WAVES in World War II
In May 1941, several members of the American Women's Volunteer Services (AWVS) proposed to the Director of Naval Communications, Rear Admiral Leigh Noyes, that women should be given greater opportunity to contribute to the defense effort.
The AWVS group suggested that dedicated wives of naval officers could make significant contributions in cryptanalysis, a field of endeavor believed to be short of qualified personnel.
A security clearance was not required for those applicants who were recommended by a naval officer and permission was granted to form a class of students to undergo basic instruction. The curriculum consisted of a correspondence course in elementary cryptanalysis, supplemented by an instructor's weekly classroom review of progress on home study. Twenty-five wives of naval officers, ranking from Lieutenant to Rear Admiral, began the course. Progress became quickly evident and, in three months, 21 of the women had completed the course. Their enthusiasm generated an unofficial title for the group: Special Women’s Auxiliary Naval Service, or SWANS.
When the United States entered the war on 7 December 1941, this group of trained women was ready for assignment to cryptanalytic duties. They immediately volunteered for tasks that put their classroom work to practical use. They initially worked only when spare time was available, serving in teams performing cryptanalysis, translation, and censorship duties. Many were accorded Civil Service status.
By the summer of 1942, the original group of SWANS had been absorbed into various OP-20 offices. Several SWANS requested Rear Admiral Noyes to grant them official recognition as a uniformed branch of the Navy. Whatever specific action he took is unknown; nevertheless, on 30 July 1942, the Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES) came into being.
Over 2,000 WAVES were accepted for wartime service with OP-20-G. WAVES from all over the United States attended boot camp and were trained as Radiomen. After their training had been completed, the WAVES were assigned to special duties at the Naval Security Station or at certain select field activities. Many of those WAVES stationed at the Naval Security Station were involved in the day to day operation of the BOMBEs—early computers that performed the mathematical operations necessary to read enemy message traffic.
Other women, like the Bainbridge Island Pioneer Waves were trained as Japanese radio intercept operators. At the conclusion of their training at Bainbridge Island, Washington, the WAVES were assigned as watchstanders along with their male counterparts.
The contribution of the Navy’s female OP-20-G members was indeed critical—not only by allowing more men to go into combat, but also in helping to win the Secret War.