Social Graces and Espionage

How did a women’s finishing school become a center for U.S. code-breaking efforts during World War II? An idyllic tale of espionage.

Arlington Hall Junior College’s brochure effused: “The natural attractions are enhanced by artistic plantings of boxwoods, tall cedars, rare evergreens, and a wealth of flowering shrubs. . . . The Colonial atmosphere of Arlington Hall is emphasized by the beautiful buildings of cream-colored brick with stately white columns. . . The social life of the college is calculated to implant in the minds and hearts of the girls the highest ideals, and to develop those graces and powers that result in social efficiency.”

Six miles outside Washington, D.C., one hundred serene, wooded acres seemed ideal for a girls’ school. By 1927 Arlington Hall Junior College was established, with peony-lined flagstone walks, a lily pond for canoeing, bridal paths, riding facilities and sculpted footbridges. The main building hearkened to the architecture of Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia. Two little villages were nearby: Ballston and Clarendon. For cultural excursions, there were the hallowed institutions of the nation’s capitol.

All rolled along pretty well, the student body growing and the grounds becoming ever more delightful until Wall Street’s house of cards collapsed and the Great Depression spread economic woe across the land. Enrollment stagnated, the faculty worked for room and board only and parents were late sending tuition payments. Arlington Hall Junior College staggered through the 1930s, barely viable.

Then came the trauma of Pearl Harbor. On December 7, 1941, the U.S. was jolted out of its official neutrality in a world wracked by war. Suddenly Japan might be invading Los Angeles and Nazis bombing Atlantic-coast cities; anything could happen. But one thing was sure: The U.S. Armed Forces were going to ramp up in a huge way, and nearly everyone was going to be engaged in a war effort to expunge Nazism in Europe and press back an aggressive Japan. Already the War Department was constructing the largest office building in the world across the Potomac from the nation’s capitol, to be dubbed the Pentagon. But the five-ringed colossus would not be ready for a year, and the World War I “temporary” Munitions Building on the mall near the Lincoln Memorial was nearly bursting with fresh men and women for the war effort.

Few could be fooled into believing the United States was ready for a major two-front war. Its Army was small and hidebound, its Navy only recently buoyed with new orders for ships, and its factories either idle or producing peacetime goods. Smaller yet, and probably less well-known than any portion of the Armed Services, were the branches intercepting and attempting to decode the wireless messages of foreign countries. The Army’s office for decryption, the Signals Intelligence Service (SIS), was housed in the dreadful Munitions Building (demolished in 1971 to create Constitution Gardens just east of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial).

With only a handful of employees, headed by the brilliant William Friedman and rivaled somewhat by its Navy counterpart called OP-20-G, SIS had begun the dangerous year of 1940 by improving its relationship with British code breakers secretly headquartered north of London at an estate called Bletchley Park. Friedman had led the effort to crack the Japanese diplomatic code, which the Americans called “Purple,” in 1940, a feat that led to clues Japan meant to attack the United States.

Only months after Pearl Harbor, the SIS was activating a radio wave listening station under construction at Vint Hill Farms near Warrenton. One day in April 1942, according to the U.S. Army’s History of Arlington Hall Station, several SIS officers were returning from Vint Hill to the Munitions Buildings when they spotted the rolling acres near North Glebe Road in Arlington. A little probing revealed that the acreage belonged to Arlington Hall Junior College. Here was a grand step up from the dreary Munitions Building: tennis courts, a gymnasium and the classic-Virginia main building. What’s more, since the estate was outside of Washington, it was thought to be less vulnerable to enemy sabotage and spies.

The Army rapidly discovered that the girls’ school was in financial straits and made an approach. The trustees were willing to lease the school to the Army for the duration of the war, but the SIS was not inclined to let such a plum slip from its fingers. The Army invoked the War Powers Act and seized the acreage, paying the trustees $650,000, a sum that barely covered the mortgage. The Army did not anguish over grace nor did it lose much time: It immediately filed a Declaration of Take in Federal District Court. Then, on June 10, only weeks after the officers returning from Vint Hill had spotted it, the Army sent 2nd Lt. G. Runkle armed with a .45-caliber pistol and accompanied by 14 enlisted men shouldering broomsticks in place of scarce rifles to properly commandeer the place. When they arrived, some girls were still in their dormitory rooms. (In similar fashion the Navy’s OP-20-G used the War Powers Act to seize a women’s college at the corner of Nebraska and Massachusetts Avenues in the District; they still have it.)

Not long after, the women were out of Arlington Hall’s grand buildings and the military was in. Soldiers erected double barbed-wire fences around the property. Access to the grounds was limited to four gates. According to some documents, here began the first badge system: No one was permitted on the grounds without first showing the proper ID. According to the Army’s historical account, shuttle buses moved hourly between Arlington Hall and the Munitions Building. The code breakers shoved their coveted Purple Machine, by which they were reading the Japanese diplomatic code, into a former dormitory room attached to the only working bathroom on the second floor. According to the book Battle of Wits, written by Stephen Budiansky and published in 2002, persons on the floor were allowed to use the facilities just once an hour —but only after the Purple Machine was temporarily draped so no non-Purple people could see it.

The columned main school building was redubbed the Headquarters Building, but even more space was needed, and so construction of new facilities began almost immediately. Earth-moving equipment obliterated swaths and swales, and concrete trucks poured foundations. Walls went up. Some of the thirteen prospective barracks planned for enlisted men were ready by Halloween. The new buildings—the largest were called Building A and Building B—were as drab as the old Munitions Building, but they had the advantage of being less crowded, and an outdoor smoke offered a view of greenery rather than Constitution Avenue.

Although Arlington Hall Station (AHS), as it came to be known, was an Army installation, civilians outnumbered military personnel. Less than a year after the takeover, 2,300 civilians worked at the compound while the Army employed fewer than 800. For a military installation, the culture was casual. Many of the civilian code breakers were young, bright and somewhat off-beat, just the sort resistant to military regimentation. Military hierarchy was neglected; respect hinged on cryptologic skill whether one was a civilian, a private or a lieutenant colonel. The same applied to gender. Many of the new recruits were women—civilian and, later, WACs (recruits of the Women’s Army Corps). Perhaps not a few of these new hands only months before had taken typing classes there or debated the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Whatever the pre-Pearl Harbor lives of those who worked at Arlington Hall Station, their new efforts were vital and prodigious. SIS concentrated on Japanese traffic, and it was work out of Arlington Hall Station that gave Allied commanders hints of Hitler’s plans for invading Russia (from messages by Japanese diplomats) and Hitler’s mistaken belief that the Allies’ main attack of 1944 would come at Calais instead of Normandy. SIS also oversaw work on the SIGABA machine, the Americans’ counterpart to the German Enigma cipher device. It was never cracked by the nation’s enemies.

In 1943, SIS worked hard at breaking Japanese army codes, as opposed to those of the diplomatic corps, and according to Budiansky’s book, by the end of the year had made excellent progress. Soon the Americans were reading thousands of Japanese army messages as fast as or faster than Japanese officers were. As at Bletchley Park in England, most of the Army code breakers were women. In Battle of Wits, Budiansky cites a report on the AHS code breaking at the end of the war that read: “It was proven over and over again that women were far better equipped than men for the routine but detailed work.”

In 1943, SIS changed its name to the Signal Security Agency (SSA). That year, a small and highly secret SSA group turned its attention to Russian codes. A growing number of Soviets had entered the U.S. to assist with lend-lease goods shipped to Russia, and authorities worried some were agents snooping for secrets. This code work came to be called Venona, and according to Battle of Wits it indeed began to reveal a sophisticated Russian intelligence operation in the U.S.

By V-J Day, Arlington Hall Station had become massive, employing 5,700 civilians, more than 1,000 military officers and men and 1,000 WACs. But with peace at hand most of them were eager to move on. Within months, only 35 WACs remained. Both military and civilian ranks shrank. But no one thought that code breaking was no longer needed. SSA became the Army Security Agency (ASA) and continued with its Russian codes efforts, and positioned itself to be in the thick of the Cold War.

Not surprisingly, Arlington Hall Station was not immune from serious gaffes. Its work was sniffed out by foreign intelligence networks. In 1990 it was revealed that William Weisband, who worked in SSA’s Russian section as early as 1943, had been a spy for the Russians. Beginning in 1949, British intelligence officer Kim Philby was regularly granted access to AHS; then in 1962 it was deduced that he’d been a Soviet spy.

Despite those mistakes, from the late 1940s through the 1950s, Venona was a vitally important U.S. asset in the rivalry with the Soviet Union. Indeed, Venona-decrypted messages strengthened the cases against Alger Hiss, Julius Rosenberg and others, and helped show that the Soviets had penetrated the Los Alamos nuclear bomb complex. (Ironically, their messages could not be used in courts of law, or even revealed, because doing so would demonstrate the success of U.S. code breakers.)

In 1949, rival cryptologist services of the Army and the Navy joined to form the Armed Forces Security Agency (AFSA), which in 1952 evolved into the National Security Agency (NSA). The NSA retained Arlington Hall Station as its principal location until 1955 when it began moving some of its operations to Fort Meade, Maryland. Elements of the Army Security Agency (ASA) remained at AHS, however, helping oversee nuclear weapons testing. In 1962, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara formed the Defense Intelligence Agency, establishing its headquarters at the Pentagon, one of several steps that would siphon top-level intelligence command away from AHS.

These days, many old hands are proud of their work at Arlington Hall Station. Nelson Johnson worked for ASA at AHS during the late ’60s as a U.S. Army captain and major. He recalls that nearly everyone had Top Secret clearance and that the post was like a very secure small town: “It had everything to be self-contained: police force, fire station, medical facilities, and more,” he says. “While I was there, we were expanding our operations, especially in Southeast Asia. So the atmosphere could sometimes be tense.”

Alan Lindley had stints at AHS in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s as an electronics maintenance officer. “I loved every minute of it,” he recalls. “We were dedicated to getting the job done and all else was gravy. Security was very tight, but we were dedicated to supporting our soldiers in the foxholes. Working there was exciting.”

James Gilbert, who worked at Arlington Hall Station from 1968 to 1989, recalls tight security but a collegial atmosphere. “You were always aware that the post had been a girls’ school,” he says. “There was the old school building, plus the pool and gym and an indoor riding arena turned into a storage facility. It was a campus-like setting. But there were also the World War II temporary buildings, and even in the 1960s the place looked like it did during the 1940s.” He adds: “In the early days we wore badges with different colors at the bottom to show levels of access. It was a very ‘need-to-know’ atmosphere. We were never allowed to have our pictures taken with the badges on, or wear them off the post. We did very important and unique work there. I miss it.”

In 1977 the Army Security Agency was absorbed into the new Army Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM) at AHS. From 1981 to 1984 INSCOM was commanded by Maj. Gen. Albert Stubblebine, whose interest in paranormal activity led to Army research on psychic warfare.

In 1989, with the Cold War over, INSCOM moved south to Fort Belvoir, and the Department of Defense decreed that Arlington Hall Station was no longer needed for intelligence work. In a ceremony in October of that year, the Army lowered its guidon to the sound of a bugle, thus ending its 47 years’ occupancy of the one-time junior college. It transferred control of a large part of the property to the State Department.

In a ceremony in 1993, the State Department established its National Affairs Training Center on the site. Nine years later in May 2002, a ceremony that included six former Secretaries of State, named the Training Center for George P. Schultz. The Schultz Center now teaches some 300 courses to 1,500 students a year in 250 classrooms. The ladies of Arlington Hall Junior College would be proud. In fact, according to a 2005 issue of the Foreign Service Journal, it was an Arlington Hall graduate, Louise Hale, who championed the creation of the Training Center on the Arlington Hall site.

This is not the only evidence that almost 50 years of Army regimen and secrecy did not completely obscure the original mission of the Arlington Hall Junior College. Its alumnae gathered periodically to recall their lives at the bucolic school. And SIS/SSA alums do the same—assembling periodically in front of the pillars at the iconic, white-columned headquarters building. Photos reveal they are mostly women.

June 11, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum
July 9, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum
August 13, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum