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O'TOOLE: Elizebeth Friedman, the 5-foot-3 unsung hero of WWII

• Mar 6, 2019 at 2:00 PM

“It’s not quite true that history is written by the winners. It’s written by the best publicists on the winning team,” says Jason Fagone.

Before the 21st century, the publicists were mostly men writing about the heroics of other men, leaving out the stories of women whose contributions were vital in shaping American history, their heroism virtually erased from the record.

Fagone’s biography, “The Woman Who Smashed Codes,” tells the story of Elizebeth Smith Friedman, one of the women whom history has largely forgotten.

In 1916, she was a high school teacher and substitute principal in Huntington, Indiana. But she was restless. “There was no path from teaching that led anywhere else she might want to go,” explains Fagone. “A woman taught, had kids, retired, died.”

She quit her job and took a train to Chicago, where she spent a week presenting herself to employment agencies hoping for a job in literature or research. Nothing like that exists, she was told.

She decided to see William Shakespeare’s “First Folio” at the Newberry Library, then take a train home to Indiana. But history had other plans. At the library, she was introduced to George Fabyan, an eccentric tycoon who literally lifted her into his limousine and brought her to Riverbank, his 350-acre estate, to live and work. Her job? Decipher secret messages in Shakespeare that proved Francis Bacon was the true author.

Elizebeth soon became skeptical of the Shakespeare project. There were gaping holes in the theory and method that couldn’t be explained away. She was too kind to voice her doubts to Mrs. Gallup, the project leader, but she didn’t want to continue at a useless task.

Before she could seriously consider leaving Riverbank, Fabyan offered the use of the estate and all of its employees to the United States government. Uncle Sam needed codebreakers. There were less than a dozen people in the entire country with experience and knowledge in the field of cryptology. Elizebeth was one of them.

She spent the Great War solving coded messages from the enemy that contained information about troop movements and ship routes. She sent the solutions up the chain to the people in the government and military who could act on them.

In the 1920s, she solved coded messages for the Treasury Department. Rumrunners were “mobsters, killers, associates of killers and shadowy corporations,” Fagone says. Elizebeth “solved more than 650 messages in 24 different code systems used by rum syndicates in the Gulf Coast.” She didn’t use math to solve the codes, she used her knowledge of language and literature. She used pencil and paper.

Many of her decrypts became evidence in federal smuggling cases, and she was called to testify in court with a security detail. She cooked meals for them, but because of her Quaker background, she made them leave their guns outside. With no other help besides a single female clerk-typist, Elizebeth solved 12,000 messages in three years.

During World War II, she broke codes for the FBI. She hired and trained staffers to form a cryptanalysis unit. Elizebeth and her team intercepted information that brought down a massive Nazi spy ring in South America.

Singlehandedly, she decrypted coded messages that became crucial to the FBI’s espionage case against Velvalee Dickinson, a spy for the imperial Japanese government. Dubbed “The Doll Lady” for the doll shop she ran, Dickinson was the first known woman spy against America. In the media frenzy following the trial, the FBI took credit for The Doll Lady’s conviction. Elizebeth was never mentioned.

Elizebeth and her Coast Guard team of code smashers conquered the Nazi underground. They deciphered 4,000 messages that they shared with the U.S. government and its allies. They mastered at least 48 covert radio stations. They solved three Enigma machines that were used to encode messages.

When Hitler placed a bounty on the U.S. Ship Queen Mary, promising the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and 1 million Reichsmarks to the captain who destroyed it, Elizebeth and other Allied codebreaking units provided information to the Queen Mary’s captain that enabled him to circumvent a U-boat lying in wait. The lives of more than 8,000 U.S. troops and the crew were saved.

The American public never knew about Elizebeth’s heroics. After World War II, the government dissolved Elizebeth’s codebreaking unit. Elizebeth and her team were sworn to secrecy. Documents that revealed their work were classified until 2000.

J. Edgar Hoover boasted he and his fledgling FBI were solely responsible for winning the Invisible War — the war fought in secret code. Elizebeth and her Coast Guard team were never mentioned.

Elizebeth Smith Friedman was 5-foot-3 and 110 pounds, a petite woman who made an enormous impact in American history. Today’s intelligence community wouldn’t be what is without her.

— By Kelly O’Toole, Tribune community columnist

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