- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 1, 2005

In March 1944, about 18 months after young Mary Blakemore had enlisted in the U.S. Women’s Auxiliary Corps (WAC), her captain called her into her office and asked the young woman whether she would like to travel overseas.

She had majored in linguistics at Emory & Henry College in Virginia and, so far, had spent her enlisted time in the United States. Miss Blakemore felt sure that her high marks in three European languages were the reason for the captain’s question and that perhaps she was needed as an interpreter at a high-level Allied command post.

As it turned out, the young Virginia woman’s ability to learn languages earned her a far more intriguing job: decoding secret messages from Japanese military supply ships.

That young woman is now Mary Johnston, retired and living in Winchester, Va.

Sixty years ago, she was assigned to a team of WACs that helped crack the Japanese code and decrypted messages on a daily basis.

Her wartime assignment meant substantial physical hardship, a freeze in rank, life in a war zone, the tension of unscrambling a constant stream of messages and, on one occasion, hearing a broadcast by “Tokyo Rose,” the infamous Japanese radio propagandist, telling her and her fellow WACs — then with Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s command in northern New Guinea — that the Japanese Imperial Air Force was on its way to bomb them and their base into oblivion.

But in March 1944, she eagerly accepted the unspecified “travel assignment” and rendezvoused with 20 other WACs in Washington to travel by bus to Vint Hill Farms, Va., near Warrenton.

Still thinking she was heading for Europe, Mrs. Johnston was surprised to find herself going through security clearance procedures by the FBI, military intelligence (G-2) and a private detective agency.

She then began training in cryptography, the art of enciphering and deciphering coded messages. After just a few weeks of basic cryptography, her class started lessons in “Hepburn Kana,” a system for converting Japanese characters into phonetic English letters and syllables. This was followed by instruction in Japanese grammatical structure and Japanese vocabulary for military and shipping terms.

At this point, Mrs. Johnston says, she realized that her destination would not be Europe.

She and her comrades, joined by a dozen Australian WACs on the same mission in the Pacific, were assigned to decode Japanese wartime messages, an intelligence coup for the Allies.

After three months of training at Vint Hill, she and her unit — all young women in their teens and early 20s — entrained for Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., for several weeks of survival training. They then traveled to Camp Stoneman, Calif., near San Francisco, and shortly thereafter boarded a troop ship.

The WACs were under orders from the Army to tell no one, not even their families, of their whereabouts. On Nov. 3, 1944, the ship arrived at Ora Bay, on the southern coast of the island of New Guinea. Battles had been fought there through the summer. Snipers were still common enough that WACs who left the base for any reason had to be accompanied by a soldier.

Mrs. Johnston says when she flew aboard a cargo plane to Hollandia on the northern coast of the island, she flew straight over hostile Japanese anti-aircraft fire, the puffs of “ack-ack” bursting beneath the plane.

“I told that pilot to fly higher and faster,” Mrs. Johnston says with a laugh.

At Hollandia, the WACs set up camp near MacArthur’s headquarters and went to work cracking Japanese codes.

“We were supposed to decipher, and then write out, the messages sent to Japanese supply ships,” Mrs. Johnston recalls. “Then, we were to send a person over to MacArthur’s tent just as fast as possible. His staff would then plot a course for the Japanese shipping, and send out American bombers.”

Snakes and spiders were a hazard to the WACs, living and working in tents and Quonset huts. One day, a boa constrictor was found twisted around an inside tent pole.

But there was a brighter side to the deployment.

Soldiers at the base, who had endured months of savage jungle fighting, were glad to see the young WACs.

The soldiers “proved quite resourceful in finding ways to entice us for a visit,” Mrs. Johnston recalled. “We got invitations for meals or for a movie or for simple conversation in the recreation room.”

Because she could play the piano, Mrs. Johnston recalls, she was especially welcomed by the base chaplain, who recruited her to play a small pump organ at Sunday services.

She recalls one memorable encounter at Hollandia with one of the island’s natives, a wizened old man, a member of a tribe of headhunters. In broken English, he uttered what seemed to be a command: “You marry me.”

Taken by surprise and not knowing how to reply, Mrs. Johnston says, she hesitated and then noticed him eyeing her ditty bag.

The bag had a large safety pin stuck to the outside. Instead of giving a direct answer, she says, she offered the headhunter the safety pin, which he accepted with a broad smile — allowing the startled WAC the opportunity to depart gracefully and promptly.

At the base hospital, Mrs. Johnston says, she helped ill or wounded young soldiers bathe and write letters. She shared her cigarettes and read aloud to them from the Bible.

But the daily business of decoding intercepted Japanese messages — one passage at a time — kept her and her fellow WACs busy.

“It took a lot of trial and error,” Mrs. Johnston says. “And it was made more difficult because the Japanese changed their code system two or three times a day. We had to switch systems when they did and decode accordingly.”

At the end of each day, the decoded, or “best possible,” message fragments went to a central desk, where they were strung together into whole messages and sent directly to MacArthur’s headquarters. The work was nonstop.

“We spent our days and nights doing this and trying not to let homesickness get the better of us,” Mrs. Johnston recalls. “We did have one source of encouragement, though. We knew our decoding had led to an increase in Japanese shipping losses.”

After following McArthur’s headquarters to the Philippines, the code breakers reached the end of their work. Japan surrendered in August 1945, and the WACs sailed home that November.

“We sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge, but there were not many cheers,” Mrs. Johnston recalls. “We had left too many of our own behind.”

Such was the secrecy surrounding her wartime cryptography work, Mrs. Johnson says, that it was not until the 1970s that she felt free to talk about her experiences.

The story of the WACs role in this job was told in Edward J. Drea’s 1992 book, “MacArthur’s Ultra: Codebreaking and the War Against Japan.” Four years later, the U.S. National Archives published “A Woman’s War Too: U.S. Women in the Military in World War II,” to which Mrs. Johnston contributed a chapter.

“It was just something I was given to do,” she says of her wartime mission. “Like anything in life, you have something to do, and you do it.

“And,” she added, “you do it the best you can.”

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