WASHINGTON — Annette Sherman rarely has uttered a word about what she did during World War II.
In part, that’s because the Army swore her to secrecy. Moreover, hardly anyone has ever asked, which is understandable: Most of America remains unaware of her key battlefield role.
Sherman was no soldier but an English major, one of legions of code breakers — most of them women — who helped win the war. Their quiet but mighty contributions are finally getting recognized, thanks to big-media buzz around a new book, “Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II.”
At 98 years of age and still loyal to the sensitive nature of the job, Sherman remains reluctant to say much.
“We were just very interested in doing our job,” says the Eureka native, who lives at the Morningside of Washington assisted-living home. “We wanted to get the war over and win the war.”
In the book, author Liz Mundy describes how the military surreptitiously scoured colleges for English majors and others (including crossword-puzzle enthusiasts) who might have a knack for deciphering code. Potential candidates would receive vague letters regarding a service opportunity, pointing them to designated faculty. Approved recruits would sign confidentiality agreements to work with the military and soon report for training.
Women were particularly recruited as not to drain manpower needed to fight overseas. All told, several thousand women spent the war years cracking intercepted German and Japanese codes, to help the U.S. Army and Navy get the jump on Axis plans. In a recent interview, the book’s author lamented not starting the project earlier, as the code breakers (like all World War II participants) are rapidly thinning in ranks.
Yet Annette Sherman still carries a twinkle in her eye and spring in her step, energetically celebrating a recent birthday at Morningside of Washington. Born Annette Dyar in 1919 in Eureka, she and six siblings grew up a block from Eureka College. In 1941, she would graduate from the school with a bachelor’s degree in English, then earn a master’s degree in library science from the University of Illinois in Urbana a year later. She then took a job as a librarian at the Eureka Public Library.
She, like many young people of the time, felt a Pearl Harbor push to join the service. More than most, her patriotism burned closer to heart: Her younger brother Eugene, an Army Air Corps bombardier, was shot down and killed in Europe early in the war.
“That’s why I wanted revenge,” Sherman says matter-of-factly.
However, an inner-ear disability disqualified her from joining the Women’s Army Corp (WAC) or the Navy’s Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES). But in spring 1944 she saw an unusual sign at Eureka College: She can’t recall the details, but says English majors were wanted to help in the war effort. After a few behind-the-scenes discussions, she learned that the Army was seeking civilian code breakers.
“I didn’t know anything about doing that,” she says, smiling. “But it was the only place (in the military) available for me.”
Soon, the small-town librarian was on a locomotive to Arlington, Va., for cryptologic training amid a bevy of newcomers, most of them female. Once educated, Sherman served in the second role of a two-part process.
First, one group of code breakers would focus on deciphering the meanings of individual letters and symbols. Then, Sherman and others would try to put words and sentences together.
As far as specific enemy plans, Sherman never got a complete overview. As a matter of security, her sentences would be sent to higher-ups, who then would put together the pieces of the bigger puzzle. Still, Sherman learned enough to be scared: With two brothers nearing draft age, she worried they might soon end up in harm’s way in certain parts overseas.
“I wanted to call my brothers and tell them,” she says.
But she never touched a phone or otherwise breached her vow of secrecy. In fact, when she would meet strangers, she and her colleagues would (as directed by the Army) introduce themselves as secretaries.
Even on dates, they kept their lips zipped. Sherman still does, for the most part. To this day, she refuses to discuss any code she helped cracked that led to military victories.
“We were sworn to secrecy,” she says. She pauses, smiles and tells a reporter, “I shouldn't even be talking to you now. They said, ‘never, never, never.’”
As the war went on, the code breakers’ contributions pushed toward victory. On V-E Day and V-J Day, Sherman felt a great sense of relief.
“I felt really good about it,” she says. “I knew my little brothers wouldn’t have to go to war.”
Her 2 ½ years in cracking codes ended in January 1946. She received two letters that month from the Army, each lauding her service but warning her to keep hushed. As one stated, “The confidential nature of your work here prevents you from discussing it with anyone, even prospective employers. You may say that your position here was a Cryptanalytic Aide and your duties were of a technical nature. You may also present this letter showing that your work was entirely satisfactory and your average efficiency rating was excellent.”
From the Army, she returned to Eureka, then received a letter from the New York Public Library, asking if she might be interested in a job there. Soon, she was on another eastbound train. She enjoyed the bustle of New York City, where she met a librarian named Bill Elliott. A year later, they wed, eventually raising three children there.
In time, she would move on to other places, including a stint as a librarian in Florida. Meanwhile, after divorce, she wed a man named Forman Sherman, who has passed away. She eventually returned to her roots in Eureka, now living a few miles away in Washington.
And she smiles big at the notion that her long-ago work is suddenly in the national spotlight.
“I feel pride about that,” she says.
But she won’t say much more. Army orders.
PHIL LUCIANO can be reached at email@example.com, facebook.com/philluciano and (309) 686-3155. Follow him on Twitter.com/LucianoPhil.