MARIETTA — Jean Reed was 18 when, in January 1945, she left Atlanta on a train bound for Washington, D.C., not knowing where she’d spend the night when she arrived.
Reed, now 93, said she’d responded to a newspaper article toward the end of World War II recruiting women from all over the country to the nation’s capital for a government job that “sounded like it was paying real well.”
“It was full-time wartime. Everybody was concentrated,” said the Covington native. “We had to win the war. We didn’t have any choice. It was a matter of survival. We would either be speaking German or Japanese if we didn’t.”
Reed, whose maiden name was Stillwell, had spent two years studying at Oxford at Emory, with plans to head to medical school. But upon meeting her future husband, a dental student from Acworth, she decided that both their time-consuming and expensive pursuits wouldn’t be financially viable.
So, she hopped on the train.
Sworn to secrecy
Reed knew little about the job she would take and the lives it would save. All she was told, she said, was that she’d be working a “clerical job” for the U.S. government at Arlington Hall Station, in Arlington, Virginia, just west of Washington, D.C.
Arlington Hall Station originally functioned as an all-girls school but was later the headquarters of the Army’s Signal Intelligence Service cryptography efforts.
Unbeknownst to her, Reed would soon join the ranks of the thousands of women code breakers in WWII who, for hours each day, tediously decoded Axis Power messages with captured code books sent to them from the front lines of battlefields in the Pacific.
Reed said for her first six weeks staying in the Washington area, she underwent an orientation and various assessments, testing her math and reasoning skills. She said her strength in math and foreign languages paid off, and she was enlisted into the Signal Corps as a cryptographer.
“They said, ‘We think you are able to decode Japanese messages,’” Reed said. “That’s the first time I’d even known I was going to do that. And they said, ‘You’ll have to be investigated, because you’ll be classified top secret.’”
Sitting in her Atherton Place apartment decorated with Japanese art and sculptures, the Mariettan laughed as she recalled how silly it seemed to be told at 18 she’d have to be investigated by the FBI to ensure she wasn’t a security risk.
“What kind of security risk was I going to be? But anyway they checked on me and decided I was safe to do it,” she chuckled. “But of course, it was absolutely secret.”
Cracking the codes
Until April 1945, Reed worked with the hundreds of other women at Arlington Hall Station — ages 18 to women in their 70s — using only “a piece of paper, a pencil, a brain and a copy of a captured Japanese code book,” to uncover patterns in intercepted series of numbers that they hoped would lead to the discovery of Japanese battle plans or locations of valued targets, like submarines.
Some messages revealed “idle gossip,” but others revealed major plans, she said.
“When they could capture a Japanese code book, that was a big deal. ... They sent thousands of messages every day, (and) they used all different codes,” she said, adding that some codes took a matter of hours to crack while others took days. “I can’t even remember how I did it now. ... It was just a process of trial and error and instinct, I guess.”
Once a pattern emerged, Reed said she’d send it to another group who would translate the pattern of numbers into Japanese and then another who would translate that to English.
Though she and the other women rarely spoke about it, even to each other, the gravity of their work was not lost on them. Periodically, she said, the U.S. military would send word of a foiled Japanese plan or a successful U.S. attack assisted by their work. Those messages drove home the importance of her job and boosted morale, she said.
“We would read the articles about the islands in the Pacific and what was going on, and we would see what we had done and that it had probably saved lots of lives,” Reed said. “It made you feel that your hard work was really worth it.”
The women of WWII
Keith Huxen, senior director of research and history at the National WWII museum in New Orleans, estimated there were about 10,000 code breakers working in the Washington area during the Second World War. Huxen said intelligence operations like the one Reed was a part of were a “key component” in the war efforts.
Success in major battles that changed the tide of the war, including the Battle of Midway, as well as incidents like the downing of a plane carrying Japanese admiral and Pearl Harbor mastermind Isoroku Yamamoto, are thanks to code breaking efforts.
But it’s only been in the last couple of years that the female veterans of this kind have begun getting the recognition they have deserved for so long, he said. Very little had ever been spoken about the women code breakers until recent academic work, including a 2017 book by author Liza Mundy, entitled “Code Girls,” Huxen said.
The recent book outlines the work of women like Reed, and other works like it have similarly laid out the contributions of women to the war effort, the development of the atomic bomb and other major national contributions, he said.
Huxen said it’s likely that part of the reason for the delay in female recognition is that the women, like many combat veterans of the time, chose not to talk about their experiences for many years. But, he said, there were also misconceptions that women were somehow less capable than their male counterparts. Women like Reed prove that theory wrong, Huxen said.
“This work was very foundational to our intelligence efforts during the war,” he said.
Another reason that many Americans are only now discovering so many of the female contributions to WWII efforts is that, as an estimated 294 WWII veterans die each day, there is a sense of urgency to tell the full story of their heroic work, Huxen said. About 16 million Americans served in the war, and only about 389,000 remain, he said.
Reed confirmed a portion of Huxen’s theory.
The WWII veteran and her colleagues worked in close proximity in the vast rooms at Arlington Hall Station, lined with row after row of desks, but out of fear of disclosing important information, they spoke barely a word to each other about what they were accomplishing, she said.
Reed said she and the others knew how sensitive their knowledge was, and how dire the consequences could be if they disclosed it to anyone. Not even her fiance or parents knew what work she’d done until after VJ Day, when, on Aug. 15, 1945, the Japanese surrendered.
“It was several weeks after that. I was so brainwashed. You absolutely did not talk about this,” Reed said. “But (‘Code Girls’) is the first thing I’ve ever seen that talks about it. I don’t know, they just never did give credit to the thousands of women who were working in Washington on this sort of thing.”
On top of the mind-numbing decoding, she said there were other mental and emotional challenges that came with being so young, so far from home and so isolated by secrecy, even for those few months. She said she’d left Atlanta to face winter months in Washington with only lightweight clothing, and she had to ride the bus alone through the capital city late many nights.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Reed said, adding that when, in April, Glenn Reed came to ask for her hand in marriage on the last train to leave Atlanta before Franklin D. Roosevelt’s funeral train, she decided she’d had enough of the high-stakes code breaking.
After they married, Jean and Glenn Reed, a lifelong Cobb resident who later served as president of International Kiwanis and the Cobb Chamber of Commerce, settled in Marietta.
Jean Reed worked briefly in an Atlanta Air Force retirement office before expecting her first child and “retiring,” to care for her family, while her husband worked in dentistry, as his father and grandfather had before him. Glenn Reed later died of a heart attack at 52.
So many years later, Jean Reed says it’s nice to have recognition for the trying and important work she and so many other women did.
“Code Girls” author Mundy never located the 93-year-old woman to be able to include her in the book, but Jean Reed said she received a signed copy, which she prizes.
Though the work was difficult and brought implications that struck fear into many of the workers, Jean Reed said she’s proud to say she had a hand in American and Allied victories in the Pacific.
“I felt like what I was doing was something really worth doing. It was a hard job. It took a lot of mental effort, but it gave me great satisfaction to feel like I was contributing something to the war effort,” she said, adding that as more time passes, she realizes what a difference she made. “I just feel like I was doing what I needed to do. I don’t feel like any hero. I was just contributing in the best way I could ... The guys who fought in the war, they’d say the same thing. I was just doing what I felt like I needed to do.”
And while she’s no longer employed by the U.S. government, Jean Reed says her days of code breaking aren’t quite over.
“I’m a great puzzle-doer. I do the Marietta (Daily) Journal puzzle, and it doesn’t take me long,” she said with a laugh. “It’s pretty easy.”