We need a story about patriotism. We need to see those who had the right stuff and were able to rise to the occasion. Patriotism is about supporting our government and defending our freedoms.

Another hidden story brought to the surface by PBS’ American Experience. It is almost mind-boggling that it took over 50 years for it be unlocked from the archives. “The Codebreaker” delves deep into her story, utilizing government files that weren’t declassified until decades after her death to reveal the truth about a person who deserves recognition as a pioneer of American military intelligence. Stories like this one suggest that there are dozens or hundreds or perhaps thousands of untold heroes that we don’t know about yet and who deserve to be honored for their contributions to the country. Here’s another code breaker who was honored, Code Breaker Genevieve Feinstein. She was hired by William Friedman to help decipher the Japanese encrypted “purple encoded reports” out of Berlin. Until 1947 she worked within the intelligence community then joined the faculty of George Mason University where she served as a mathematics professor.

Elizebeth Friedman was a visionary American codebreaker who established our decryption programs during World War I, helped break the codes used by gangsters during Prohibition and led our efforts to break the Enigma code during World War II. But how she got there was truly remarkable. This is where I believe “divine providence” was at work. To think it all started by a visit to a library when noticing her interest in Shakespeare, the librarian insisted she meet a local millionaire industrialist who had a particular interest in the subject.

Just hours after their meeting, George Fabyan whisked Elizebeth off to Riverbank, his massive 350-acre estate in Geneva, Illinois. At Riverbank, the eccentric Fabyan had established a vibrant community of scholars and scientists — part think tank, part laboratory. He assigned Elizebeth to one of his pet projects – trying to prove that the works of Shakespeare were written by Francis Bacon, who had supposedly inserted a secret code into the plays that confirmed his authorship. The job was tedious, but Elizebeth discovered she had a remarkable talent for decoding ciphers and recognizing patterns. 

She met William Friedman at Riverbank, a geneticist and amateur photographer who also pitched in on the project to photograph and enlarge the Shakespeare texts. Together they dug into Fabyan’s collection of codebreaking books, exchanging insights and ideas; they soon fell in love.

They also concluded that Fabyan’s Shakespeare theory had no validity and was nothing but a pipe dream. They stole away from Riverbank, married, and planned to leave, but the advent of World War I changed their plans. In part, the first world war was unlike any before, because the invention of radio allowed the transmission of encrypted secret messages. Since the U.S. had no codebreaking agency, Fabyan saw an opportunity to help his country and enhance his fame, establishing America’s first codebreaking unit with Elizebeth and William in charge. Soon they were breaking codes for the War, Navy, State and Justice Departments, inventing their own methodology along the way. But six months into the war, the Army established its own Cypher Bureau. The Friedman’s moved to Washington D.C., where William went to work for the Army Signal Corps and Elizebeth cared for their growing family.

In 1925, the Coast Guard unexpectedly called on Elizebeth. Prohibition had triggered an explosion of criminal activity, with rum runners taking to the seas to deliver bootleg liquor up and down the coasts using sophisticated codes on shortwave radios.

Understanding the damage organized crime was inflicting on the nation, Elizebeth discovered how criminal syndicates ran their enterprises and became a crucial witness in a series of dramatic trials, taking down the operations of some of the most notorious gangsters in the country.

Elizebeth’s work went beyond decrypting the messages. She weaponized the data she gathered to pioneer the development of strategic intelligence, establishing the model for today’s fusion centers. Before leaving for her next assignment, she had her group of students pose for a group photo. She encrypted it by having them pose a certain way and then had them solve it. It reads “Knowledge is Power.” I thought this was brilliant and wanted to include it.

Her country called again in 1941, following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Now working for the Navy, Elizebeth and her team were assigned to monitor communications between a South American Nazi spy ring and the German high command. German U-boats were attacking Allied transport ships and by March of 1942, Nazi submarines had sunk more than a million tons of supplies and killed thousands of soldiers.

Unraveling the encrypted messages, Elizebeth soon identified Hitler’s top spy in South America, Sargo, whose network was transmitting the Allied ship locations, including that of the Queen Mary, the Allies largest supply ship. Before the Nazis could strike, Elizebeth was able to warn the captain, who safely brought the ship to port.

Elizebeth’s remarkable counter-intelligence operation was thwarted by J. Edgar Hoover, who, eager for glory, ordered the arrest of the South American spies, which made national headlines but cut off the government’s information pipeline. When Sargo eluded capture and rebuilt his network, it was Elizebeth who was asked to monitor his communications again.  Her intelligence work helped take down Nazi cells in South America and prevented Germany from bringing the war to our hemisphere in hopes of diluting American strength on the European fronts. Since the work was secret, Friedman sat by quietly as J. Edgar Hoover claimed credit for her work as the FBI took down the enemy intelligence networks that she uncovered.

In the end, she gave information to the Allies that allowed them to break up the ring and prevent the Germans from gaining a foothold in South America. Within months, the Nazi threat in the Western Hemisphere was eliminated, but Elizebeth was forced to sign an oath promising her secrecy until death.

She died in 1980 at a nursing home in New Jersey, taking her secret life to the grave.

Codebreaker Elizebeth Friedman
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