Mount Holyoke, Smith College students helped break WWII codes

Womens History

It can now be told: a secret group of women at Smith and Mount Holyoke colleges helped change the course of World War II. 

College professors chose women to take part in secret code-breaking classes. So Secret, the classes weren’t even listed in the Mount Holyoke course catalog until the 1950s.

Always a surprise to people to learn how active women were in war efforts locally,” said Leslie Fields, head of archives and special collections at Mount Holyoke College. “Especially the more secretive things that were happening.

During World War II, men were desperately needed for combat, leading the military to finally turn to women to fill critical gaps. 

As early as the 1930’s, Smith and Mount Holyoke professors started teaching select women a secret course- in code breaking. 

Fields said, Students were basically slipped some sort of piece of paper in their mailbox that asked them to be very early in the morning in a certain spot on campus, and they met and were invited to take this class, but they were also told they couldn’t talk about it with anyone.

According to the National Security Agency, discussing his type of work would be considered an act of treason during wartime, punishable by death. 

Fields added, It’s not in the course catalog, and it didn’t appear on their transcript, so it was basically completely hidden from the official records.”

Women who aced this secret course work were sent to work for the Navy in Washington. Some Mount Holyoke students helped break Japanese codes just before the battle of Midway.

Regina Xi, a Mount Holyoke sophomore said, I guess it’s empowered women and strong women picture. I didn’t know it’s at Mount Holyoke, that’s kind of surprising.

But it wasn’t just the code breakers on campus contributing to the war effort. Two of the military’s new programs for women were actively training Mount Holyoke students;  the Navy WAVES, and the women’s Marine Corp. Reserves. 

Fields summed it up saying, There was a lot happening here in South Hadley during World War II.”

In addition to that, Mount Holyoke actually had a work-study program during World War II, where students would spend part of their time making munitions in Holyoke factories. 

Special thanks to the Mount Holyoke Archives for providing pictures, documents, and insight for this story.

The public is able to visit the archives and can find more information here

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