Feature

An American Hero

Genevieve Grotjan applied her dazzling mathematical skills to unraveling enemy codes during World War II

Genevieve Grotjan

Grotjan yearbook photo courtesy of University Archives

Story by Ann Whitcher Gentzke | Photo illustration by Bob Wilder, BFA ’02

IT WAS SEPT. 20, 1940, a hot, sticky day, and Genevieve Grotjan (BA ’36) was calmly scrutinizing the enciphered messages spread out before her on a plain wooden table—as she had been doing on a near daily basis for the past year. The pressure was unrelenting on members of her small U.S. Army Signal Intelligence Service (SIS) team to unravel the Japanese cipher known as Purple. But Grotjan showed no outward stress other than to occasionally scratch her head.

Her composure notwithstanding, Grotjan knew the stakes were high. As long as Purple remained impervious to American codebreakers, the U.S. had almost no access to top-level Japanese diplomatic messages distributed by the country’s machine-generated cipher. As a result, American military intelligence was severely hampered in preparing for the mounting Pacific conflict. So Grotjan pressed on, laboriously analyzing the garbled text and looking for repeated sequences of letters. Despite the team’s many months of arduous work, the code’s secret remained frustratingly elusive. And then, at about 2 p.m., Grotjan spotted an unmistakable pattern.

Grabbing her worksheets, she rushed to the next room and told senior officers she had something to show them. “We could see from her attitude that she must have discovered something extraordinary,” Frank Rowlett, the former math teacher who headed the Purple team, wrote in his memoir. After examining her work, he exclaimed: “That’s it, that’s it! Gene has found what we’re looking for!” William Friedman, the legendary cryptanalyst, came over to check, and slumped with amazement and relief at what he saw. As the group erupted in cheers, Grotjan stood silently, her elation mostly hidden as tears glistened behind her rimless glasses. The brilliant 27-year-old mathematician, who’d joined the Signal Intelligence Service only the previous year, had just achieved what Friedman predicted that day would “go down as a milestone in cryptologic history.”

When one door closes…

ARRIVING IN WASHINGTON, D.C., in 1938 to begin work as a statistical clerk at the Railroad Retirement Board, Grotjan could not have foreseen her historic role in American military history a bare two years later.

She had graduated from UB summa cum laude in February 1936 with a mathematics degree and hopes of landing a college teaching position. But she couldn’t find a school willing to hire her, so she accepted a position at the Railroad Retirement Board calculating pensions. Though it was work she enjoyed, she must have been pleased when her high score on a routine math test taken for a pay raise brought her to the attention of Friedman, who headed the SIS (a forerunner of the National Security Agency). At the time, Friedman was busy building a corps of talented codebreakers, many of them women, who possessed unusual acumen in math and foreign languages. He also was on the lookout for those, like Grotjan, who had keen powers of observation and the patience to stay focused on seemingly insurmountable tasks— often mind-bendingly tedious in their execution.

Fragment of an original Japanese Purple cipher machine

Fragment of an original Japanese Purple cipher machine recovered in 1945 from the wreckage of the Japanese embassy in Berlin. In 1940, the U.S. Signal Intelligence team created a facsimile that broke the Japanese code. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Following her successful math test, Grotjan was offered a job in what was obliquely termed “the code section.” She said yes without knowing what the work entailed (recruiters could not reveal the true nature of the employment), and the government authorized her transfer in 1939. She began as a junior cryptanalyst and civilian employee, and it was as such that she made her big breakthrough in September 1940, when she somehow identified patterns in random sets of Roman-alphabet letters that allowed them to be rearranged as Japanese words. Soon after her discovery, Rowlett’s team was able to construct an analog Purple machine that broke the Japanese code. The implications were huge.

“The solution of PURPLE reopened access to Tokyo’s high-grade diplomatic communications and significantly improved America’s bargaining position in any exchanges with Britain,” explains David Alvarez in his book “Secret Messages: Codebreaking and American Diplomacy, 1930-1945.” The impact was even more dramatic after the U.S. entered the war in 1941. Information gleaned from Purple contributed to the American victory at Midway in 1942, and Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, writing in 1944, said recovering secret Japanese intercepts contributed “tremendously to the saving of American lives, both in the conduct of current operations and in looking towards the early termination of the war.” (Because Purple communicated diplomatic messages and not military plans, solving it was not sufficient on its own to prevent the attack on Pearl Harbor.)

But Grotjan viewed her role in the Purple breakthrough and its aftermath with typical modesty. “Maybe I was just lucky,” she said in a 1991 interview with historian David Kahn. “I was excited and interested [and] looking forward to working on the mechanism. I regarded it more as just one step in a series of steps.” The agency clearly felt otherwise. In 1941, she was promoted within the SIS, given a $300 annual raise and assigned “exceptionally difficult” cryptographic and cryptanalytic responsibilities, according to a War Department description of her new position.

Genevieve Grotjan, Fay Griffin and Pauline Miller

Genevieve Grotjan (center) with Buffalo friends Fay Griffin (left) and Pauline Miller. Photo courtesy of National Security Agency

An early bloomer

THERE WERE PLENTY OF CLUES in Grotjan’s early life that she was bound for distinction. Born in Buffalo in 1913, she was the only child of Frederick, a pharmacist whose parents had immigrated to the U.S. from Germany, and Lillian, a homemaker with various civic interests. By the time Grotjan was a sophomore at Bennett High School and living with her family on Tacoma Avenue, she was already racking up honors for her scholastic performance. A photo of a serious-looking 14-year-old appeared in a 1927 Buffalo Evening News picture page along with four classmates who’d also scored top academic honors; Grotjan placed first with a 97 average. Indeed, Grotjan’s name crops up repeatedly in news clippings of the period reporting on Bennett’s leading students. She excelled not only in math but also in Latin and other subjects, and was chosen as the 1930 salutatorian. She delivered the salutatorian’s address in the required Latin and was one of three winners of the Jesse Ketchum Medal for scholastic achievement at graduation exercises that June.

Enrolling at UB in September 1930 with a Regents Scholarship, Grotjan continued to soar academically, though she sometimes took courses part time, perhaps for economic reasons. A photo in the 1931 Iris yearbook shows her posed formally with other members of the Pi Kappa Phi sorority. Despite her shyness and reserve, she was active in undergraduate organizations, belonging at various times to the German, international relations and music clubs. On the academic side, she took substantial credits in physics and education, but math was clearly her forte. In 1934, she captured the William H. Sherk Memorial Prize “for the best paper submitted in any branch of mathematics, pure or applied.” Her prizewinning paper explored the seemingly mystifying topic of “Involutions in Pencils of Rays.” She also served as secretary of the campus mathematics club and in 1935 authored a report on club activities that was published in The American Mathematical Monthly. Serving as a likely role model was Harriet Montague, a UB math professor who was the club’s adviser and author of a popular college math textbook of the period.

For a year after graduation, Grotjan worked as a substitute teacher and tutored students in math and science in area schools. She was then hired as a graduate assistant in the UB math department, where she taught trigonometry and analytic geometry while working on her MA. She continued to widen her pedagogical and professional network: In 1938, she lectured on algebraic equations and mathematical theories at a Buffalo banquet of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and she was elected to associate membership in Sigma Xi, the national research honor society for scientists and engineers. With all these factors propelling an academic career, it’s puzzling that she didn’t finish her master’s thesis at UB. The reason may have had to do with the discouraging reaction to her quest for a college teaching post, although she later did graduate work in Washington, D.C.

In any event, Grotjan would soon embark on her codebreaking career in Washington, where her intellectual gifts, humble personality and a dash of serendipity all came together with auspicious results for national security. She also found happiness in her personal life. She met Hyman I. Feinstein, a chemist at the National Bureau of Standards, and the couple married in Washington in 1943. Feinstein, the son of Russian immigrants, grew up in Brooklyn and earned his MA at Columbia. During their early marriage he was working on the Manhattan Project; hence husband and wife were simultaneously enmeshed in top-secret projects that had to remain absolutely confidential, even at home. “We didn’t know much of what the other was doing,” Grotjan said of this era.

Four years after her codebreaking coup with Purple, Grotjan scored yet another cryptanalytic achievement in November 1944 when she helped decipher Soviet cables sent by agents of the KGB and the Soviet military agency known as the GRU. Here, too, her ability to spot a coincidence in the coded traffic helped advance what became known as Venona—a top-secret project established to halt Soviet espionage in the U.S. and other allied countries—that began in 1943 and continued until 1980. Venona’s decryption efforts ultimately uncloaked a host of KGB activities, including espionage aimed at the U.S. atomic program.

Meanwhile, in 1946, Grotjan and her husband welcomed a son they named Ellis. That same year, Grotjan, by now Genevieve Grotjan Feinstein, received the Exceptional Civilian Service Award from Brig. Gen. Paul Everton Peabody for her wartime service.

Receiving the Exceptional Civilian Service Award from Brig. Gen. Paul Everton Peabody in 1946.

Grotjan receiving the Exceptional Civilian Service Award from Brig. Gen. Paul Everton Peabody in 1946. Photo: National Archives, RG 457

GROTJAN RESIGNED from her government position in 1947, and the details of her life are somewhat sparse after that. We know she taught math at George Mason University, where her husband was a chemistry professor, from roughly 1957 to 1961. And we know that in 1969, her son, Ellis, then 22 and a recent graduate of Swarthmore College with a degree in mathematics, died tragically in the family’s living room from a previously undiagnosed cardiac problem. One can only imagine Grotjan’s heartbreak at losing her only child, who had poignantly followed in her footsteps. A photo in the 1968 Swarthmore yearbook shows an earnest young man wearing horn-rimmed glasses—the caption indicates his status as an honors math student. Along with three other Swarthmore seniors, Ellis was awarded a National Science Foundation fellowship for graduate study. He was slated to attend MIT, although records indicate he was at Yale in the fall of 1968.

Somehow the couple soldiered on after Ellis’ death, going about their customary activities from their home in Fairfax, Va., until Hyman Feinstein’s death in 1995 (before which he established the Genevieve Feinstein Award in Cryptography within the GMU math department; the prize continues to be awarded today to an outstanding undergraduate mathematics major). Joan Craun, a next-door neighbor from 1962 to 1975, now living in Manassas, Va., remembers holiday dinners spent with the quietly brainy couple in their house filled with books. After Ellis died, Craun recalls, Grotjan enjoyed watching Craun’s children play outside; she later gave her piano to Craun’s daughter. With the in-home care her husband had set up before his death, Grotjan was able to remain at the family home until her own death in 2006 at age 93. Meanwhile, the couple had set up a bequest in their son’s name, and in 2007, George Mason announced what was its single largest cash gift from a former faculty member—$1 million from Grotjan’s estate to establish a scholarship endowment in Ellis’ name.

Grotjan and her husband, Hyman Feinstein (above), enjoyed dinners with neighbors and friends in Fairfax, Va.

Grotjan and her husband, Hyman Feinstein (above), enjoyed dinners with neighbors and friends in Fairfax, Va (inset, below right). Photos courtesy of Joan Craun

In 2011, Grotjan was posthumously inducted into the National Security Agency’s Cryptologic Hall of Honor. Sadly, she died without a living descendant and the NSA could not locate a relative to attend the ceremony. “We ended up inviting a member of the [GMU] math department,” says NSA historian David Hatch. Of the seeming delay in affording her this recognition, Hatch says the process is time-consuming, “with a field of about 65 annual nominations from which only a few inductees are chosen from among many related fields—not just codebreakers, but linguists, engineers, computer specialists and a host of other skills.”

Grotjan's neighbors and friends in Fairfax, Va

While it may have taken many years for this national honor to be conveyed, Grotjan’s place in the pantheon of wartime cryptanalysts has been furthered by mentions in two recent books: Liza Mundy’s “Code Girls,” about the unsung World War II codebreakers in the U.S. Army and Navy; and Jason Fagone’s “The Woman Who Smashed Codes,” about Elizebeth Friedman, wife of William Friedman and a dazzling cryptanalyst in her own right.

Yet even as recognition increases for the estimated 10,000 female codebreakers who served during World War II, postwar references are all too scant with regard to Grotjan, a true star of this field. Indeed, the comparative obscurity of her later life may be partially attributable to longstanding secrecy rules barring former codebreakers from discussing their wartime work. And, too, her natural reticence combined with the blow of her son’s death may have pushed Grotjan into an increasingly private existence.

But even with a limited biography available, we can gain important lessons from Grotjan’s life about what she and other female codebreakers gave to their country, and how their experiences are relevant to young women today. For her part, Liza Mundy of “Code Girls” describes the benefits to society when women are treated equally and their full potential unleashed. “World War II is a reminder that, when freedom hung in the balance, inclusion left us safe,” Mundy asserts in a recent New York Times essay championing World War II’s female codebreakers.

Highlights Magazine page

In 2017, Highlights portrayed Grotjan’s codebreaking achievements for young readers. Photo: Copyright © Highlights for Children, Inc., Columbus, Ohio

In another sign of Grotjan’s continued relevance, Highlights, the 72-year-old magazine for children, focused on Grotjan in 2017 with a colorful article that broke down her Purple achievement for young readers, zeroing in on the pivotal moment when “she pointed out how some symbols stood at a certain interval from one another” to the three men standing nearby who quickly exulted in her discovery. It’s gratifying to think that budding mathematicians, reading about Grotjan’s historic breakthrough, may seek to emulate the shy, shining student from Buffalo who embraced learning at every turn.

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Ann Whitcher Gentzke is the former editor of At Buffalo and is now, among other post-retirement activities, freelance writing and editing.