World War II

The surprise aerial assault on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces on December 7, 1941, dramatically underscored America’s information gathering and assessment weaknesses.  As a direct result of the attack, President Franklin Roosevelt, a longtime advocate of clandestine work, ordered the creation of this country’s first true intelligence service in June 1942.

Founded and headed by Major General William J. Donovan, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) staged and managed thousands of diverse covert and guerrilla activities in all five theaters of battle. The sprawling, upstart organization was also responsible for researching and drafting reports that addressed a wide spectrum of political, social, cultural, and economic issues affecting the conduct of the war. 

Bombe
A Wave operating a Navy Bombe at the
Naval Communications Annex

Photo Credit: NSA
Click on image to see larger view

Women played major roles in OSS missions, from clerical to operational.  Of the 13,000 employees who served at the agency’s peak in 1944, about 4,500 were women.  Of these, roughly one-third were assigned overseas. The woman considered America’s greatest female spy, Virginia Hall of Baltimore, Maryland, was stationed in occupied France as an undercover OSS operative.  

Continuing their impressive work with codes begun in World War I, women were employed as cryptanalysts during the next major global conflict.  Many of these volunteers were responsible for running and maintaining the giant Bombes and other advanced technological wonders that eventually cracked Germany’s and Japan’s numerous encryption systems, ushering in the Computer Age.

“The intelligence which has emanated from you before and during this campaign has been of priceless value to me.  It has simplified my task as commander enormously.  It has saved thousands of British and American lives, and in no small way contributed to the speed with which the enemy was routed and eventually forced to surrender."         

   - Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1945

Dwight Eisenhower
General Dwight Eisenhower on D-Day
Photo Credit: Library of Congress

 

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