Code breakers: The secret service

In the 21st century, there seems to be no such thing as keeping a secret—not even during a war. For example, last fall WikiLeaks released 391,832 secret documents related to the war in Iraq, revealing unprecedented detail about the treatment of detainees, civilian deaths, field operations and how the war is being conducted. It’s hard to imagine a time when “secret” meant secret. Wheaton College Archivist Zephorene Stickney takes us back to that time with her look at the critical role some of our students played in helping to decode enemy communications during World War II—in secret.

We live in a world in which the revelation of secrets dominates the news—WikiLeaks, former CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson, Watergate.

But step back in time to the world of the 1940s and World War II. Wool skirts and cardigans, up-dos and victory rolls, ankle socks and saddle shoes. At Wheaton, 68 faculty members, most of whom lived in Norton, taught fewer than 500 students. With a student-faculty ratio of seven to one, everyone knew everyone on campus. Along with the faculty, students attended morning chapel and then rushed to the post office (not the Internet) for mail. The class schedule included Saturday mornings. “Rings and Bells,” a regular column in The Wheaton News, announced engagements and weddings, while the back-page ads featured airmen, soldiers and sailors smoking Chesterfield, Camel or Pall Mall cigarettes. If students broke social rules, they were “campused.”

Could anyone keep a secret in such a close-knit community?

Ask Charlotte Covell Leach, Class of 1943. She took a “Naval Communications” course that was so secret that no grade or enrollment lists, descriptions or records of it survived. A course so secret that the students enrolled in it were told not to discuss it, not even with each other. So secret that all references to it were placed in war activities and war courses files marked highly confidential, and never transferred from the President’s Office to the Wheaton archives—except for a few oblique mentions by then Wheaton President J. Edgar Park about “cryptoanalysis” and “secret projects…operating on the campus under the auspices of the military and naval authorities” in a Wheaton in Wartime newsletter. And then, of course,  there are the memories of Charlotte Covell Leach ’43.

Charlotte Covell 1943
Charlotte Covell Leach ’43 was part of WWII messenger service, pictured above, and a code breaker while a student at Wheaton.

Charlotte was one of the first students recruited for the course. During her senior year, then Associate Professor of History Ralph Hidy approached Charlotte about an opportunity to train in cryptology (the science of secure communications). He invited her to discuss it further, but emphasized that she should avoid taking a direct route to their meeting. After meandering around campus, she was surprised to find that her roommate, Marion Black Kennedy ’43, had also appeared at the designated location! Professor Hidy had recruited both of them, and several other seniors, including Elinor Wilbur Gould and Dorothy (“Dottie”) Reed Williams, both of whom are now deceased.

What did these students have in common? Apparently, it was a facility with languages and mathematics. Charlotte was a French major and minored in math; Marion majored in math, while Elinor majored in history and economics. Other students in the class were history majors. “All concerned [were] bound by an oath of secrecy not to divulge anything to the general public about the matter,” according to minutes from the Board of Trustees meeting of Nov. 9, 1942.

Charlotte Covell Leach '43
Charlotte Covell Leach ’43, above with her husband, Myron in a recent photo. Photo by Paul Blackmore/Cape Cod Times

In the fall of 1942, staff at the Boston Navy Yard approached President Park about sponsoring the cryptography course at Wheaton. Professor Hidy, who recruited the students for the first course in the spring of 1943, had been called to active service by the Navy Reserve in August 1941 and was stationed in Boston, but continued to live in Norton with his wife Muriel, a professor in the economics department.

Before they could enroll in the course, the recruited students and their families had to pass a military security check. In a recent telephone conversation, Charlotte recalled being asked if she “talked in her sleep,” although having her roommate, Marion, in the course solved that potential problem.

Dorothy recalled that “federal agents” interviewed her hometown neighbors, family and friends. According to archived faculty file notes, it was important for the government to know that each candidate possessed “the integrity, reliability and loyalty to the United States necessary for a position directly concerned with the defense of this country and the prosecution of the war.”

Reed and Perry
Dorothy Reed Williams ’43 (left), a student representative on the Committee for Defense, with Lt. Louise Gifford Perry ’23, as Perry explains incendiary bombs in a course on civilian defense. Perry was in the Massachusetts Women’s Defense Corps, and the manager of the Wheaton College bookstore.

Twice a week, in the late afternoon, 10 cryptography students would make their individual circuitous routes to Mary Lyon Hall. According to Dorothy, federal agents, probably Navy cryptologists, taught the spring 1943 offering, with training in “cryptic analysis…to crack secret German codes.”

The participants were sworn to secrecy about the contents and nature of the course. According to Charlotte, the teachers “told us to forget everything that had happened once we left the classroom.” Homework consisted of fractured sections of messages to decode. Charlotte and Marion would close their door and spend hours looking for patterns in long lists of number groups. While their work was not graded, it constituted a fifth college course. No one person received an entire message, no one ever talked about the course or their assignment. And their friends never asked why Charlotte and Marion closed their door when everyone else left theirs open. The course probably improved the students’ problem-solving skills by teaching them to think analytically, keep an open mind, and avoid automatic assumptions.

More than 30 colleges and universities, including Mount Holyoke, Smith, Vassar, Wellesley and Princeton, offered secret cryptology courses during World War II. While many of the students majored in languages, the professors themselves would have been carefully chosen, and were a diverse group from many different departments—from astronomy to philosophy, noted Craig Bauer, a professor at York College of Pennsylvania, in a prepared talk about cryptology on campuses during the war.

In May 1943, President Park reported to the trustees that eight seniors had been offered appointments in the Navy “as a result of work done under the auspices of the Navy on the Wheaton campus.” Those who had excelled in cryptology were offered civilian or Navy positions in the U.S. Navy’s cryptoanalytic group in Washington, D.C.

The enormous Allied code-breaking efforts received various nicknames. “Ultra” was the name given to the project to crack Germany’s military code, which was itself nicknamed “Enigma” by the British, while “Magic” denoted the project to decrypt Japan’s military code, nicknamed “Purple” by the U.S. military.

“Put in the simplest possible terms, the operation called ‘Ultra’ involved intercepting enemy signals that had been mechanically enciphered, rendering them intelligible, and then distributing their translated texts by secure means to appropriate headquarters…. Exact and utterly reliable information could thus be conveyed, regularly and often instantly… to the Allied commanders. The key concept was that of security: this whole operation trembled on a razor-edge,” wrote Ronald Lewin in Ultra Goes to War: The First Account of World War II’s Greatest Secret Based on Official Documents (McGraw-Hill, 1978).

The thousands of codes being received every day required hundreds of people trained in cryptology for decoding, assembling and analyzing their import. It would have been disastrous to the Allies if Germany or Japan had discovered the vulnerability of their codes.

After graduating from Wheaton, Charlotte, who decided not to marry her fiancé until after the war, and several of her classmates moved to Washington, D.C., to work for the Navy. She achieved the rank of lieutenant, junior grade. Marion, who became a mathematician and computer programmer, served in Washington in a different capacity. Dorothy married a Navy man.

In Washington, D.C., Charlotte’s team was responsible for deciphering the principal Japanese naval code, a feat that enabled many Allied victories in the Pacific. Each morning she donned her uniform, slipped her ID around her neck, walked through the gate in two high barbed-wire fences surrounding a large school building, saluted her superiors, and spent the day scanning for five-digit numbers divisible by three.

As at Wheaton, decoders were given only sections of messages. But Charlotte particularly remembers the phrase shogo ichi, “noon,” or known position, reported by captains of Japanese merchant, fishing and naval vessels. After she had decoded her portion, the messages were sent to the next room for further work before they were forwarded to American commanders.

Rather like in a grad-school experience, these recent college graduates worked under professors from various universities, among others who had been chosen, according to Charlotte, for their “ability to recognize number and word patterns, and put words together.” Two of Charlotte’s D.C. housemates had been German majors at Bryn Mawr, so she assumed that they were deciphering the German Enigma codes, but they never spoke about their work. If anyone asked about their jobs (and few did), they explained how “bored they were, pushing numbers around all day.”

Elinor, salutatorian of her Wheaton class and a member of Phi Beta Kappa, graduated with honors in both history and economics. She joined the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services) and moved to Washington, D.C. There she lived and worked with 10 women in the Naval Communications Annex, decoding Japanese messages. Elinor’s unit was given a secret presidential citation, but the women did not reveal their activities for more than 45 years.

Eunice Work, Wheaton professor of classics from 1925 to 1955, appears to have been recruited to teach the cryptography course beginning in the fall of 1943. She taught it until December of 1943, when she left for Washington, D.C., to participate in a Navy languages program described as of  “a highly secret confidential nature.” As a civilian employee of the Navy’s communication section, she worked with regular Navy personnel, as well as with Reserves from universities in California, Chicago and Wisconsin. She remained on leave to the U.S. Navy throughout 1944 and 1945.

What was her preparation for teaching cryptology? Perhaps it was her reading knowledge of Russian, which she had improved with Army-Navy courses at Columbia and Cornell that introduced her to the vocabulary of science, economics, politics and war.

Neva Upp '44
Neva Upp ’44

Maud Marshall, then Wheaton assistant professor of chemistry, finished the fall 1943 course and taught it in the spring of 1944. Among the students recruited to take the course that year was Neva Jane Manock Upp ’44, who majored in English and minored in history. She also took classes in French and mathematics.

“If you didn’t have graduate school or a career lined up, you did what you could to help” the war effort, Upp said in an article in The Hutchinson News in 2005. “During World War II, servicemen and women put their own careers and family plans on hold in order to serve where needed to keep America free, and put down the threats from Germany and Japan.”

After graduation, Neva Jane joined the WAVES, achieving the rank of lieutenant. She moved to Washington, D.C., where she specialized in communications and intelligence, decoding portions of Japanese messages. Like Charlotte, Neva Jane passed several security checkpoints to get to her office, had a password that changed monthly, and remained “tight-lipped” about her job. Decoders labored around the clock to handle the thousands of messages intercepted each day. They often went to work during the wartime blackouts, and frequently transferred from bus to bus so no one would detect their work location.

Shortly after the war ended, Neva Jane met U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Robert Upp, who had been serving on an attack transport in the northern Pacific. One of Charlotte’s or Neva Jane’s decoded messages may have saved his life. “You never know,” he told The Hutchinson News.

Government records on breaking the Enigma and Purple codes were declassified in 1974. But sworn to secrecy, most civilian and Navy decoders did not reveal their contributions to the war effort. After the war, many wanted only to move on with their lives. They married, had children, and died believing that even their children would not be interested in their war stories.

In 1993, during the 50th Reunion of the Class of 1943, when the women revealed their participation in the cryptology class, their classmates were stunned, and marveled “that there never was a leak—even a rumor” during 1942 or 1943, despite the usual campus gossip.

Author’s note: I want to thank Sandra Zommer, former Wheaton archives assistant, and Professor of History Emeritus Paul Helmreich for the background research they provided on Wheaton’s code breakers.

Photos from the Marion B. Gebbe Archives

Break this code

In his course description for “Mathematics 202: Cryptography,” Professor William Goldbloom Bloch notes that “We live in an ocean of information and secrets, surrounded by codes and ciphers. Actions as prosaic as making a call on a cellphone, logging onto a computer, purchasing an item over the Internet, inserting an ATM card at the bank or using a satellite dish for TV reception all involve the digitizing and encrypting of information. Companies with proprietary data and countries with classified information: all kinds of organizations need a way to encode and decrypt their secrets to keep them hidden from prying eyes.” His course develops from scratch the theoretical mathematics necessary to understand current sophisticated crypto-systems.

Do you want to be a codebreaker?

Here is a phrase that Bloch has encrypted:


See if you can decipher it and tell us what it says. Write or e-mail us at If you get it, we will brag about you in the next issue of the Wheaton Magazine.

Here is a hint:

This encryption is made via a monoalphabetic substitution, in which one letter is always substituted for another. The Caesar cipher is the most famous example. For Julius Caesar’s version, it is traditionally told that all letters were shifted by three spaces, so that a = C, b = D, c = F, … w = Y, x = Z, y = A, z = B.