Meet America’s First Military Spouse Code Breaker


Historical fiction presents places like Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, England as romantic and thrilling despite the very real threat of Nazi invasion and bombardment during WWII. Women made up about 75% of the workforce at Bletchley Park, which consisted of jobs operating crypto machines and communicating and translating documents. Some even broke the code with the legendary Dilly Knox, who helped decipher the Zimmermann Telegram that brought the United States into World War I and broke the codes of the German Navy and the Abwehr Enigma in World War II. global.

But across the ocean, next to these women from Bletchley Park – many of whom were wives of servicemen who worked together to find out the status of their husbands’ ships and units – a very intelligent American military wife s was trying to break the codes as well.

When Elizebeth Smith graduated in English Literature in 1915, the world was already at war. A year later, she began working at Riverbank Laboratories in Illinois, one of the first places in the United States founded to study cryptography. Riverbank was founded by George Fabyan, and the initial staff of 15 included William Friedman, whom Smith married in May 1917.

Friedman, who trained army officers at Riverbank, then enlisted in the United States military and served as a personal cryptographer for General John J. Pershing.

The Friedmans worked together in Illinois until 1921, when they moved to Washington, DC, to work as a team for the War Department. William Friedman became the chief cryptanalyst, and Elizebeth deciphered the messages during the years of Prohibition and smashed the codes written in Mandarin. Elizebeth and William have often worked together, but she has made several cryptological contributions herself.

Elizebeth moved to work for the Navy, the Treasury Department, and ultimately the Coast Guard. She resolved most of the interceptions on her own and also spent time teaching others how to decipher coded messages. She moved to Houston to solve contraband trafficking cases and decrypted 24 coding systems used by smugglers. In three years, she resolved over 12,000 messages in three years. She also helped indict Al Capone.

During World War II, Elizebeth worked for the Navy and focused on Operation Bolivar, the German network in South America. His team was the primary decryptor of the South American threat and they smashed three Enigma machines. His team decoded 4,000 messages from 48 radio circuits during the war.

After the war, she consulted the International Monetary Fund. Friedman, who was 88 when she died in 1980, was posthumously inducted into the National Security Agency Hall of Fame in 1999 – the year it was established. During the 50 years of the NSAe anniversary in 2002, the OPS1 building was consecrated as the William and Elizebeth Friedman building. A Coast Guard was named after her, and a television documentary series called “American Experience” has an episode based on her.

The Mob Museum in Las Vegas includes Elizebeth Smith Friedman among its list of notable names, primarily in reference to the work she did during the Prohibition era.

–Rebecca Alwine can be contacted at Follow her on twitter @rebecca_alwine.

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