Building the Bombe
Long after WWII, Navy vet learns her tedious work was no ordinary job
RICHMONDVILLE Lessley Sanders assembled parts for the Bombe during World War II but didn’t know it at the time. Nor did she find out until a few years ago the importance of her job as a Navy WAVE.
It wasn’t the atomic bomb that some historians say brought an end to the war, yet the Bombe that Sanders constructed a part for was a crucial device nonetheless. It enabled the U.S. Navy to protect merchant ships carrying supplies to allied forces.
Reportedly dubbed the Bombe because of the loud ticking noise it made when in operation, the electromechanical machine was designed for decoding secret messages sent from the German command to their U-boats for planning attacks on the merchant vessels in the Atlantic. According to one account, the U.S. Merchant Marine reported that more than 1,000 ships were sunk in the Atlantic during the war, 175 of them along the east coast of the United States.
Sanders, 90, of Richmondville, who was 19 at the time and working in her hometown post office in Towanda, Kansas wanted to join the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) after reading a story about them in Grit, touted as “America’s Greatest Family Newspaper.” The Navy required enlistees in the WAVES to be 20 years of age. Underage women could enlist with parental permission. Neither parent would sign for her, said Sanders. One day, however, two sailors and two WAVES came to town seeking prospective recruits.
She told them she wanted to join the WAVES but that her mother wouldn’t sign for her. They offered to go home with her and ended up convincing her mother to sign the permission form.
“It was August 24 when I boarded the troop train in Wichita that took us to New York City,” said Sanders. “There was hardly any air in the train. It was so hot they opened the windows and smoke and soot from the steam engine came into our car. We were kind of dirty when we got to New York.”
It was raining when they arrived, and most of the recruits were carrying suitcases made of cardboard that were falling apart from the downpour.
They got on a subway and headed for Hunter College in the Bronx, where they would live in boarding houses as barracks and undergo basic training.
On to Washington
From there Sanders was given a “direct assignment” to Washington, D.C. “But [the Navy] didn’t tell us what we would be doing,” she said.
“When we first got there, we lived at Arlington Farms in Virginia, in Louisiana Hall, across from the Tomb of the Unknown Solder, until our barracks was finished.” About 3,000 WAVES were stationed there, but Sanders didn’t know what they all did in Washington, only that they worked at the Naval Annex on Nebraska Avenue.
“They took us by bus from Arlington to Nebraska Avenue to work,” she said. “My job was soldering wires onto little lugs attached to something shaped like a small wheel about three quarters of an inch thick.” Each lug represented a letter in the code that corresponded with a different letter on the opposite side of the wheel, connected with the soldered wires.
Sanders said she worked at a table with low-hanging blue fluorescent lights “just above your head that often gave me headaches.” They worked around the clock in alternating three-hour shifts, two weeks duty for each shift.
No one was allowed to talk about what they were doing, so they weren’t aware of what the “wheels” were used for.
“Others in the barracks may have done something else but we wouldn’t know because they weren’t allowed to talk about it either. We didn’t dare talk about it. All we figured was that it was top secret and that we could end up in prison if we did talk about what we did.” Even when she was discharged after the war, she was told not to tell anyone about what she did in the Navy.
“When I talk to my buddies, they still don’t know how what they were doing fit in to it all,” said Sanders. “Printed on some of their discharge papers was a warning never to reveal what they were doing.
“So we just kept our mouths shut and did our job. I never knew what were doing it for,” said Sanders. “The only thing I knew is what I did, soldering wires to letters.” It was only a few years ago Sanders learned that the small wheels she was wiring were installed on a machine that decoded enemy secret messages.
learning the secret
That was after she told Former Pastor Gary Edmister of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Richmondville — a retired U.S. Navy chief petty officer — about her job as a WAVE in Washington during the war.
He explained that she was helping to create the code-breaker for the Bombe. Recently, Sanders said, she read an article in White Caps, a newsletter published by WAVES National, of which she is a member, about WAVES who set the Bombe to print the intercepted codes to be deciphered. Wanting to learn more about the Bombe, she got a book from the local library about the history of the Bombe and it’s role in helping the allied forces during World War II.
“I was sort of a shocked when Pastor Gary told me about what we did, but when I think about it, it makes me feel good that what I was doing helped” in the war effort, said Sanders.
A crucial role
Jennifer Wilcox, administrator at the National Security Agency’s Cryptologic Museum in Annapolis Junction, Md., said Sanders indeed played a crucial role in her job during World War II.
What Sanders and other WAVES were doing was “wiring rotors that were used on the cryptanalytic bombe to duplicate the wiring of the German encrypting device, the Enigma, used to send secret messages. And because we had these rotors wired exactly the same way, the cryptanalytic bombe was able to go through and find the key settings used by the Enigma and allowed us to read the German messages throughout the war.”
She added, “I can see how [Sanders] might have found it tedious to sit there and solder for eight hours a day, but it was so important for her to solder those wires absolutely correctly so that the bombe could find those key settings and understand what the Germans were up to.”
Wilcox, who’s written historical accounts about the role that women in the military played in helping to build or operate decoding machines during the war, said many of the women she interviewed for her articles didn’t feel that “they did anything big or involved. But when you combine what each of them did, they helped change the course of history.”