William J. Donovan had a reputation for being a man in a hurry. In November 1941, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s newly appointed Coordinator of Information (COI), “Wild Bill” wanted a cryptographic unit created from scratch, quickly. He turned to a woman who was well on her way to being known as the “mother of cryptology.” Her name was Elizebeth Smith Friedman, and by the time Donovan tapped her talents she already had helped transform cryptographic operations for the U.S. War Department during World War I, decoded hundreds of messages between rumrunners during Prohibition, served as the star witness against the world’s most powerful international narcotics smuggling syndicate, and become the Treasury Department’s and Coast Guard’s first female codebreaker.
In the late 1930s, Friedman and her team were the first group of Americans to learn the secrets of Germany’s Enigma machine, and, based on their efforts, the Coast Guard supplied the U.S. Army, Navy, and State Department with vital intelligence. She cracked 4,000 codes that helped take down a fascist spy network in South America. Her accomplishments had made her something of a media sensation, and she was featured in Look magazine, Reader’s Digest, and the San Francisco Chronicle. The press repeatedly emphasized the “surprising” ability of a woman to decode complex messages. She was also a poet, a scholar of both Shakespeare and Mayan archaeology, a wife, and a mother of two.
Prior to World War II, Elizabeth Friedman was one half of a team. She and her husband, William Friedman (he coined the new term “cryptanalysis”), developed new codebreaking strategies, published in eight booklets, which became the foundation of the modern science of cryptology. Though a joint effort, only two included Elizebeth’s name as coauthor. Both Elizebeth and William contributed immeasurably to the prosecution of both world wars, but Elizebeth often labored in secrecy, her myriad accomplishments lost to history until recently, while William received accolades, was deemed “the world’s greatest cryptologist,” and was considered to be the “father of the National Security Agency.”
A Love for the Bard, a Talent for Decoding
Clara Elizebeth Smith, the youngest of nine children, was born on 26 August 1892 and raised in an Indiana working-class Quaker home. Her father was John Marion Smith, a Civil War veteran and Republican politician who traced his roots back to an ancestor who had arrived on the same ship as William Penn. Her mother, Sopha Smith, gave her daughter’s name an unusual spelling so she would never be called “Eliza.”
Elizebeth was educated locally at schools in Huntington. She applied to several colleges, against her father’s wishes, but when she gained admittance to the College of Wooster in Ohio, he loaned her the money for tuition (at 6 percent interest). She transferred to Hillsdale College in Michigan and, although majoring in English literature and minoring in the applied sciences, she also found time to study Latin, Greek, and German. Her favorite authors were William Shakespeare and Alfred, Lord Tennyson.1 Upon graduation in 1915, she spent a year serving as a teacher and principal at a country school before growing restless for more adventure.
She traveled to Chicago the summer of 1916. While visiting Newberry Library in search of a job, she came upon original folios of the works of Shakespeare and became determined to study the bard. The librarian connected her to another Shakespeare connoisseur, George Fabyan, a wealthy, eccentric textile magnate who operated Riverbank Laboratories—what today would be called a think tank—in Geneva, Illinois. Fabyan, convinced that Sir Francis Bacon was the true author of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, recruited Elizebeth to join his team in locating hidden Baconian codes within Shakespeare’s works.
At Riverbank, Elizebeth learned her codebreaking craft from Elizabeth Wells Gallup, who ran the campus cipher school and had published a book in 1899 on the Bilateral Cipher of Francis Bacon. It was also at Riverbank that Elizebeth Smith, 23, met William F. Friedman, 24, a plant geneticist and Mrs. Gallup’s photo assistant. They were drawn together by a mutual disdain for their assignment, having decided Mrs. Gallup was seeing patterns where none existed, and a growing fascination with codes and ciphers. William tended to treat ciphers as a mystical game, blending them with botany to make jokes and art. In 1917, less than a year after meeting, Elizebeth and William were married.2
Cracking the Zimmermann Telegram
During World War I, Riverbank Laboratories was transformed into an incubator for American cryptographic operations, and Elizabeth and William were the couple in charge of the first serious cryptanalytic effort of the U.S. military. A telegram had been sent from Germany to Mexico on 16 January 1917, written by Germany’s foreign minister, Arthur Zimmermann. The proposal of an alliance was extended to Mexico: make war together against the United States in exchange for the return to Mexico of its lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.
The Zimmermann Telegram, sent in code, changed the trajectory of life for the Friedmans, who possessed skills suddenly extremely valuable to the U.S. government. The military was desperate for codebreakers, and radio and wireless technology was changing the nature of war. There were possibly three or four persons in the whole of the United States who could break codes, and Elizebeth and William were two of them. Elizebeth was the first to decode military messages intercepted from the Mexican Army, working by counting the frequency of letters.
The Friedmans began operating as a team, developing strategies as they went along. For the first eight months of the war, they and their small team conducted all codebreaking for every part of the U.S. government, developing broader methodologies still in use today. Neither was particularly good at mathematics, but they operated on an intuitive level to devise techniques to discern patterns. Most importantly, their methods were scientific, which is to say the results could be replicated.3 The Friedmans worked feverishly to solve messages as they poured in. They decrypted messages from Scotland Yard revealing an intricate separatist plot by Hindu activists living in New York to ship weapons to India with German help. William was summoned to testify about how he broke the codes, but before he could take the stand, an Indian man in the gallery shot one of the defendants.
Fabyan, meanwhile, offered Riverbank as a codebreaking school, and 80 young officers applied—with their wives. Elizebeth and William had set an example of how a husband-and-wife team could work.4
Mission: Outfox the Rum Syndicates
In 1921, both Friedmans went to work for the government, William in the Army Reserve Signal Corps, Elizebeth as a civilian. She resigned after a year to write and start a family. William joined the urgent effort to create cipher machines, and his reputation grew. In 1925 the Coast Guard, under jurisdiction of the Treasury Department, approached Elizebeth to join its new Intelligence Division to interdict rumrunners. The Coast Guard needed to develop codebreaking capability quickly while also protecting its own communications from the sophisticated criminals who were monitoring government messages to ships and agents. The Coast Guard had been intercepting messages with numerous radio towers on the East Coast used for search-and-rescue and had a backlog of intercepts with no one to decode them. Elizebeth soon solved more than 650 messages in 24 different code systems used by rum syndicates on the Texas Gulf Coast.
In 1929, an infamous rumrunning vessel under Canadian flag, the I’m Alone, was sunk by the Coast Guard cutter Dexter. Canada filed a formal protest and demanded $400,000 compensation, arguing that under a 1924 treaty the United States had agreed not to search and seize vessels more than an hour’s sailing distance from U.S. shores unless pursuit initiated in U.S. territorial waters. The Coast Guard tried to document that the I’m Alone was in U.S. waters when first encountered. Elizebeth’s decryptions helped federal investigators prove the I’m Alone was indeed initially in territorial waters—and was a rumrunner owned by U.S. gangsters. Her work was praised by both Canada and the United States.
Coast Guard Commandant Frederick C. Billard was so impressed by the role cryptology played in exonerating the United States in the I’m Alone case that he took Elizebeth’s vision for an enhanced cryptology unit to Congress for funding in 1930. By then, Elizebeth Friedman had solved 12,000 rumrunning messages in the previous three years, aided only by the help of one female clerk. By 1931, she had become Cryptologist-in-Charge of CG Unit 387 at an annual salary of $3,800. Her unit began breaking codes for all six Treasury agencies. Coast Guard cryptanalysis and radio intelligence during Prohibition ultimately bore fruit during the national security threats of World War II.5
Drugs, Spies, and a Glory-Grabbing FBI
Elizebeth’s work during Prohibition made her a media sensation. While she became a public figure, William’s work with the Army remained secret. He had created a team, the Signal Intelligence Service, to break the Japanese diplomatic code. He developed the SIGABA, an ingenious cipher machine with 15 rotors. Ultimately, 10,060 of the machines would be distributed across every theater of World War II. William kept this work secret even from Elizebeth.6
After the repeal of Prohibition in 1934, rumrunners switched to smuggling heroin and morphine. Elizebeth moved to decrypting messages between narcotics smugglers. In 1938, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police flew her to Vancouver to analyze messages discovered on a Chinese merchant’s property. She solved the messages with the use of a Chinese dictionary and exposed a smuggling ring trading Canadian weapons to Hong Kong for drugs. Her testimony led to the conviction of all five defendants. Meanwhile, she somehow managed to study for a master’s degree in archaeology from American University. (Decoding Mayan glyphs had been a lifelong passion she shared with William.)7
War clouds were on the horizon, and between 1938 and 1941, Treasury’s expanded duties included enforcement of neutrality in addition to law enforcement. In 1940, while decrypting what she thought were smuggling intercepts, Elizebeth detected a shift and discerned the messages were German, originating from unknown radio stations in Mexico, South America, and the United States and containing sensitive information about U.S. and British shipping routes and American factory capacities.
A pair of stations exchanging signals became a “circuit,” each protected by a separate code that had to be broken. Elizebeth had to remain perfectly invisible as she tapped into the circuits. Her cryptanalytic unit began practicing counterespionage and counterintelligence—work so secret it would remain classified for decades.8
In 1941, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover asked Elizebeth and her Coast Guard team to train FBI agents destined for South American assignments—then promptly took full credit when they deciphered messages between Nazi agents in New York and Latin America, calling it the “greatest spy roundup” in U.S. history. Germans in Hamburg had requested the Nazi agent operating a station on Long Island to relay messages from Mexico, as the clandestine station there did not have a powerful enough transmitter to reach Germany.9 Elizebeth Friedman was building a solid reputation as a “fixer.” She became someone who moved from agency to agency, helping each develop its own cryptographic services.
Wild Bill’s Asset
It was later that same year that COI Director Donovan requested Friedman establish a cryptology office for his fledgling organization and build a secure communications network. All intelligence-gathering agencies were competing for the best cryptographers, radio operators, and equipment. Donovan tended to raid other government entities for what he needed, but unfortunately, even with his outsized influence he was unable to commandeer assets from two of the largest crypto-communications agencies in the nation: Army SIS and Navy OP-20-G. He settled on an agency with a communications group too small to defend itself from poaching, and in November 1941, the Secretary of the Treasury acquiesced to the Donovan’s demand that the Coast Guard’s code and cipher branch turn its efforts toward establishing an operational cryptographic unit for his communication net.
Thus far, Donovan’s overseas communication had been routed through the State Department, and he wanted his own separate cryptographic devices, codes, and trained personnel.10
Friedman and her team assembled the necessary equipment: special locking envelopes for secret messages, cross-section paper needed for encoding and decoding, and the frames used by strip-cipher code systems. She obtained two Hagelin cipher machines destined for other agencies. The Hagelin was known as “lug and pin,” a portable machine that also could print. Donovan wanted the unit up and running in an impossibly short amount of time, so Elizabeth and her team worked around the clock and within a few weeks had produced code systems—including double transpositions and strip ciphers—customized for COI operations.11 She called in favors from the intelligence community and acquired two highly valued automatic encryption machines, after which she spent most of that December encoding and decoding COI’s first messages.
Donovan considered her presence at COI invaluable and attempted to have her permanently shifted to his organization. However, at the end of December she returned to the Coast Guard, leaving Lieutenant Leonard T. Jones, another Coast Guardsman, to assume responsibility for COI’s nascent crypto unit. Before departing, she wrote Donovan (by way of his liaison, Marine Captain James Roosevelt) a rather blistering letter detailing all that she had accomplished for him in a mere two months and leaving him specific recommendations.12 He took all of them. In the War Report of the OSS, the message center constructed by Friedman was described as “the only communications function set up adequately during COI.”13
The Argentina–Nazi Germany Connection
Following her work for Donovan, and by the second month of the war, Friedman and her Coast Guard Unit 387 began intercepting and decoding the messages of enemy spies in the Western Hemisphere. The Coast Guard had stationed radiomen in Brazil to intercept radio traffic being sent by German agents.
Friedman’s decrypts exposed messages to the Abwehr, the German military intelligence agency, suggesting the agents were attempting to find information on U.S. companies that handled uranium ore. She strained to decode messages detailing Allied vessel routes and pass the decrypts to the military before the information could reach U-boat captains. Three months into 1942, U-boats had sunk one million tons of shipping and killed 5,000 Allied seamen. (See “The Drumbeat Mystery,” February, pp. 12–19.) Adolf Hitler had put a bounty on the troopship RMS Queen Mary. Friedman’s decrypts were among those that reached the captain in time for him to take evasive maneuvers, saving more than 8,000 lives.14
Working with a team of fewer than 20, she pieced together an elaborate scheme to unite a bloc of South American countries loyal to Germany and arrange secret weapons deals between Argentina and Germany. Her decrypts exposed an organized network of fascist coup plotters and revealed the extensive structure of Nazi espionage in South America.
These were the ULTRA decrypts. They provided proof of Argentina’s complicity with Nazi Germany and allowed the Allies to pressure that government into severing all relations with Berlin. Breaking the German ciphers helped the Allies neutralize many Abwehr operations in the Western Hemisphere.
From Unsung Heroine to Historical Vindication
As Friedman was a civilian, Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Leonard T. Jones, one of the men she had trained, became her supervisor. Her name never appeared on official memos, so Jones got all the credit. Only her initials “ESF” at the bottom of Coast Guard decrypts alerted scholars years later after declassification.15 And the historical picture became clear that, during World War II, Friedman was responsible for locating and eliminating a global network of undercover Nazis, decrypting 4,000 typed messages, and mastering 48 separate clandestine radio circuits and three Enigma machines. She stopped coups and drove wedges between Germany and its collaborators.16
Lieutenant Commander Jones received numerous awards for the wartime work of Unit 387, including the Legion of Merit, the World War II Victory Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, the Navy Unit Commendation Ribbon, and the Order of the British Empire. Elizebeth Friedman received a paycheck, with a raise from $4,200 to $5,390.
In her Christmas letter of 1944, she reported that her husband had been awarded the Exceptional Service Award with Gold Wreath, whereas she had simply been carrying out the duties of a “routine navy job.” William’s secret wartime contributions also earned him a War Department medal for exceptional Civilian Service, the Presidential Medal for Merit, and the Presidential National Security Medal.17 With the end of World War II, the government combined cryptographic activities from several agencies and downsized Elizebeth’s codebreaking position in the Coast Guard. She moved on to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), working from 1946 to 1949 as a “Consultant in Communications.”18 The details of her work there are sketchy, but brief references in her papers suggest she continued her quiet role as “fixer,” helping the IMF secure and protect its communication resources.
Elizebeth Friedman died in a New Jersey nursing home on 31 October 1980, having never shared the details of her own wartime contributions beyond oblique references to “spy stuff.” None of her obituaries mentioned her codebreaking work during World War II. The Unit 387 history remained classified for 62 years, until 2008. She spent the last years of her life compiling her and her husband’s papers and beginning her memoirs. Cryptographers have come to regard her as one of the true legends of their field. It is fitting, then, that the next U.S. Coast Guard Legend-class national security cutter (WMSL-760) will be named in honor of Elizebeth Smith Friedman.19
1. “Elizebeth Friedman,” famousscientists.org.
2. G. Stuart Smith, A Life in Code: Pioneer Cryptanalyst Elizebeth Smith Friedman (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2017), 15–21.
3. Jason Fagone, The Woman Who Smashed Codes (New York: Harper Collins, 2017), 131.
4. Fagone, The Woman Who Smashed Codes, 129.
5. William H. Thiesen, “Busting Smugglers and Breaking Codes,” Naval History 34, no. 1 (February 2020): 42–49.
6. Fagone, The Woman Who Smashed Codes, 225.
7. Smith, A Life in Code, 100.
8. Fagone, The Woman Who Smashed Codes, 281.
9. Fagone, 346.
10. Smith, A Life in Code, 114.
12. Fagone, The Woman Who Smashed Codes, 357.
13. Kermit Roosevelt, War Report of the OSS (New York: Walker and Co., 1976), 90.
14. Fagone, The Woman Who Smashed Codes, 360–62.
15. Fagone, 383.
16. Fagone, 441.
17. Smith, A Life in Code, 142.
18. Smith, 165.
19. “Eleventh Coast Guard National Security Cutter Named for Elizebeth Smith Friedman,” Coast Guard News, July 2020.