Finneran: Two Authors & Fitzie’s Secret
Friday, August 31, 2018
Tom Finneran, GoLocalWorcester MINDSETTER™
He has written six fabulous books—Dark Tide (about the great Boston molasses flood of 1919), Due to Enemy Action (about the German U-boat menace and the Battle of the Atlantic), The Caning-The Assault That Drove America to the Civil War (about the violent floor attack on Mass. Senator Charles Sumner), American Treasures (about the top-secret mission to preserve and save the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address from harm during the early and uncertain months of World War II), The Boston Italians( about the great migration and success of Italian immigrants in Boston), and A City So Grand (my personal favorite, about the history of Boston from 1850-1900). They are all fascinating stories, wonderfully told. Do yourself a favor and read all of them.
Author #2: Liza Mundy. A former reporter for the Washington post, she is the author of Code Girls-The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II. And what a story it is……
Fitzie: She’s a Southie original. More about Fitzie later…….
Steve and I talk from time to time, usually about family, sometimes about politics, and always about books. During one of those chats, Steve mentioned Liza Mundy’s book Code Girls as a recent favorite of his. I scribbled myself a reminder note and lo and behold, I got myself a copy for some late summer reading.
Wow. What a book. What a story. The title raises the topic. The book itself will raise the hair on the back of your neck. It’s about panic within America’s armed forces, a panic based upon being under-staffed, under-equipped, and utterly un-informed about enemy forces and enemy battle plans. In short, America was desperately and negligently ill-prepared for the “gathering storm” of which Churchill had so persistently warned.
A particular American weakness was the black hole of cryptanalysis, the ability to intercept, de-code, and read the enemies’ communications to and from its far-flung armies and navies. With virtually every available man either enlisting or being drafted in the run-up to and the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, there was a desperate shortage of labor across the country. In response, many American women entered the factories and ran the production lines which were churning out guns, bombs, planes, tanks, and ships by the thousands. Others—very bright and eager to help the nation in its peril—were quietly but energetically recruited from all corners of the country.
Their task? To decipher the complex communications systems of the Japanese Nay and Army as well as the multiple German codes. These were America’s smartest “girls”, many from poor backgrounds but showing a brilliance in language or music or math. They were recruited into a totally classified mission, sworn to the utmost secrecy, and threatened with court-martial and imprisonment for any breach of confidentiality. Many went to their graves, taking their secrets and their wartime achievements silently with them. The lives of many thousands of American men rested upon these women’s shoulders…………
Back to “Fitzie”, the oldest child in a family of nine children. The eleven Fitzgeralds lived in a three-decker on West Broadway in South Boston, above a tailor shop which was located on the ground floor. She went to Nazareth High School and was the valedictorian of her class. She won citywide debate and spelling championships. She gave the Memorial Day Address at Cedar Grove Cemetery reciting John McRae’s epic poem “In Flanders Fields”. In short, Fitzie was a brilliant engaging student.
By tradition, the top male student at Nazareth High School was awarded a college scholarship by a very generous and anonymous South Boston benefactor. In Fitzie’s case the school’s nuns apparently argued that to deny Fitzie a scholarship simply because she was female would be a travesty. The anonymous benefactor agreed and Fitzie was awarded a four year scholarship to Emmanuel College. Keep in mind that this was during the height of the Depression when there was little if any disposable household income in a family with eleven mouths to feed. The scholarship was essential. Once at Emmanuel, Fitzie double-majored in physics and chemistry. Apparently she had no interest in basket-weaving courses.
Fast forward to May or June of 1942 some six months after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor……Fitzie graduates with honors and is quickly recruited by the Army Signal Corps, going to work at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. And here the trail goes cold………and silent. Fitzie never talked about her wartime work, not with her own large and growing family, not with anyone. But eventually, many years later, she left a clue, a tantalizing hint…………
Fast forward again and Fitzie has raised her family, passed her 92nd birthday, and is living out her days in an assisted living home. She has tons of visitors---sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, and friends. She is the home’s resident Jeopardy champion and her mind remains sharp, be it math, sports, or Shakespeare.
And then, one quiet afternoon, as she knowingly nears the end of her life, she says to a visiting son that she wished that she had studied “German and math” at Emmanuel. Not physics and chemistry but “German and math”. An interesting comment for sure, but not very illuminating at the time.
The illumination arrived just last week when I finished Code Girls. Thanks to Steve Puleo’s book recommendation, I think that I now know what Fitzie did in the Army Signal Corps. I think that she was part of a large team of American girls that helped break German codes and that in doing so, they saved countless American lives. They were amazing and brilliant pioneers. And they kept their secret. You should read the book.
Disclosure: You might wonder how I came to know so much about Fitzie, the beautiful Southie scholar. That’s easy—I am one of Fitzie’s seven kids. Well done Mom.
Tom Finneran is the former Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, served as the head the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, and was a longstanding radio voice in Boston radio.