In May 1941, Rear Admiral Leigh Noyes, Director, Naval Communications, was approached by members of the American Women’s Volunteer Services (AWVS) with a proposal to form a class for the study of cryptanalysis, and requested an instructor. The proposal was motivated by the desire of a group of naval officer’s wives to prepare for a war-time contribution, if needed, in a field believed short of qualified personnel. These ladies understood that preparation would be difficult, but they were willing to devote the requisite time if furnished guidance, and they would provide a classroom.

It was considered that the “Correspondence Course in Elementary Cryptanalysis” would be a suitable classroom text. This course had been designed to discover students with an aptitude capable of development. The text, supplemented by an instructor’s weekly classroom review of progress on home study should discover aptitude and permit an evaluation of the project. At that time security clearance was not a prerequisite for enrollment of applicants recommended by a naval officer. Permission was granted to form the class and LT. G. E. Boone, USNR, from Op-20-G was assigned as the instructor.

The class was sponsored by Mrs. Emery S. Lend. It was composed of twenty-five wives of naval officers, ranking from Rear Admiral to Lieutenant. Certain names, are recalled, because of their later contributions: Mrs. Towers, Kirk, Holloway, Noble, Schoeffel, Reynolds, Cassard, Moore, Bailey, Cushing, Loomis, Hamilton. The class met weekly from 10:00 to 12:00 at the AWVS headquarters on Connecticut Avenue.

Though progress was uneven, it was more uniform than expected. Those named above soon became outstanding students. Classroom questions on the week’s homework were specific, well organized, and showed a sound grasp of the principles of cryptanalysis. In approximately three months they had completed the course. Desiring a name to infuse an esprit-d-corps, the graduates became unofficially, the Special Women’s Auxiliary Naval Service (SWANS).

During this period, the instructor had been transferred to the censorship Branch of ONI. As Op-16-D-4, he had revised and expanded the Elementary Course in Cryptanalysis. The revision was designed to introduce the students to improved techniques of analysis, and to prepare them for advanced training. The problems covered the same cryptographic systems as before, but introduced certain complexities requiring a more thorough application of fundamental principles. The problem text was revised to anticipate the phraseology expected in Censorship duties.  Students completing the earlier course were enrolled in the revised course as a review to test its effectiveness, and to introduce the improved techniques.

Of the twenty-five students starting the class, twenty-one completed the course. A second class was started with the revised text to accommodate new students. As members of the second class were considered fledgling SWANS, they were dubbed CYGNETS (baby swans). The revised text soon demonstrated that progress in the earlier assignments was slower, but that the techniques introduced improved the preparation for the later assignments, and that the time for completing the course was shortened. As the AWVS headquarters on Connecticut Avenue was given up, the second class met at Mrs. Lomd’s home on Massachusetts Avenue.

On 7 December 1941, the previously named SWANS were ready for assignment to cryptanalytic duties. In the days immediately following the outbreak of war, they and the CYGNETS, volunteered for any tasks, however menial, in Which their services could be used. The vast amount of detail work, essentially educated paper handling, incident to the formative period of Censorship was ideal indoctrination for the SWANS.

This indoctrination was amplified by class exercises in the search for, and applications of, collateral information. These exercises were an experiment, and it is believed that the technique was applied for the first time with the SWANS. It was known the background circumstances of a message could be of assistance in cryptanalysis. If we could deduce the occasion which motivated the sending of a message we might deduce the subject. Each subject has certain word associations. Deducing the most probable subject would reduce the number of probable word assumptions. A series of relatively short messages were enciphered in simple systems, dealing with different subjects. To save time in clerical work, all repetitions were underscored – pertinent and non-pertinent. Time, date, originator, and addressee were stated, but no more information was supplied. Some of the messages were related, others were unique. Each student could ask as many questions as desired on each message. If the question was pertinent to the subject of the message, it was answered truthfully; if not, a fictitious answer was invented. The exercise demonstrated that the consistency among true answers could disclose the inconsistencies among the fictitious ones when the word assumptions, based on deduced subject, were tried in message solution. Though an occasional deceptive consistency was introduced in the fictitious answers, continued questioning would lead to no assumptions which gave satisfactory results in analysis. The exercise paid excellent dividends. It aroused an interest, and a discernment, in searching for collateral information which contributed materially to the SWANS’ success in later work.

Several of the SWANS had considerable ability in foreign language: Spanish, French, Portuguese, and German were well represented.  Some of them had learned their foreign language as a hobby, or as a convenience while residing abroad, others learned theirs as a native tongue. This language ability was of considerable value; in translating the languages approved by censorship regulations. The first translation into English of Baudoin’s treatise on cryptanalysis was made by Mrs. Towers, who had been born and educated as a native of France.

Baudoin had been prominent in the French cryptanalytic effort, and had written a quite detailed volume on the subject. He had escaped from Paris, with his manuscript, as the Germans entered the city. In the early part of 1942 we were notified that a copy of Baudoin’s book had arrived at the Library of Congress. As this was the most recent book known on cryptanalysis, and because of the author’s experience, it might contain information on French views of modern techniques. We obtained photo copies of the text for a review by Mrs. Towers. The circumstances were highly auspicious for an unusually faithful translation. French was Mrs. Tower’s native language and she was thoroughly grounded in the subject.

This combination of skills was rare, if not unique, in U. S. experience. Normally the translator of a technical text had difficulty with professional nomenclature, because of a lack of proficiency in either the technical skill, or the language skill, which militated against a professionally acceptable translation. Baudoin’s text was rendered into English by sight translation and dictating to a yeoman at a typewriter. The illustrations of techniques were copied as shown in the text, as they could not be transformed into English without an accompanying revision of the text.

As soon as circumstances permitted, the SWANS were assigned a working space. Though they could work only on a time available basis, they worked as a team, and normally two or more of the best students managed to be present most of the time. They were assigned to solve a South American diplomatic system not being read by any other activity. Safe files and a locked door were relied upon for security. As these were minimal precautions, a “Limited Access” name list was used for isolation. The system assigned was discovered to be a rather difficult problem. There were few messages, and they were rather short. However, it was identified as a four letter code and the serial numbers were isolated and identified, together with the dates and numerals within the text. By utilizing the Library of Congress’s file of the New York Times as collateral, it was deduced that the messages dealt with a little publicized conference in a South American city. A relocation of the Office of Cable Censorship and the Office of Postal Censorship to the Apex Building in Washington interrupted work until space could be assigned in the new quarters.

Some of the SWANS, though good cryptanalysts, had become Interested in other duties in Censorship, whether or not it was native curiosity, inborn intelligence, or the analytical training of cryptanalysis which sparked their success will probably not be known. However, they became highly proficient in correlating information which disclosed irregular trading practices, and added to the lists of firms and individuals suspected of illegalities.

At first the SWANS worked on a purely voluntary basis.  Such a status was awkward from the aspects of a Security oath, and had no provisions in the Censorship Civil Service procedures. To regularize their status, efforts were undertaken to bring them within Civil Service organization. It was considered that a P-1 grade would be an equable starting level. But, Civil Service required an academic degree as a pro-requisite for a P-1 grade, or acceptable experience. Though all had demonstrated professional competency, the profession was too new to have standards. Unfortunately only one SWAN had an academic degree. After considerable discussion, it was agreed that cryptanalysis was a profession. Completion of the course in Elementary Cryptanalysis constituted professional qualification, and those qualifying should be accepted as professionals, at P-1 grade. Fortunately Civil Service did not inquire too closely into the duties of a cryptanalyst. SWANS able to devote full time to their duties were accepted as Civil Service employees at a P-1 grade, and those whose obligations permitted only part time work became “dollar-a-year” employees, or were paid on a time present basis at P-1 level. Some of the quarterly pay checks of the dollar-a-year SWANS have probably never been returned to the Treasury for payment, — they were framed as decorative proof of earning potential.

Space in the Apex Building was allocated to the SWANS. This space was contiguous to the Censorship Cryptanalytic Unit, and the combined space was isolated by a “Limited Access” procedure, and was named “Research Unit” to appease curiosity. Security was maintained to a relatively high degree. Occasional questions based on intelligent guesses often caused flurries of apprehension and required adroit parrying to dissemble curiosity.

In the summer of 1942, an Executive order consolidated the various cryptanalytic activities in Washington. The Censorship Unit was physically transferred to Op-20-G, and certain SWANS transferred to Op-20-K.

It has been stated that the SWANS were the direct antecedents of the WAVES, and that their request for a uniformed status was responsible for the WAVE legislation. It is said that the SWANS approached RADM Noyes, DNC, for official recognition. They were navy wives, and they had proved their competency in a difficult field. The U. S. Army had a women’s uniformed corps and the British had their WRENS; why not a women’s uniformed branch in the U. S. Navy? It is difficult today 1960, to ascertain whether or not the above reasons were the motivation for the WAVES, However, Captain Willenbucher

(legal aide to the DNC) told Op-20-GL, at RADM Redman’s farewell party} that he had been directed by RADM Noyes to draw up the preliminary legislation for the WAVES.

Source: NCVA