US Stamps

Women cryptologists of World War II honored on Oct. 18 U.S. stamp

Sep 28, 2022, 12 PM
A United States commemorative forever stamp to be issued Oct. 18 honors the contributions of women cryptologists during World War II. The stamp art features an image from a WWII-era poster and letters from the Purple code used by the Japanese government.

By David Hartwig

The United States Postal Service honors women cryptologists of World War II with an Oct. 18 stamp issue.

The first-day ceremony for the nondenominated (60¢) Women Cryptologists of World War II commemorative forever stamp will take place Tuesday, Oct. 18, at 11 a.m. at the National Cryptologic Museum, 8290 Colony Seven Road in Annapolis Junction, Md.

A registration form for the ceremony is available online.

“During World War II, some 11,000 women helped to process and decipher an endless stream of enemy military messages,” the USPS said. “Both frustrating and exhilarating, their work was one of the conflict’s best-kept secrets.

“These women helped break and decipher the encryption systems that revealed vital shipping and diplomatic messages, built the machines that allowed cryptologists to break encrypted messages and performed many other duties.”

The stamp art features an image from a recruitment poster for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) and letters from the Purple code used by the Japanese government to encrypt diplomatic messages.

“Established in July 1942, the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) were part of the U.S. Naval Reserve,” the USPS said. “The key to the Purple code was discovered by a female cryptologist with the U.S. Army’s Signal Intelligence Service.”

Congress established WAVES as a branch of the U.S. Navy on July 30, 1942, in an effort to have women serve in support positions and make men more available for combat positions.

About 90,000 women served in WAVES during World War II, according to an article published Sept. 14, 2020, on the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum website.

Members of WAVES enjoyed full military status, unlike the women’s unit of the Army. WAVES gained permanent status in the Navy in 1948 and continued as a separate branch until the armed forces became integrated in 1972.

In Sharing the Burden: Women in Cryptology during World War II, a publication offered as part of the National Security Agency’s history program, author Jennifer Wilcox discussed how women serving as cryptologists in WAVES maintained secrecy while working on cryptanalytic Bombes, machines that were used to break coded German messages.

“Each woman was given a wiring diagram for one side of the two-sided rotor,” Wilcox said. “She spent her eight-hour shift soldering wires to rotors. Another WAVE soldered the other side. This arrangement maintained the secrecy of the rotor wirings. No WAVE would have knowledge of both sides of any rotor.”

This work by members of the WAVES helped to decipher German codes, and work from a woman hired by the U.S. Army’s Signal Intelligence Service (SIS) helped to break the Purple code used by the Japanese government.

According to an article published March 29, 2018, on the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum website, the Signal Intelligence Service hired Genevieve Grotjan after she was unable to find employment as a math teacher despite her degree in mathematics.

The Signal Intelligence Service assigned Grotjan to a team of code breakers tasked with breaking the Purple code, which the Smithsonian’s article calls “the most challenging Japanese diplomatic code to date.”

Grotjan found the key to breaking the code in 1940, after the team had ...

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