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Interview with [12/28/2011]

Ann Ellicott Madeira:

Hello. This is an 82 year old former WAVE speaking to you. From 1942, in June, to February of 1946 I worked as a codebreaker for the Navy 20G section, and I'm going to try to tell you a little bit about it. We were recruited from college. Even before Pearl Harbor the Navy knew they needed more cryptographers, and they came to college. My friends and I were at Bryn Mawr and we were seniors that year, and they asked the college to select a group of people who might be interested in doing that kind of work after graduation.

The college chose us, and we were approached separately and sworn to secrecy and given a little weekly assignment in cryptographic training. It was puzzles, elementary codes, stuff like that. We filled it out and sent it in every week and we got our new assignment. Of course there was no keeping it entirely secret, and we soon knew which ones of our friends were also doing this.

So by the time Pearl Harbor came, we were very excited to think that we might have jobs as civil servants--there was no unit of WAVES then--civil servants working for the Navy, and we were very happy because of course we wanted to do something about the war. I had been very much in favor of the United States helping in the war, and I was what might be called in those days bloody--in these days bloody-minded. So I was very happy about the whole thing.

We--three other gals from my class and I were lucky enough to find an apartment in a good section of Washington. Housing was very very scarce by June of '42 in Washington. And we were lucky, through friends we got an apartment that was designed for two people. It had a, what no longer exists, a sleeping porch that could accommodate two other people. So the four of us, with difficulty, fitted ourselves into this.

Nobody had a car, and if you did have a car you couldn't get any gas, so we took a bus downtown to the old so-called temporary Navy department buildings on Constitution Avenue. They were like shoeboxes, hot as hell. We went to work in clean cotton dresses every day, and by the time we had been there for half an hour or even been on the bus to get there, we were dripping. No air conditioning.

We were fearfully ushered into a large room the first day of our assignment, which was about the 6th of June, I would say, of 1942, and it was as though we had walked into a room full of crazy people. Here were these Naval officers and civilians, uniforms and non-uniforms, jumping around and obviously either drunk or celebrating something. It turned out that they were celebrating something. Through their efforts and the efforts of the decoding people in Hawaii at Pearl Harbor, the Navy had just effected a great victory in the Coral Sea.

Eventually they calmed down enough to instruct us in the process of decoding. The code we were working on in my section, we were working on something called JN-25, Japanese Navy Number 25 code. This was the main code for the Navy, the military end of the Navy, and it was encoded in numbers, five number groups, five numbers in each group. There was a code book. The Japanese code clerk sending a message, took the message, looked up in the code book the five digit number for that word or number, and wrote that out.

He had a string of those or she had a string of those when they were finished. Then they went to a certain part of another code book, and added another five digit number, which was printed out, to each successive group. This system, far from unknown to people first in code work, is called an additive system, and the trick about it is not only did you view these books, but that the addition or subtraction which is performed when you decode it, is all done by false arithmetic.

False arithmetic is a system that works perfectly well within its own limits, and it basically consists of if you are adding or subtracting do not carry a number. In other words, if you add eight and seven and get 15, write down five, but do not carry the one to the next column, just proceed in the next column exactly the same way. We had to learn to do this and it was very painful. We were working backwards on these groups, and a complicated process which I won't describe because it's not very interesting. We would find the basic five digit number that the code clerk had worked from, and then if we were fortunate, we had extracted the proper Japanese meaning for that group, either through our own efforts or in some rare cases from capturing the code books as we later on advanced island to island up toward Japan.

That was called a compromise, and we were very excited when we captured code books, but very often they knew they had been captured and so they changed the code. It was at the level that I worked at for all those years. Really pretty boring. There were enlightened moments, like the period during which we helped secure the tremendous victory of Midway. The work we did really ensured that our Naval forces were successful at Midway, and when the work we did ensured that our flyers were able to shoot down Admiral Yamamoto over, I think it was Burma, because we had been reading their traffic and knew exactly when he was going to leave, what kind of plane he would be in and where he was going.

We were very fortunate many many times, and other times we were very unfortunate. I had joined the WAVES April 1st--yeah, fateful day--1943. I had to wait, even though the WAVES had been inaugurated earlier than that, because I was very nearsighted and I could not without my glasses pass the eye exam required for enlistment.

There was a recruiting center on G Street. I went down there so often and they showed me so many eye charts that finally I learned them by heart, and the medical corpsman there took pity on me. The last time I went, took off my glasses, they told me which chart it was and I recited it from memory. Everybody cheered. My application was accepted and I was inducted into our Navy as a most junior officer, ensign. The training for this was in Mount Holyoke, Massachusetts, and as I said it was April. It was spring in Washington. I went up to Mount Holyoke in a Navy blue silk dress and coat, white straw hat with a veil and high heels, Navy pumps. I don't know what struck me. There was still snow on the ground in Massachusetts.

Our uniforms did not arrive for a week, and I had to drill for six or seven days in high heels, silk coat, and I did put off the white hat with the veil. Eventually the uniforms came and everybody felt better. The drill was very exhausting, but thanks to a good prep school gym mistress I was pretty good at it, even in the high heels, and I was asked to stay on and be a drill officer. I was very happy I could say that I had an assignment waiting for me in Washington and unfortunately I could not accept the appointment.

Washington was a lot of fun for a young single gal during the war. It sounds callous to say that, but along with listening to the radio or looking at the newspaper and seeing some of the terrible terrible news, and then some of it good news as well, there were always old friends or new friends coming through Washington.

We got Australian officers, British officers. If you were wearing a uniform, it seemed to be a form of introduction. So if you were on a train or in a restaurant or something and a guy in a uniform approached you, you didn't mind having a cup of coffee with him, and some very good friendships turned out that way.

We also were very lucky that we had a very good group of people in our section in the Navy. They were mostly university people, reservists, not regular Navy, and interesting and fun, and that was a real plus. After VJ Day, our office began to be slowly denuded of people. The people who had enlisted earliest got out first. Since I had been so late enlisting, I stayed on until the following February of '46.

That was interesting, because after VJ Day, we started working on the pre-Pearl Harbor traffic. There had not been enough people pre-Pearl Harbor to decodify, decrypt the bulk of the Japanese Navy traffic that was coming in and was available, and since there was always this great--and there is still is today--this great controversy about whether Roosevelt and the powers that be knew there was going to be a Pearl Harbor and let it happen to get us into the war, I am here to say that we knew there was going to be an attack, but we didn't know where it was going to be, because we had not decrypted the Japanese designation of the various different localities.

We thought it was going to be Singapore or Hong Kong or Burma or something like that, and of course those were eventually attacked. I am totally convinced that Roosevelt did not know that we were going to be attacked. It was a great experience, and I feel a kinship as I sit here today with those guys and gals in Iraq and other dreadful places in this world. It's a different world now, but one in which many people think we still have a responsibility. To determine exactly what that responsibility is is a hard task. I wish us all good luck and God bless you.

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  October 26, 2011
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