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‘Code Girls’ Included Bethanians

You never know where you’re going to find a mention of the Ohio Valley in print.

For example, did you know that two of the celebrated U.S. code breakers in World War II were graduates of Bethany College? In fact, one of the two women was a Brooke County native.

They figure prominently in author Liza Mundy’s 2017 history book, “Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II.”

Describing the Army’s expansion of the cryptanalytic staff in late 1939, Mundy wrote: “One of these early hires was a woman named Wilma Berryman … Berryman hailed from Beech Bottom, West Virginia, and graduated with a math degree from Bethany College.”

Mundy’s description of Berryman continued, “Though she had been trained to teach high school math, during the Depression the only job she could find was teaching first grade to a classroom of forty-five children. When her husband took a job in Washington, Berryman went to work in the payroll office of the department store Woodward & Lothrop — near the pocketbook shelves — then at the Census Bureau, and at a succession of other agencies. But when she read in the Washington Evening Star about Elizebeth Friedman’s exploits … it awakened something in her. She began to envision another future.”

Berryman’s work as a cryptanalyst for the Signal Intelligence Service is described in great detail in the book. In one section, for instance, Mundy wrote: “The work that Ann Caracristi and Wilma Berryman were doing enabled U.S. military intelligence to construct what is called the order of battle: an accounting of the strength, equipment, kind, location and disposition of Japanese Army troops.”

To verify the information about Berryman, I consulted Bethany College alumni directories and other sources, and found fascinating details about her life.

While she was known as Wilma Berryman early in her code-breaking career, her maiden name was Zimmerman. She graduated from Wellsburg High School in 1928 and then enrolled in Bethany.

Zimmerman and her first husband, John Berryman, were Bethany classmates. They graduated in 1932 and moved to Washington, D.C., in the 1930s. He died six months after she began working for the Signal Intelligence Service.

She continued to work for the government as a cryptanalyst after World War II ended. In 1949, she and her second husband, John Mason, moved to Canada. She returned to the United States after his death and resumed her work in cryptology. Her third husband, John Davis, was a brigadier general who had worked for the National Security Agency. She continued to work on cryptologic projects until retirement.

Wilma Davis, as she was later known, died in 2001. The National Cryptologic Museum Foundation recognized her as one of 18 leading women in cryptology. A 2002 article in an NSA publication, The Phoenician, called her as “one of the Founding Mothers of cryptology.” In that tribute, she was described as “one of Arlington Hall’s most gifted cryptanalysts.”

Meanwhile, Mundy’s book describes another Bethanian’s work to break a Japanese code called JAH.

She wrote: “While many of Arlington Hall’s language units were headed up by j-boys, JAH was handled by a woman named Virginia Dare Aderholdt. According to a memo, Aderholdt graduated from Bethany College in West Virginia — Wilma Berryman’s alma mater — which was a four-year college founded by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and offered a first-rate language department and a commitment to good causes. Many graduates did missionary work abroad. Virginia Aderholdt had spent four years in Japan, and the JAH code now was her baby. She owned that code.”

Linda Comins can be reached via email at: lcomins@theintelligencer.net

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