News: World War II Code Talker, WAVE keynote speaker at NSWC PCD Women’s History Month
Story by Jacqui Barker
PANAMA CITY, Fla. – World War II Woman Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service and code talker Winnie Breegle gave local Panama City, Fla., Navy employees and community students a glimpse into history during the Naval Surface Warfare Center Panama City Division’s Women’s History Month celebration, March 7, 2012.
Breegle, who turned 90 in February 2012, served on active duty from 1944 to 1949 and 10 years in the inactive ready reserves. As the 2012 Women’s History Month celebration keynote speaker, gave a historic account of the war from her code talker perspective before a crowd of 200 personnel – 90 of which included Bay County School District high school students.
“Our country is unique compared to other countries. Funded by immigrants, we are a true melting pot. That diversity, I think, is a strength that makes us truly unique,” said NSWC PCD commanding officer Capt. Scott Pratt, USN. “We’re leveraging that diversity in the Navy, in academia, and you see it today in our schools.”
Breegle, who said her World War II code talking memories are as sharp today as any other memories, recognized women’s historical achievements as important contributions that have shaped today’s society.
“It’s important we celebrate Women’s History Month or women in our history because we have a lot of women who went before us and broke barriers before us. I’ve lived through almost a century of changes and I’m grateful for those women also of the barriers they broke for me” said Breegle. “Those of us who volunteered to serve in 1944, we were pioneers of that era, and if I would not have been married when the war ended, I would have liked to continue to serve in the Navy.”
Breegle, who was born in southern Ohio, graduated Toronto High School when she was 16, and attended West Liberty State Teacher College in W. Va., Ohio University, and Indiana University. In pursuit of a teaching degree, she majored in English, Spanish, and social sciences and minored in science. In 1940, her dream of teaching was realized, but after a few years of teaching, her career was slightly diverted after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Breegle, at age 21, was a teacher in Ohio and was married, but her husband was in the U.S. Army Air Corps and served as a radio operator in the Pacific. In those days, Breegle said, women could not be teachers and be married so she hid her marriage from the principal to continue teaching. When the war broke out, she felt compelled to enlist and in 1944, Breegle enlisted in the U.S. Navy out of Pittsburgh, Pa., but not without resistance. The nation had not yet passed a law that allowed women to openly join the military. Breegle’s recruiter required the principal’s signature, but her supervisor would not sign.
“I went to my recruiter and asked for help. At 21, you think you’re invincible. Nothing was going to stop me,” she said. “He signed his own name and told me I had two weeks to report for boot camp. The principal was so mad when I told him I enlisted. He didn’t want to give me my job back when I returned. At the same time, Congress passed a law that required employers to grant jobs to those returning from war so I was covered.”
Upon enlistment, she attended Smith College which served as the Naval Reserve Midshipmen's School (Women's Reserve) at Northampton, Mass., for one year, after which she earned her commission as a Naval Officer, and she then went on to attend Mount Holyoke College where Breegle and the other cryptographers were to receive Navajo code talker training. The code talkers' primary job was to talk, transmitting information on tactics and troop movements, orders and other vital battlefield communications over telephones and radios using code based on the Navajo language.
“There were no barracks for us at Smith College, and it was so cold there. We marched three miles to the dining hall twice a day,” she said. “A fourth of the girls who enlisted couldn’t hack it. The Navy code talking training was the most intense training I’ve ever had. I’ve never had to study so hard.”
Codes were based upon the Navajo Indian language, but finding Navajos who spoke the traditional language was difficult as English was the primary language taught on American reservations. At Smith College, Ensign Breegle had to learn codes created by Navajo Indians by memory alone; nothing could be written down and their work could not be discussed. To ensure complete secrecy and confidentiality, all of the cryptographers who served as code talkers during WWII had to sign non-disclosure agreements. Breegle could not talk about her role in American history for 25 years.
“They were always telling us ‘the walls have ears,’ they’d say, and so we didn’t talk about it,” she said. For 25 years, she didn’t talk about it but her husband didn’t speak much about what he did during the war either.
Although she herself a pioneer, Breegle believes it’s the 200 Navajo Indians who initially served as U.S. Marine Corps code talkers are the true heroes. By 1945, 540 Navajo Indians served as Marines; Between 375 and 450 were code talkers. Despite their fear of the dead, the Navajo code talkers fought in World War II in Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Peleliu, Iwo Jima and they the Navajo code talkers took part in every assault the U.S. Marines conducted in the Pacific from 1942 to 1945. They served in all six Marine divisions, Marine Raider battalions and Marine parachute units, transmitting messages by telephone and radio in their native language a code that the Japanese never broke.
“I think it’s really ironic that at one point they couldn’t use their own language on the reservations, but later the government was begging them to use it,” she said.
The language paints pictures; it’s a language of sounds due to tonal and syntax qualities, and dialects. To create codes, words were used to correspond with military terms – something not in the Navajo language. For instance, battleship was translated into whale; Dive bombers were chicken hawks. Overall, the code included 500 substitutes that were committed to memory without mistake because a slip of a sound or emphasis could mean a different word. Breegle cited over 800 messages that had been passed during the Battle of Iwo Jima without error. Breegle herself successfully passed approximately 450 messages to code talkers in the Japanese theater undetected.
“The Japanese had been attending American schools. They knew our languages, they knew all about our culture. The code talkers could take a three-line coded message, translate it, and decode it in 20 seconds,” Breegle said. “Nearly 30 years after the war ended, the Navajo code was revealed. Not one of those messages had been broken. Even the Navajos who didn’t make the cut in basic training couldn’t break the code.”
Breegle’s first tour of duty was in the Port Director’s Office in Baltimore, Md., where she coded and decoded messages from the Atlantic and Pacific fleet assets, which Breegle enjoyed because she was able to board various types of Navy ships. She served there for a year before she was transferred to the Navy War Department, today known as the Old Executive Office Building, located next to the White House in Washington, D.C. When coded messages had to be sent to the code talkers, lines included the words Arizona, New Mexico, or Utah to ensure the right messages were passed to the code talkers.
“The stress of the operations was intense. We worked four days on for 24 hours each day, and then we had the other days off,” she said. “When we were off those days, we took advantage of our location.”
Breegle said during the war, service members enjoyed several free amenities offered in cities such as Washington, New York and Philadelphia. Freebies included movie tickets, bus rides, tickets to see the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall, and reduced nightly rates at the Waldorf Historia Hotel in New York.
“They charged us 10 dollars a night and would pull in cots for us all to stay the night in a hundred dollar a night room,” she said. “That might not sound like much, but that was back when a loaf of bread was 10 cents, and a tank of gas was 25 dollars.”
The nature of her job was dangerous for any sailor – male or female – and to protect classified documentation carried as a courier, the code talkers and cryptographers were issued .45 weapons, trained to shoot by Navy Master at Arms, and given clear instructions that if they were attacked the code talkers were to shoot first, ask questions later. Luckily, she never had to shoot. Breegle believes the WAVES were not the only people during that era that shaped today’s society.
“Navajo code talkers influenced lives on and off the reservations,” Breegle said. “Today, most Navajo who live on reservations graduate the 12th grade and speak English as their second language.”
Breegle’s World War II missions on the Atlantic coast were never discussed, but neither were her husband’s missions in the Pacific she admitted. After the war, Breegle returned to Ohio and taught high school. After 35 years of teaching in Ohio, Breegle retired in 1977 and she and her husband, George, moved to Panama City, Fla. Shortly after their transition, she began to teach at Gulf Coast Community College where she taught for another 20 years until she retired for a second time in 2008.
Thirty five Navajo code talkers of World War II were honored for their contributions to defense on Sept. 17, 1992, at the Pentagon in Washington. Breegle herself has left her mark in Washington as a member and strong supporter of the Women’s War Memorial.
Women in the Navy
On March 17, 1917, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels accepted female enlistments. Most of the 11,000 female yeomans worked in the nation’s capital filling a variety of jobs including draftsman, interpreters, couriers and translators. Late in the War I, the Navy enlisted 24 African American women who worked in the Navy Department building, but after the World War I, females served in the nurse corps but without official commission status. By July 30, 1948, the Women’s Armed Forces Integration Act was signed and it allowed women to serve in the peace time military with some restrictions.
President Roosevelt signed Public Law 689 on July 30, 1942 and created the Navy’s women reserve program. In August 1942, Wellesley College President Mildred McAfee was sworn into service as the nation’s first female Naval reserve lieutenant commander. McAffee served as the first director as the WAVES. WAVES could not serve aboard combat ships or aircraft, and initially were restricted to duty in the continental United States, certainly different from today’s military opportunities for women.
In November 1944, Harriet Ida Pickens and Frances Wills also graduated from the Naval Reserve Midshipmen's School (Women's Reserve) at Northampton, Mass., and became the first female African-American WAVE officers.
With the passage of the Women's Armed Services Integration Act (Public Law 625), June 12, 1948, women gained permanent status in the armed services. To reflect this, the V9 and V10 Volunteer Reserve programs were discontinued and renamed the W9 Women's Officer Training and W10 Women's Enlisted Training programs. Although the WAVES now officially ceased to exist, the acronym was in common use well into the 1970s.
Today’s Navy is comprised of more than 54,000 women on active duty, and more than 10,000 female reservists.
NSWC PCD is a leader in littoral warfare and coastal defense.