There is very little information on Delia Ann Taylor ’34, a Sweet Briar graduate who would later become a codebreaker during World War II. But then again, that was the point — it was a top-secret mission, nearly erased from history.
Now, Liza Mundy has uncovered what really happened in her latest book “Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II,” to be published on Oct. 10. A New York Times bestselling author, Mundy dug deep to find out how the U.S. Army and Navy recruited more than 10,000 women from small towns and elite colleges across the country. Through “dazzling research” and interviews with surviving “code girls,” Mundy helps bring to life a “riveting and vital story of American courage, service and scientific accomplishment,” according to her publisher, Hachette Books.
“In the tradition of ‘Hidden Figures,’ it is the story of an early cohort of women adept in science and math, whose efforts helped the allies win what remains the biggest, costliest and worst war in human history,” the synopsis continues.
Taylor certainly was adept in math. Sweet Briar’s 1937 Alumnae Magazine tells us she was “going to teach mathematics at Kansas University while she works on her Ph.D.” Did she? We can’t be sure. But she was good at languages, too. A member of the German club, Taylor spent the 1932-33 academic year studying abroad in Munich.
Her knack for numbers and the German language must have come in handy when a few years later, U.S. Army cryptographer and head of the Signal Intelligence Service William F. Friedman put out an urgent call for codebreakers. Taylor was one of his top-ranking hires, along with Genevieve Grotjan, Frank Lewis and Al Small — at least that’s what Stephen Budiansky wrote in the 2002 “Battle of the Wits: The Complete Story of Codebreaking in World War II.”
Mentioned briefly as a cryptanalyst in a few other documents and in the book “Selections from Cryptologia: History, People, and Technology,” Taylor made her mark on history — albeit secretly — during one of the most significant days in American memory. According to “One Day in History: December 7, 1941,” “two of the top staffers at the Signal Intelligence Service were Genevieve Grotjan and Delia Taylor. Grotjan figured out one of the most complicated patterns in PURPLE, a discovery that made the construction of MAGIC possible. Taylor helped crack a German diplomatic code known as ‘Keyword.’”
Both Taylor and Grotjan were part of something bigger — not only because they were codebreakers, but because they were women. As noted by the authors, “By 1944, about 60 percent of the army’s Signal Intelligence Service staff and 75 percent of the navy’s OP-20-G staff were female.”
Taylor married fellow codebreaker Abraham Sinkov in 1942, but it’s unclear what happened to her after the war. And not surprisingly, there is no Wikipedia page to mirror, or at least supplement, Sinkov’s. Of course Mundy might have (some of) those answers — from stories and memories known only to the women she interviewed.
Taylor died in 1983, 15 years before Sinkov. It’s where her story ends, and there is little information online to fill in the gaps. But one could say that at Sweet Briar, her legacy lives on — in some ways. A revived computer science program is making it possible for a whole new generation of women to break new codes, and new ground. And quite possibly, they will be noticed for it.
If you have more information on Taylor’s life or her family, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mundy is a staff writer at the Washington Post and the bestselling author of “Michelle: A Biography and Everything Conceivable,” among other works. She received her A.B. degree from Princeton University and earned an M.A. in English literature at the University of Virginia. She has won awards for essays, profiles and science writing from the Sunday Magazine Editors Association, the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association, the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors, The Missouri Lifestyle Journalism Awards and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. She was a 2003 Kaiser Foundation Media Fellow and a 2005 Media Fellow at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass. Mundy lives in Arlington.