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American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

June 2006

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The author of this account has had a fascinating life and career, first in the U. S. Navy concerned with encrypted communications and proceeding through a lifetime of service to education, much of it abroad. The latter experience included living and teaching in Iran, Japan, Ireland, and Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic). -Ed.

Uplifted by a scholarly lecture on Spanish Romanticism given by an exiled poet, Jorge Guillen, I opened my mailbox as soon as I returned to my dorm for lunch. I felt as if I had opened Pandora's box.

“Please report to the Astronomy Lab Tuesday next at 3:00 PM,” signed, Helen Dodson.

For a week I cowered at the thought of astronomy - it was synonymous with math. Expecting to graduate in June, the thought of math terrified me, just as snakes do. After all, I had managed to pass the College Board exam and Wellesley had accepted me. Miss Dodson had been a faculty resident in our dorm two years ago, and was a warm person.

When the day came, I dutifully followed the Meadow Path up to the Astronomy lab. She met me at the door and invited me into her office under the mighty telescope. My fears were allayed when she posed the first question.

“Do you like puzzles?”

“Indeed I do. My father and I scramble for the one in the Sunday Times.”

“Are you engaged?” she queried.

That seemed like an unusual question, but I replied in the negative. No indefinite plans were to come between me and an adventure I sensed was looming.

“We are inviting a few seniors to do classified work for the government, which will result in a job after commencement. This is not to be discussed with anyone, not even with members of your family, and with none of your friends. If you agree to do this, you are to come to the zoology building at 7:00 o'clock Tuesday evening. Any questions?”

“I shall see you Tuesday. Sounds interesting,” I remarked as I left her office, ready for whatever lay ahead. Mathematics no longer posed a threat.

At that time we were not aware of how few we were, nor why we were selected for this secret work. Only in months ahead did we realize only seniors of the exclusive women's colleges were considered. Besides Wellesley, our future colleagues came from Smith, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, and Bryn Mawr. Such was the nucleus of a military group that was to become the first Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service. First came the FBI clearance.

Tuesday evening was our first encounter with the work program already laid out for us, as well as the first opportunity to meet each other. Most were math or language majors, others from different disciplines. There were only ten of us, but all remained. Faculty advisers were our Greek professor, Barbara McCarthy, and Helen Dodson, who handed out our bi-weekly assignments in large manila envelopes and encouraged us when frustrations mounted. To complete this work in secrecy taxed our ingenuity when visitors knocked at the door.Sunday, December 7, 1941, was the occasion of the annual Wellesley- Harvard orchestra concert. Rumors reverberated about Pearl Harbor being bombed. At intermission this was verified by a radio announcement. But who had ever heard of Pearl Harbor? Where was it? Too soon, alas, we learned the truth. Even the heavenly chords of Mozart's Jupiter Symphony brought little comfort to us. The reality was that we were at war with Japan.

As our generation recovered from this shock, we focused on how to best serve our country. Since our group had already made a commitment, our work assumed urgent and tragic dimensions. For me, it was a great opportunity to apply my efforts to solving puzzles. Our lives changed with blackouts imposed on many towns to protect ships in Boston Harbor. Flashlights guided our walks after dark from the library and classroom buildings back to the dormitories. In the world beyond the campus, ration books were issued so food supplies could go to our troops and to our allies. Men went into some form of war industry or into the services. Women replaced them in shipyards and factories, on the farm, and in offices.

One Tuesday evening in early spring, as we were discussing our assignments, an unexpected visitor entered the room, our college president Mildred MacAfee! We rose to greet her, as her smile scanned our faces.

“I thought I knew who you are and I'm delighted to see you together. We have work to do, and there are some who doubt that we can do it.”

The implied message was about to be explained, in rather somber tones.

“Secretary Knox called on me last week and we chatted cordially about the present situation of our armed forces, before he revealed the purpose of his visit."

“I came to persuade you to become the director of a volunteer group of women officers and later enlisted personnel for the Navy. This is to be part of the Naval Reserve, slated for a ninety-day period of indoctrination, health screening, immunizations, and so forth prior to becoming officers. “

"My reply to this proposal was direct. I looked at him seriously and asked whether he did not consider my work as a president of a liberal arts college for women as having a higher priority."

“What if there were to be no liberal arts colleges for women?” he answered.

"A few minutes of silence ensued. I informed him of my need to consult with the Board of Trustees before committing myself to a military life. There would be other considerations contingent on my personal choice, but within a fortnight he would be informed of my decision."

She paused briefly and continued,” If our country needs me, I shall need support from women like you. It is not surprising that you have already committed yourselves; I would expect this from Wellesley women. We shall be known as WAVES -Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, once we are in uniform and have been sworn in to the Navy.”

As college president, Miss MacAfee was admired for her abilities, friendliness, humor and outstanding leadership. All at once she would become the senior officer of the WAVES as well as the college president we knew. She would belong to the country, not just to Wellesley.

We were filled with a solemn pride and a renewed dedication to our work.

Spring swept over the campus with blossoming shrubs and final exams. We were all making preparations for commencement and our move to Washington, where we would live temporarily with alumnae. We were assigned to different offices of the Navy as assistant cryptanalyst aides. The last items to cram into my footlocker were my Bible and Faust, much to the amusement of nearby classmates!

The author in 1944, in a WAVES uniform.

Until the WAVES were organized, some of us were assigned to work on Japanese codes -- safe enough because only Seventh Day Adventists and missionaries knew the language. At that time, the codes were purely numerical, adding numbers to other numerical groups in hopes of finding one that had a plaintext equivalent. Finally, in October a group of us was sent to Mount Holyoke for officer training. Normally this program lasted for ninety days, but our personnel director appeared one day on campus with news that we were needed in Washington and would only complete three weeks of training. After shots, marching songs were adapted from Army classics to keep up morale, but time passed.

Before leaving for Washington, we were outfitted in new uniforms, complete with hat, shoulder bag, raincoat, overcoat and our designer suits with appropriate insignia. Shoes were rationed, and the requirement for Navy shoes were without style- nun's shoes alone would pass. But I. Miller and other shoe designers soon produced more attractive ones that would pass inspection. We all endured rayon stockings, for this was war.

On reporting for duty as an officer, I was welcomed, and then told that if a leak were traced to me, I would be shot. My section commander, formerly head of the math faculty at Yale, led me to the office where I was assigned, and introduced me to three career code breakers. A handicapped gentleman informed me they were the “Black Chamber.” A younger lady asked me to look at a message and tell her what it said.

Immediately I replied - “umbrella,” followed by an encrypted message. It was a dummy. Here I was at last, where I wanted to be. There was a gradual buildup of Naval personnel around us, and in early spring the entire operation was moved to a former girls' school known as Mount Vernon Seminary. This site was sealed off from the world by chain link fences, secure gates, badges, Marine sentries, and Marines on patrol. These men were veterans of Guadalcanal and were no strangers to violence.

There was even an area within the compound where I was taught to shoot a gun.

As watch officer, a gun was always placed on my desk, to be used if anyone tried to gain entrance unlawfully. Twenty-four hours a day entry was controlled by electric buzzers and badges displaying the level of confidential material to which the bearer had access. We were all in uniform, attacking the Enigma, often with great frustration.

In constant communication with our British allies, we developed clues as to the contents of messages. These depended on length of transmissions, locations of the boat to which they were addressed, instructions for boats returning to ports in the Bay of Biscay as well as miscellaneous information. The latter could be identified by the number of frequencies used in the transmission. There were daily weather reports also.

Behind the scenes our great mathematicians delved into the mysteries of probabilities and statistics. From time to time British boarding parties were able to find books of indicators, rotors of the Enigma machine, or lists of boats and their commanders. The tide really turned when solutions came from the Turing bombe, a leviathan of electrical circuits, created by Alan Turing, a genius of Bletchley Park.

In March of 1944, it was determined that I needed a tonsillectomy, to be scheduled when my absence from work could be tolerated. In due course I was delivered to the Bethesda Naval Hospital where the procedure was duly performed. For twenty-four hours I was a bed patient, but for the remainder of my stay, I stood up for inspection in full uniform, with an icepack around my neck! Being the only woman in the ward was a unique experience, as three post-surgical neighbors came to my defense when a young intruder tried to force his way into my room!

On my return to the office, I was caught up in the tension of anticipating the invasion of Europe. Everyone was on edge, no one knew, but each of us felt the decisive day was approaching. Although rosebuds were blooming, time was taunting us with expectation.

At midnight on the sixth of June when I relieved the watch, a full moon dazzled the night with its radiance. On entering the office, I predicted there would be no invasion that night with such a moon. In disbelief, about two hours later, we received a terse message addressed to all boats: “Enemy landing at the mouth of the Seine.” After a brief interval a more informative one followed, enumerating destroyers, cruisers, aircraft carriers, tankers, and supply ships. A chilling armada in the eyes of the enemy! Sporadic bulletins followed as we bolted up and down the stairs to the official translators, overwhelmed by the momentous impact of this historic moment. Excitement, relief, and horror. How many lives were being lost? What about the Nazi counterattacks? We learned how swiftly the French Resistance had disrupted communications between the front and the command center further inland. Even seated at our desks, we felt the power of our country in this solemn night of destiny.

After the cessation of hostilities, my husband was sent to Barber's Point on Oahu for training as a night fighter pilot, enabling me to resume my studies at the University of Hawaii. When the Nisei volunteer regiment returned from the European theater, they wanted to study German, so I became an emergency instructor of the first two levels of German while learning about the cultures of Polynesia and Japan from my students. Later, my graduate credits acquired there were accepted by the University of Maryland, where I pursued my master's and doctorate in German and French.

A few years later, we met up with a group of NATO officers in Norfolk, where my husband was on the staff of the commander of the Atlantic Fleet. My first assignment was to interpret for a diplomat's wife who spoke only French. A more challenging one was entertaining a former enemy in my home -- a U-boat captain whose sub we had been tracking years ago. In the fall, he asked me to go to the admissions office of Old Dominion University where he wished to enroll his son. Being an assistant professor, I could explain academic equivalents for the courses he had taken in Germany. We kept in contact for several years.

Subsequently, my interest in foreign affairs has increased in the course of foreign travel and residences. My next academic home was the University of California at Santa Barbara, where both students and faculty were inspirational and dedicated to language learning. That summer I was given a grant to an international Fulbright seminar in German, which was highly informative, and personally enriching. I still cherish the days spent with my Luebeck family.

Two years later we were sent to Tokyo, where my husband joined the embassy staff as the naval attaché after several months in Monterey at the Defense Language School learning Japanese. During that time, I taught English at the Tokyo English Center where I wrote a textbook for prospective English teachers: AMERICA at a GLANCE. In line of duty, I was often confronted by Soviet officers and diplomats who were convinced I was a spy. (They still pursued me a decade later in Bonn, when I turned to the CIA for help.) We had warm friends among the Japanese and the homeward journey was bittersweet.

For three years I taught at University College Dublin as an associate in German, but that was hardly a foreign experience since I had grown up in Boston.

An invitation to teach at a women's college in Iran dazzled my imagination, and I became an associate professor of French and World Classics at Damavand College. The language of instruction was English for all but Persian Studies, all students being Iranian except for a handful of expatriates. Faculty and students bonded quickly as they were so eager to learn. After the revolution some of them wrote to us, others came to see me in Washington. Several have been forced to return to Iran.

Meredith College in North Carolina needed a head of the Foreign Language Department when I came home from Iran with a heavy heart. Trees, friendly faces, and development of overseas summer programs for North Carolina students absorbed me in addition to routine teaching. Soon I became a speaker in demand due to my Iranian experience, having made twenty-seven lectures and TV appearances. In coordination with other local colleges, I organized and led a Fulbright Seminar in Japan.

Ann Kurtz as PCV in Czechoslovakia..

After retirement, I volunteered for the U. S. Peace Corps in what was then Czechoslovakia and was sent to Palacky University. There I taught English as a second language for two years. The next two years I helped them develop a program in Japanese studies, procuring materials from the Asia Society and the embassy of Japan in Vienna. From the university we traveled to Poland and Hungary, broadening our horizons of history and the great human family.

And to think! It all started with a summons to the astronomy lab at Wellesley College one Tuesday long, long ago . . . .


Fulbright grants enabled me to live with German families and frequent lectures and libraries, and also to explore the subcontinent of India. Finally I was the Director of a faculty seminar in Japan. After retirement, I spent four years in the Peace Corps in the Czech Republic.

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