During World War II, soldiers were celebrated for their heroism and sacrifice overseas.
But a crucial, often overlooked part of the war was fought on the home front: the women who built ships, produced war supplies and broke codes.
Fran Pearlmutter is one of the last living World War II code breakers. Now 96, she resides with her daughter Debby Fourstar at Thunderbird Ranch in Mancos.
She spoke to a crowd at the Mancos Public Library on Feb. 9 – a “captive audience” in her words – sharing recollections of her time supporting the war effort and perspectives and lessons she’s gathered over nearly a century of life.
Pearlmutter was born in 1923 and grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts. Her father, who made men’s overcoats for a living, donated jackets to soldiers and sailors during the war.
“I was very fortunate in that I was born to a mother and father who really loved me,” she said. “And they never failed to show me daily that they loved me. And more than that, they loved each other.”
She remembers meeting Eleanor Roosevelt as a teenager, a prize for her Girl Scout troop for their success selling cookies.
“She was gracious,” Pearlmutter said. “That’s one word I would use for her.”
Pearlmutter was drawn to languages and went to Boston University to study linguistics. After graduation, she was recruited by the Office of Strategic Services.
“I was recruited by the OSS to study the Japanese language,” she said. “Why? Because I’m a linguist. And I knew I could study another language. There’s a commonality among languages. You know one, you can learn from another.”
She was one of thousands of code breakers, many of whom were women. According to an article in the Boston University Arts & Sciences magazine, after the U.S. entered World War II, 10,000 well-educated women across the country were sent a letter with two questions: “Are you engaged to be married?” and “Do you like crossword puzzles?”
“Those who answered no and yes, respectively, were recruited as ‘code girls’ to intercept and decrypt messages coming over the airwaves from Japan,” Lara Ehrlich writes.
Pearlmutter was transported to Arlington Hall in Virginia, where she worked long hours in secret for the Signal Intelligence Service, the U.S. Army’s code breaking division. The job required a familiarity with the Japanese language, so Pearlmutter jumped in.
She worked as a cryptanalytic aide for several months. Although they were closely monitored, she and her best friend managed to escape Arlington Hall for various “escapades” – at one time getting locked in at the cemetery at night. They jumped the fence to get out.
“We got into a lot of trouble,” Pearlmutter said. “But we were adventuresome.”
After the war, her adventures continued. Pearlmutter worked as a travel agent and traveled the world. She saw the iditarod in Alaska, visited mud baths in Israel. There haven’t been too many places that Pearlmutter hasn’t visited, her daughter Debby Fourstar said.
“I was very aware that anywhere I could go, I could meet somebody that I could learn from and enjoy,” Pearlmutter said.
For decades, Pearlmutter didn’t speak of her wartime contributions. Fourstar recalled the stories of her father, a decorated lieutenant colonel, but said that it was only until later in life that her mother began to reflect on her experiences.
Pearlmutter’s life path has given her many thoughts about war, human relations with one another and leadership.
“I love the idea that we can avoid conflict,” she said. By communicating and interacting with those of different backgrounds, we can “avoid unnecessary killing,” she said.
She recalled being taken by her father to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as a child and seeing a statue of the warrior David.
“I said, ‘That’s quite a statue’ to my dad,” Pearlmutter said. “And he said, ‘Well, he was a very important warrior. And he was a very personable man, who knew how to draw a line and quit when the quitting is good.’ And then later on in my life I said, I wonder if other persons who are also in a job of leadership have done the same thing, quit while you’re still ahead.”
Pearlmutter moved to Mancos four years ago, and lives at the 82-acre Thunderbird Ranch. She’s an artist – and according to her family and friends, is still quite “adventuresome.”