Arlington woman helped break coded German messages, including those about D-Day

FORT WORTH -- There is no question that Jimmie Lee Long can keep a secret.

For decades, Long never told anyone, not her family, children or friends, that she spent World War II in a supersecure building in Washington, D.C., helping to break the Germans' code, known as Enigma.

"When anyone asked me what I did, 'I made coffee and sharpened pencils,'" she said.

As one of the first women admitted into the Navy in 1942, known as WAVES, Long worked as a code-breaker in a department that eventually became the National Security Agency. Hundreds of women served with her, their efforts classified and unsung for years.

Day after day, month after month, they operated machines deciphering the German military's messages, including many in response to the D-Day invasion 66 years ago. She even worked through the death of her first husband, Army flight officer Robert Powers, one of thousands of men killed in the opening hours of the invasion of France.

"I still feel that," she said. "We would have been married a year on the 18th of June."

Those at the Navy Intelligence Reserve Command, based at Naval Air Station Fort Worth, invited Long, 86, who lives in Arlington, to meet their commander, Rear Adm. Gordon Russell, and talk to the current generation of intelligence analysts. It was, they said, a rare chance for them to bond with their organization's history.

"The work that these decoders did shortened the war 18 to 24 months," Russell said. "You read about it, but to be able to meet one of them and ask questions is really something."

The Navy even brought out an Enigma machine once used by the Germany navy so Long could explain how it worked. But Long took one look and said she had no idea. She'd never seen one. She'd worked only on a machine called a "bombe" that decoded Enigma's messages.

"We only knew our little part," she said. "They never let us see everything."

Russell, if anyone, understood. It's still done that way today.

"You only need to know what you need to know," he said.

In 1942, the 19-year-old Long went to work as a telephone operator in McAlester, Okla., near her childhood home. But when her fiance joined the Army Air Forces, she wanted to do her part too.

"My girlfriend and I went to the recruiting office," she said. "When we came out, we had signed up."

She even lied to do it. She convinced the Navy, with her mother's help, that she was 21.

"The Navy trusted me with all this stuff, and I had lied about my age!" she said, drawing laughter from the officers Saturday.

They got on a train for New York City, where her stint started. From there, she moved to Dayton, Ohio, where she and other WAVES built the giant decoding machines at the National Cash Register Co.

Then the government shipped her to Washington, D.C., where she worked in the Naval Communications Annex and lived in a barracks across the street.

The machines ran 24/7 in what was called the "Op 20 section," and Long -- carrying the rank of specialist Q technician second class -- supervised the work on four machines.

"Oh, the noise was awful," she said. "When we would get a jackpot, then we would put it in a pneumatic tube and send it on its way. None of us knew where the end of that tube was."

That wasn't all she didn't know.

The machines printed out paper with numbers, not letters, so the WAVES never knew what the messages were.

"We had no idea we were breaking code," she said. "We were just doing what we were told to do. But we had our suspicions."

In 1943, she rode a train to Louisville, Ky., where her fiance was training. They had hoped to get married in Oklahoma, but he couldn't get leave.

"We rushed to the courthouse and got our license," she said. "Bob convinced him to stay late for us. Then we went to the base and got married in the chapel. His friend was the best man, and a [Women's Army Corps member] was the maid of honor. He knew her, but I didn't."

In early 1944, Powers left the U.S. for England, where preparations were under way for the D-Day landings. He served as a flight officer in the 437th Troop Carrier Group and carried paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division as they dropped behind German lines to start the invasion.

Powers, she was told, died of anti-aircraft fire over the town of Ste. Mere Eglise, the first French town liberated by the Americans. After she remarried and started a family, she met the man who pulled Powers' body out of the wreckage, which was a huge comfort to her.

He was buried in the American cemetery in Normandy, where 9,387 markers identify men who died on D-Day and the ensuing days.

"I was so grief-stricken when I got the news," Long said. "All I wanted was to be with my mom and dad, so I asked for leave. But they said it was a critical time and they couldn't spare me. I just had to stay there and bear it."

When the war was over and the Navy prepared for her discharge, all the women were taken to the Pentagon and made to take an oath that they would not reveal any of what they did.

"They didn't release us from that oath for 40 years," she said. "And they say women can't keep secrets."

CHRIS VAUGHN, 817-390-7547