Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II

by Liza Mundy

Hardcover, 2017





Hachette Books (2017), Edition: Illustrated, 432 pages


The award-winning New York Times bestseller about the American women who secretly served as codebreakers during World War II--a "prodigiously researched and engrossing" (New York Times) book that "shines a light on a hidden chapter of American history" (Denver Post). Recruited by the U.S. Army and Navy from small towns and elite colleges, more than ten thousand women served as codebreakers during World War II. While their brothers and boyfriends took up arms, these women moved to Washington and learned the meticulous work of code-breaking. Their efforts shortened the war, saved countless lives, and gave them access to careers previously denied to them. A strict vow of secrecy nearly erased their efforts from history; now, through dazzling research and interviews with surviving code girls, bestselling author Liza Mundy brings to life this riveting and vital story of American courage, service, and scientific accomplishment.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member PamV
OH Boy, this was pretty awesome. My mother served in the Navy during WWII (not as a code breaker) and she was so very proud of her ability to serve. I only wish that I had her still here to talk more about her service.

This was an amazing book that lays out the history of all the wonderful women that "Chose to Serve" our country.

My thanks to netgalley and Hachette Books for this advanced readers copy.
… (more)
LibraryThing member DeltaQueen50
The Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II by Liza Mundy is a non-fiction account of the women that were recruited from colleges, universities and from their jobs as teachers and offered a chance to serve the American war effort. Their job was far from glamorous. They worked in crowded, dirty and often unhealthy conditions as they scanned thousands of encrypted messages trying to discover the key to breaking the enemy codes.

There were dark days immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbour and the invasion of the Philippines but gradually the code breakers got to work and cracked the Japanese codes. The Battle of the Coral Sea, where American aircraft carriers appeared out of nowhere to face a Japanese fleet was entirely to the credit of the code breakers. While the battle was in fact a draw, this did sideline the Japanese plans to invade Australia.

The author gives the reader a bird’s eye view of what life in Washington DC was like during WW II with its lack of accommodations, scant supplies and clothing and tightly rationed food. Due to wartime overcrowding it wasn’t unusual to find 4 to 6 women sharing a one bedroom apartment. Along with this interesting historical information the author zeros in on the individual stories of a number of the woman, giving the story a very personal touch.

Due to the secrecy of their work, these women took vows never to disclose the details of their wartime work and so have largely been overlooked by history. Thoroughly researched this well written account acknowledges their contributions and gives these women the recognition that they deserve.
… (more)
LibraryThing member bostonbibliophile
I loved this book. it will probably end up as one of my favorites all year. Inspiring and maddening at times but so interesting and just such a great read.
LibraryThing member LorisBook
This well researched book signifies a period of war where momentous changes occurred. And, I thought it interesting the way the story was told in flashbacks at times before WWII to show these differences.

It was apparent that artistic hobbies were considered a good sign of code breaking. Schoolteacher's and young college women were looked at closely for code breaking, as they were often unmarried, and able to adapt more easily.

Women interested in serving, freely took an loyalty and secrecy oath. Even though, at that time, they were not clear on the exact purpose as to why they were being recruited. Women felt it important throughout the war to do their job well, while still doing everything in their power to keep up the morale of the men.

This is cleverly written. It shows life was moment to moment. This story pointed out the humor, romance and betrayal during wartime, and the way loss was honored. The study of coding and mention of false and non carrying addition and looping was entirely intriguing. As was the deciphering and deception program's with real traffic and fake traffic.

These 'Code Girls' had great loyalty, discipline and focus. Many women took these secrets to their graves. And we see the turmoil and struggle of this life altering decision that helped lead to the wars end, and our nation's gain.

I felt this book was a excellent read and do highly recommend it.
… (more)
LibraryThing member JanaRose1
During WWII, over ten thousand women were recruited by the Army and Navy to serve as code breakers. These women were sworn to secrecy and placed in unique and important positions. Through their efforts, codes were broken, intelligence was uncovered and the war was shortened.

Although I found the women's stories interesting, I thought this book could have used some careful editing. It was extremely repetitive. It felt as if each chapter reiterated the same information, causing the book to seem slow and tedious. I liked how the author followed certain girls, and came back to their stories. Overall, not a bad book, but not something I would re-read.… (more)
LibraryThing member yukon92
Absolutely loved this book about the women, who helped break the codes of the Japanese and German military, during WW II. It reminds me a bit of the Hidden Figures book, because not many people were even aware of the contributions these women made. There is a lot of "tech" talk, which was way over my head, but it was a fascinating book. I hope it has already been optioned to be made into a movie - I sure would go see it!… (more)
LibraryThing member AliceAnna
So good!! I'm reading a lot of books by women and/or about strong women these days and this was one of the best of them. I did not have a clue about the "code girls" at all, much less the extent of their impact on WWII. It is such a shame that it took women decades to once again attain the influence, importance and respect afforded to these great (and very, very, very smart women). Actually, I'm not sure women have ever gotten back to that point and that is a bloody shame. This book should be required reading for middle school or high school girls and boys. They need to know that women's brains are every bit as beautiful as men's. Respect!!… (more)
LibraryThing member mckait
Code Girls is a fascinating book that profiles some of the women who worked to help win WWII and earned not a bit of recognition or praise. From code writing and breaking to using these skills to find enemy ships, these women, many of them teachers, excelled at their jobs. They were paid roughly half of what the few men in the business were paid to do the very same work.

In the beginning, the Navy recruited women from the Seven Sisters group of colleges for women. It was one of the requirements that the women be pleasant to look at or good looking, so no one would be stuck with plain women working with the men of the Navy, and eventually, the Army. The Army was somewhat less interested in background and looks, and first searched for their women in the mid-west.

One of the most interesting profiles for me, is that of Agnes Driscoll. She spent her days, and in fact years, studying and unlocking Japanese Navel fleet codes. Agnes was considered to be a genius by some, as her work, confined behind a desk, eventually made her fluent not only in the Japanese ship names and extremely proficient in understanding their cryptographic habits and in fact, in cracking their superencipherment. This was a method that involved both codes and ciphers.

There is a lot to this book, enough so that I feel that I need to open it and read it through again, to actually absorb all that it has to offer.
… (more)
LibraryThing member LisCarey
In World War II, a critical part of the war effort was breaking German and Japanese codes. Yet, unlike major European countries, the US had very little in the way of a cryptography operation. One had been developed during the first World War, but Henry Stimson, William Howard Taft's Secretary of State, closed it down when he came into office in 1929. His statement, "Gentlemen don't read each other's mail," is beautiful, but of course, in the context of international diplomacy, completely wrong The Navy managed to preserve a tiny operation, but the onset of World War II, the US needed to ramp cryptography back up from almost nothing, very rapidly.

Yet the men, who "ought" to have done that work, were needed for combat operations. Enter the women.

Mundy, based on extensive research including interviews with many of the surviving "code girls," gives us a revealing, compelling picture of the women, their experiences, the history of American cryptography, and the vital role it played in WWII.

Drawing women in to war work, as well as industrial work, to fill the places of men needed for combat, was a major social upheaval in America, and after the war ended, there was an equally major effort to roll it back and send women back home to make room, and inviting homes, for returning men. Yet "freeing the men to fight" had also meant, in many cases, that the women's own brothers or husbands or sweethearts were killed, even as the coders' and others' work had been aimed at keeping the fighting men safe and bringing them home faster.

At the same time, cryptography during the war was a major opportunity for women interested in math to do real and meaningful work in it, rather than being regarded as having wasted their time on a subject not really considered fit for women.

The conflicting pressures, as well as both the restrictions of highly classified war work combined with the freedom of earning their own money in settings far removed from their families and the neighbors they grew up among, created an exciting, confusing, challenging life for women cryptographers, even as the small number of men in their ranks experienced, too often, being regarded as failures and perhaps cowards, despite often being men who were too old for military service, or classified as 4F, medically unable to meet the physical demands of combat. Like the women, they were doing the work they could do, valuable work, that enabled the combat soldiers to fight more effectively.

It's a fascinating look at a long-hidden but vital aspect of the war, one the women and men involved couldn't talk about until decades later.

Highly recommended.

I bought this audiobook.
… (more)
LibraryThing member teachlz
Lindas Book Obsession Reviews “Code Girls The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War 11” by Liza Mundy, Hachette Books

Kudos to Liza Mundy, Author of “Code Girls The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War 11” for the Historical research and vivid descriptions of the unsung heroines that provided much valued information used in our winning World War Two. The Genres for this book are History and Non-Fiction. This is an intriguing and intense accounting of how both the Army and Navy during World War Two recruited women to be responsible for code-breaking. The Navy wanted women that were of top intelligence, excellent mathematicians, and that could meet certain personal criteria. They were extremely selective in choosing. The Army resorted to recruiting teachers and women from different areas.

The women who were chosen for the Army were hired as civilians, and had to sign documents regarding national security, and had to promise their silence. The women working for the Navy also had to sign documents, and promise silence, and were more in a civilian capacity and certainly didn’t get the privileges that the men did. There was competition between the two services of government.

The women taking these positions, allowed more men at the front, and sent to fight. Unfortunately many men died, but the women hoped by breaking codes, they could save their lives. Men made much more money than the females did,when they had held these positions. There were some men that still were Code-breakers.

Code-breaking was tedious, and took hours and weeks of intricate work, finding patterns. The women were sworn to silence and couldn’t even discuss their frustrations or break-throughs with friends or family. At times, it was extremely tense, and several people had a nervous collapse. I would recommend this interesting book for those who enjoy reading about World War Two.
… (more)
LibraryThing member barlow304
Liza Mundy has assembled a fascinating bit of WW II history: the stories of the young women swept up into the code breaking of the US military. Gathered from elite colleges on the East Coast and small towns in the South and Midwest, these women gained the skills necessary for breaking German, Italian, and Japanese codes. Mundy excels in explaining the assembly line process of breaking codes, as well as the bursts of inspiration that often lead to the keys.

Mundy rightfully spends time on WW I code breakers and on the Friedmans, a married couple that excelled at deciphering messages for the United States in the 1920s, 1930s, and even into the Second World War. But most of her attention is on the women recruited in the early 1940s to work in the vast organizations that broke codes. As Mundy shows, these women contributed to the sinking of the Japanese merchant fleet, numerous convoys, and even participated in the Battle of the Atlantic along with their British colleagues.

Full of reminiscences by the surviving women, the book recreates a moment in history when America needed everyone to help win the war. Intriguingly, Mundy notes the existence of a separate African-American unit of code breakers who worked on commercial messages, allowing the government to track trading throughout the globe. As Mundy notes, however, the records for this unit are not as full and complete as for the main code breaking units.
… (more)
LibraryThing member octafoil40
This is an excellent book. I highly recommend it. Once you Start reading this book you cannot
put it down till you finish.
LibraryThing member quondame
Just about as fast flowing as non-fiction gets, this is packed with generalities and specifics of who the young women were who worked on breaking the codes of the enemy and sometimes friendly powers at war with the US. It also gives pre-WWII history of the men and women who were doing cryptographic work before WWII. A very feminist book, but not misanthropic.… (more)
LibraryThing member marquis784
The Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers by Liza Mundy

October 2017

I received this digital ARC in exchange for an unbiased review from NetGalley.

A remarkable true account of the many women who were instrumental in the WWII era. Their stories, not unlike many other women over the years, have gone unspoken due to the classified nature of their work.

The author thoroughly researched the women who were vital in the history of code breaking during WWII. She brings these women to life and provides a voice to those who are still alive. These well-educated women were vetted specifically for this complex task. Although they were unable to disclose the importance of their work, it is clear that the work provided tremendous pride and satisfaction.

The story was a little slow and dry at times but understandable given the attention to detail and accuracy. There are many memorable characters who played major roles in protecting our country with their unique ability to decipher complex codes from different countries.

It fascinates me how important women were to the national security of our country.
… (more)
LibraryThing member Maydacat
This book is so dense with details that at times I felt inundated with and drowning in the written word. It really should have been two separate books: one about the code breaking work and one really about the women. If you are interested in the personal lives of the women, how they were recruited, what their jobs meant to them, how they coped, and what happened after the war, then much of this book won’t appeal to you. If you want to know what the jobs themselves entailed, how the codes were written and broken, then you probably don’t care how the girls managed to get a mattress home from the store. While the author did focus on a couple of main code breakers, there were so many secondary characters with not a lot of narrative to connect them that it was hard to keep things straight. Still, it is an interesting and often overlooked part of the war and is worth reading, even if the book tended to be overwhelming at times.… (more)
LibraryThing member readyreader
I am a babyboomer, born in 1946, but I never knew about these phenomenal women who were instrumental in helping the Allies win this atrocious war. I never heard my parents, grandparents, other relatives, etc. talk about this. I even had two uncles who served in this war, both in the Navy in the Japan theater. The technicalities of the code breaking was over my head, but the culture of the time and the sacrifices these women made were amazing. Great, educational read!… (more)
LibraryThing member Limelite
When he read the book I'm reading now, Lime Spouse gushed over how good it was. The historical content, the writing, the subject, and the feminist slant to the material. Lime Spouse is a very secure male.

I'm already nearly finished with Code Girls by Liza Mundy and agree with Lime Spouse down the line. This is a thoroughly researched narrative history of the young women recruited by the USN and USA during WW II from the Seven Sisters, initially, and various mid-western colleges, primarily institutions devoted to preparing teachers. From these young women were selected candidates to work in the field of cryptanalysis. Successful candidates were briefly trained in various analytical techniques, then immediately set to work cracking codes to aid the war effort primarily in the Battle of the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceanic theaters.

Nearly the entire American WW II cryptology work was performed by women; they cracked German Enigma codes after the Germans added a fourth wheel to it, and they cracked Japanese codes that controlled merchant shipping supplying the far-flung Japanese armies. These women codebreakers were the egg from which the NSA was hatched, yet they never received the benefits nor recognition from the government that was their due.

Mundy crafts a book for code nerds, general WW II buffs, and for readers interested in women's studies. She merges the stories and anecdotes of many individual women with the societal constraints, prejudices, and employment taboos these women overcame. She exposes the misogyny, rivalry, and enmity between the nation's two major military branches. And she manages to convey how deeply patriotic, diligent, and unacknowledged the codebreakers were during wartime and thereafter.
… (more)
LibraryThing member tgraettinger
The topic of the book was new to me, and the stories of some of the women involved were very engaging. Seemed like there were some portions of the book that could have easily been omitted. Also, I'm not a big fan of the author's writing style. It was this unevenness that caused me to give the book a lower-than-usual rating (for me).… (more)
LibraryThing member being_b
This book made me so happy. It's well-written and engaging, with very thorough documentation-- the best kind of non-fiction.
LibraryThing member DoesNotCompute
Not your typical book about cryptanalysis, which give the credit to just a few men, Code Girls focuses on the hundreds of girls, most recruited out of colleges, who went to Washington to do a job that no one could explain. After the war, the girls were told not to utter a single word to anyone about their role or how they did it. When the relevant documents were declassified, most of the women never got the word and took their story to their grave.
Based on hundreds of interviews with many of the surviving women and their families, the story comes out thru many vignettes, artfully woven to make a complete story from the Army and Navy decisions to expand the "code breaking" from just a few people and to recruit young women of good character with math and linguistic skills. The book gives only the sketchiest of details of the decrypting process, instead covers what the girls could talk about in letters and diaries, their daily lives living in the Washington DC area during the war.
… (more)
LibraryThing member Renzomalo
A good read and a fine bit of historical writing. To those like me who have an interest in WWII, it was fascinating to know that not all the heroic code-breaking was done by the Brits at Bletchley Park. But who would have thought that these young women, almost all of which were either math and science teachers, were cracking codes in Dayton, Ohio on the grounds of National Cash Register Corporation. Ring up one for the good guys! (Sorry, couldn't help myself.)

My one small criticism of the book is a somewhat inherently negative bias toward men and the social norms of the day, i. e. men going to work and women staying home to raise the kids and run the household. Although this was but a minor undercurrent, it was clearly there when Ms. Mundy kept reiterating that more and more of the code breaking was being done by women, which, given the pressing nature of the global conflict, made sense. Hard to crack code when running flight ops, or crawling up some beach. Still, a small point made smaller still by the work these ladies did in shortening the war by years. And, it seems, there were instrumental as seminal members of the then fledgling NSA. A story long overdue in the telling and well told at that. Four and a half stars from this old curmudgeon.
… (more)


Original language


Original publication date


Physical description

9.25 inches


Page: 0.1491 seconds