Jacqueline Jenkins-Nye, 79, World War II code breaker

April 03, 2000|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

Jacqueline Jenkins-Nye, who was recruited out of Goucher College by the Navy to help crack codes used by the Japanese and Germans during World War II, but whose contribution to science might be more recognized by children who have seen her television-personality son, died Thursday. The Baltimore native was 79.

She died at George Washington Hospital in Washington of cancer.

Long a resident of Arlington, Va., the mother of three was born in Durham, N.C. She moved to Baltimore at an early age, when her father accepted a position as a chemistry professor at the Johns Hopkins University.

After graduating from Western High School, she entered Goucher College to study math and psychology. She became part of an improbable chapter in the annals of American warfare that is drawing renewed interest from historians since the broadcast in November of a "Nova" special on World War II code breakers.

Ms. Jenkins-Nye was among a small group of scientifically accomplished "Goucher girls" the Navy recruited to help crack the seemingly impenetrable codes used by the Japanese and German military during World War II.

Sworn to secrecy and threatened with death if they spoke of their work, a dozen women from the Class of '42 went on to achieve quiet fame in the intelligence service for, among other things, helping to break the code that enabled U.S. fighter pilots to shoot down and kill Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, the mastermind of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, in 1943.

"She was pretty smart," said her son, E. Darby Nye Jr. of Arlington. "She certainly had her moments."

In her later years, however, she was probably best known as the mother of Bill Nye, "The Science Guy," star of the off-beat educational series for children formerly seen on Maryland Public Television and affiliated stations nationwide. Nye achieved a near-cult following among youngsters and their parents with his antic experiments revealing the secrets of science.

"Her influence on me was infinite, immeasurable," Bill Nye said yesterday of his mother. "She taught me how to cook -- and how to make the famous family salad dressing that her grandmother taught her to make, which was pure chemistry. She taught me how to sew, even. To this day, I still own a sewing machine. And to this day, I can still hear her chanting in my ear: `Sit up straight! Shoulders back! Now train, train, train! Do it till you get it right!"

On the wall of his home in Seattle hangs a framed copy of his mother's seventh-grade chemistry test from her elementary school days in Baltimore. She scored 100.

If the lesson of her life means anything, friends and family say, it stands as testament to the importance of education, perseverance and never accepting societal limitations.

Thirty years after earning her degree in psychology from Goucher, Ms. Jenkins-Nye returned to school to earn master's and doctoral degrees in education from George Washington University.

She was a substitute teacher in the Washington, D.C., public schools, an adjunct professor at George Washington and a manager or analyst in seven federal agencies from 1968 to 1982. She concluded her career at the National Archives before moving on to start a human resource development consulting firm at age 66.

But perhaps the most intriguing chapter of her life -- the three years she spent as an officer in the U.S. Office of Naval Communications -- was the one she spoke of least.

"We were called down by the dean of Goucher one day, and there were these strange people there who said they wanted us to take some training in a new field called `cryptanalysis,' " recalled Fran Suddeth Josephson, 79, now an artist in Summerville, S.C. "They didn't say why, or what it was related to."

The dean's name was Dorothy Stimson. She was the cousin of Henry Stimson, U.S. Secretary of War, who was contacting women's colleges around the country seeking their best and brightest for a project so secret that none of the participants was allowed to know its purpose.

"I guess we were all what you would call today `nerds,' " said Mrs. Josephson, then known as Fran Steen.

Among the brightest of the lot was Jacquie Jenkins.

"Very smart, very pretty," Mrs. Josephson recalled. "Headstrong, you might say. I don't believe she belonged to any sorority, which was unusual for the time. You could say she was maybe a little more independent-minded than the rest."

Upon graduation in 1942, the young women were invited to Washington. They were offered commissions in a new branch of the Navy known as the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service).

After a whirlwind tour of military training, including practice in wielding cumbersome .45-caliber semiautomatic pistols, they returned to Washington and began analyzing intercepted radio transmissions. Even among best friends in the Goucher group, discussion of individual assignments was strictly forbidden.

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