Breaking the Mold & the Code During WWII

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When Belle Harbor resident, Ruth Mirsky, heads to JASA’s Rockaway Park Senior Center, she’ll often be found playing games, from Mahjong to Canasta, Rummikub to Scrabble. After all, playing and winning games is something that comes naturally to the 95-year-old. Or perhaps it was her military training that gives her an advantage. Mirsky was among the code breakers during World War II that helped to intercept Japan’s secret codes to discover their military plan and ultimately shorten the war. “Code breakers love games,” Mirsky said.

As we approach Veterans Day, it is important to remember those who sacrificed everything on the battlefields of America’s wars, but also those who made unique service contributions during wartime. Ruth Mirsky is certainly an example of the women that made unique contributions for their country.

Mirsky, who grew up in Queens and Long Island, was 20 years old when she decided to do something for her country during WWII. “My brother, who is about two-and-a-half years younger than me, decided to enlist after the U.S. entered the war. Rather than be drafted, he wanted to do what he wanted and decide where he wanted to go,” Mirsky said. It wasn’t long after that she chose to join too. “I decide that I wanted to do my part. They were starting the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, a unit of the U.S. Naval Reserves) and I just thought that I’d like to go into the Navy, and that was that,” Mirsky said. “It was a very patriotic time and people really cared about the country, so a lot of people enlisted, including quite a few women. It was that patriotism that made me join.”

Mirksy’s family was torn by the decision of the 20-year-old. “I had never really done anything or really spread my wings and my father didn’t want me to go. He was in the first World War and he thought it wasn’t a good idea. My mother, on the other hand, was a woman way before her time, and she said, ‘I think you should go.’ I had to be either 21, or 20 with parent consent, so my mother finally signed the papers,” she said.

After receiving permission from her parents, nothing was stopping Mirsky, even her shortcomings. “I was short. The Navy had requirements. You had to be 5’1 and weigh at least a hundred pounds. So I stretched myself at the physical and my family helped fatten me up and eventually I got into the Navy. They needed everyone they could get, I guess,” Mirksy said.

Mirsky went on to boot camp training for four weeks at Hunter College, before being sent to yeoman school in Cedar Falls, Iowa. “After eight weeks, I was suppose to be a yeoman, but they decided they needed people in communications, so they gave me a Specialist Q Second Class rating and sent me to Washington, D.C.,” she said. There, Mirsky was part of a group of women assigned to help break Japanese codes in a military police-guarded building that people had FBI clearance to enter and do top secret work. Mirsky lived with a group of 14 women in barracks across the street from the office that they would go to each day and get to work. “We worked around the clock. It was more than an office, it was a whole business that was open 24 hours a day and we would come in for shifts to do our part,” she said.

The work was so secret, that others in the building didn’t know what others were working on. “One person didn’t know what the other person was doing because you weren’t allowed to talk. When I went home on leave, I went to visit my former boss and he said, ‘what have you been doing there? The FBI was here asking all kinds of questions.’ I couldn’t even tell anybody. People thought I was a secretary. We couldn’t talk amongst ourselves about the work we were doing, but everybody had a small part in it,” Mirsky said. According to Mirsky, her part was to intercept the Japanese messages that came through and organize them so fellow officers could break the codes. Mirsky even learned some Japanese words to help coordinate the effort.

Despite not knowing the work everyone else was doing, everyone knew what was going on when some good news that would contribute to the war ending early, came through. “We were all in this business that was eventually able to break the Japanese code and discover where the Japanese ships were. At the time we were doing it, I don’t think we realized how important it was. But that day was something you don’t forget. There was a great excitement in our office that day when we found out they cracked the code. Everyone all over was so excited. It was a wonderful day,” Mirsky recalled.

Mirsky served with the Navy for about two and a half years, until she married her husband, Harry in May of 1945. Mirsky met the Army Air Corps soldier while working in Washington, D.C. Shortly after they married, Mirsky was discharged. She and Harry were married for 39 years, until he died early, at the age of 65.

Mirsky remained close with the group of 14 women that she lived in the barracks with and worked with. The group maintained a red robin mailing group, where one would send a letter to one person in the group and each lady would add their own message and pass all of the previous letters to the next in the group. They also attended big occasions for each other, like weddings and had reunions. Today, Mirsky, the youngest of the original group, is the only one still alive. However their contributions will never be forgotten. Mirsky’s and the story of the other female code breakers were told in a book published by Liza Mundy in 2017—Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Code Breakers of World War II.

After not being able to say much about her work during WWII, Mirsky was glad to contribute what she could for Mundy’s book. And on November 21, JASA’s Rockaway Park Senior Center will do its part to celebrate its veterans by handing out red, white and blue cupcakes and American flags to all. Mirsky played a large, yet unsung role during WWII, but she remains humble about being recognized, especially around Veterans Day. “I think it’s great that they honor everyone, especially people that really deserve it, but I don’t like to brag.”

We’ll brag for her. Thank you, Ruth, and to all of our soldiers and veterans that served and sacrificed for this country. Your contributions will always be remembered, not only on Veterans Day, but every day.

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