signal Intelligence Service cryptography effort. For her part, Bruce was assigned to tackle the communications of codes sent to Japanese supply ships, cutting off food, fuel and other provisions to Japanese forces.

While it might not sound as significant as cracking the Enigma machine, Mundy says it’s one of the three most important Allied codebreaking efforts of the conflict, up there with the sinking of Nazi U-boats or intelligence gained ahead of the crucial Battle of Midway.

“It doesn’t get as much attention because it’s not one dramatic battle,” says Mundy of sinking Japanese supply ships. “It’s just this relentless daily sinking of these ships that are bringing food and fuel and troops and medicine to the Japanese army.”

While breaking codes at Arlington Hall, Bruce sat at a big wooden table next to a pole. On occasions when she found a code grouping that seemed important, it was nearly hazardous to her health.

“I’d get so excited, I’d jump up and almost hit my head on the post,” Bruce says.

And breaking codes was no easy task. Unlike the “bingo” moments often shown in movies, codebreaking is usually dull, repetitive and time-consuming work. Cryptanalysts like Bruce sometimes found out bad news about their loved ones’ military units before the top brass did.

The opposite was also true: When Japan surrendered – which signaled the end of hostilities during the war – Bruce was one of the first to know.

“We got it before the president did,” Bruce says.

At the war’s close, most of America’s codebreaking women settled back into their normal lives. For Dorothy Braden Bruce, that meant meeting back up with Jim Bruce, whom she’d written throughout the war. The two married and bought a house in Richmond. Jim Bruce resumed his job at DuPont, and Dot ended up being a substitute teacher at George Wythe High and working in real estate.

While Bruce’s daughter Virginia Evans recalls her father joking about breaking codes, she didn’t know the full story until the book came out.

“I knew she did something [during the war], but I didn’t know it was that important,” says Evans, who lives in Charter Colony. “It’s amazing that it’s taken some 70 years for us to know what our American women did to help with the war.”

The reason the story hasn’t been told before is that the women involved weren’t allowed to discuss what they did. When Mundy approached Bruce with Bruce’s son Jim, a lawyer, in tow, it took a half hour of convincing before Bruce was finally persuaded it was okay to tell her story.

“We never talked about it, because it was completely top secret,” Bruce says. “We were never supposed to say anything about what we did, even when the war was over.”

Mundy, who interviewed Bruce on multiple occasions over the past three years, says that because of the secrecy surrounding what they did, most women involved never realized the importance of their work.

“They signed a secrecy oath on their very first day at Arlington Hall,” says Mundy, a former staff writer for The Washington Post. “The penalty was death during wartime. … that’s why the story was on the verge of being lost. I’m so glad that I started reporting it three years ago when women like Dot are still with us. If I’d found out about it five years from now, it would have been hard to find people. The women kept the secret.”

As the tech industry has a reputation for being hostile to women, Mundy says this story makes the point that women not only belong in the field, but are responsible for some of its greatest advances.

“We still have these absurd conversations about whether women belong in the tech sector,” Mundy says. “These women were pioneering cybersecurity and hacking. They were hacking into enemy communications systems. It’s the same thing that the enemy does now.”

It may have taken seven decades, but the efforts made by women like Bruce are finally being recognized.

To the right of the front desk at Spring Arbor is the assisted living facility’s Wall of Honor, venerating those residents who served America in the military and as civilians in their youth. On the far left, next to pictures of men and women who served in the Navy, Marines and Air Force, is one of Bruce, holding a portrait of her younger self in one hand and an image of the “Code Girls” cover in the other.

“Cryptanalyst Dorothy Braden Bruce,” it reads. “Signal Intelligence Service, U.S. Army Signal Corps.” ¦

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