“I interviewed one woman who worked doing cryptology for the Coast Guard, stationed in the Washington, D.C., area,” Mundy says. “Her job was to decipher the coded messages being sent from Coast Guard ships.”
Mundy notes that the woman also conveyed to her that ultimately, all the people receiving and decoding the communications from Coast Guard ships were women, at least in her units.
“I don’t know exactly what the women in Charleston did for the Coast Guard, but I would suspect it was something similar,” says Mundy.
And those machines Ramsay mentioned? “They worked with ECMS, which were Electronic Cipher Machines, and code books,” says Mundy of the Coast Guard code girls. “There were several code systems. The work was extremely confidential and penalties were severe for anybody who lost or misplaced a codebook.”
And, while her family may have gently teased Ramsay when she waxed nostalgic about her Navy days, she insisted it was of the utmost importance.
“‘That was a very important job,’ she would say,” recalls Outten.
According to Ramsay, the stakes were high. Outten remembers how her mother would recount how lives were on the line, and that men would come in and say that “boys would lose their lives” if Ramsay and her cohorts messed up a letter or number
SERVE LIKE a CHARLESToNIAN
Though the work could be extremely tedious, Ramsay enjoyed diversions aplenty to make up for it. “The best thing about it,” says Hay, “is that she was right there at the Navy Base. She saw the ships coming and going, and she always said it was the most fun you ever had because there was always a party to go to.”
Hay and Outten say their mother and her fellow code girls convinced their superiors to let them take afternoon naps in an out-of-the-way room with cots when their job was done. Refreshed for the evening, the young women would change into their party clothes for the merriment that would take place as the night unfolded.
“She said there were the best-looking men you’d ever seen in your life,” Outten adds. “There was a dance every night, and they found it to be their responsibility to send these boys off with a hope and a hug and a dance.”
And, with a direct line to her father’s jewelry store, Ramsay was able to sell jewels on credit to the servicemen who were falling in love.
Like her father, Ramsay would ultimately trade in her military endeavors for a long and storied career at the jewelry store. In an undated letter sent by William Croghan to his daughter, he writes, “Mother cannot seem to fathom how you manage in this busy little spot. She is ready to quit after two days, guess I’ll have to raise her salary.” He concludes with “I miss you so very much Mary that you had better enjoy your visit and stay for as long as you can for I am afraid that Mother is going to get enough of the store this time.”
After all, Ramsay possessed a certain social savvy perfect for clients marking milestones, nimbly navigating the equally tricky waters of both love and war. In a V-MAIL letter to Croghan dated Oct. 16, 1944, Army Lt. Mike Runey seeks her advice on his engagement to her best friend, Elsie Condon.
“Do you really think that Elsie and I have had a ‘proper engagement’? I only hope that I may be half the guy Elsie thinks I am and that I can make her as happy as she so rightly deserves,” he writes, concluding with “Save a prayer for ‘Mike.’”
Prayers, it seems, worked out for her friend, who married her suitor and eventually had seven children.
To this day, the loved ones of servicemen spanning the country will appear in Croghan’s Jewel Box, brandishing a ring with Croghan’s etched inside, saying their grandfather had been stationed at the Navy Yard during World War II.
Chances are that pining sailor had a chat with a young cryptographer on base before he shipped out. And, of course, then as now, the smitten young man need not worry that his surprise proposal would be exposed before bringing out a ring on bended knee. Discretion is something Mary Croghan Ramsay ’42 perfected when the stakes could not be higher.