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Ten Minutes With a Code Breaker

Sally Fisher Sellars was instrumental in WWII



Sally Fisher Sellars was born in 1921 in Snoqualmie Falls, Washington, during a March snowstorm. Since then, she has led a rich and full life that has taken her from the Pacific Northwest, to Virginia, to California, Mexico, and now, to The Greens in Wilton. At age 22, Sellars was recruited by the military to be a “government girl” during WWII while her husband, Donald, was overseas. She had no idea what her job was until her first day of work in 1943.

How did you get recruited?
The army was looking for someone who was clever with languages so they scoured the universities and found me.

What did you learn on your first day?
I was taken to Arlington Hall in Virginia, which was Army Intelligence Headquarters. I discovered that I was to learn Japanese to assist in breaking their codes.

What did you actually do?
It was all super-secret. Someone intercepted Japanese messages and there would be a long string of sounds. A code breaker broke them down into Japanese words, discreet words. We translated those words. While the war was still on I couldn’t say a word about it, not even to my parents—it would have been a serious breach of national security.

Can you give an example of a message?
There would be a message from the South Pacific talking about plans to invade the island. I think the Germans knew their code had been broken but I don’t think the Japanese ever did.

How many languages do you speak?
English, French, Spanish and I spoke Japanese at one point. All I remember now is, “Doko ni iku no?” which means, “Where are you going?”

Was it hard to learn Japanese?
By the time the Army got through with us, we knew a lot. I studied 12 hours a day, six days a week. The teacher was a Korean soldier who had joined the US Army. It was hard work but the sort of thing that I was able to do with ease so I enjoyed it.

Where did you live?
Eleanor Roosevelt made sure that all the government girls were well housed. Each of us had a room with a bed, a desk, a lamp, and an armchair with shared bathroom facilities down the hall. From my window, I could look out and see the foliage of Arlington Cemetery in the fall. It was so beautiful. There was a dining hall a block away where we went to eat.

What did you do on your day off?
I went to the National Gallery of Art. The Blue Boy by Gainsborough was very popular but I preferred the Constables, his landscapes. There were also a number of paintings by portraitist George Romney. They played chamber music on Sunday afternoons.

What happened when your husband returned from overseas?
My husband went to Washington State and I wanted to be with him. I got permission to leave, but I felt unheroic for doing so.

What is you’re your life philosophy?
The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Most important life lesson?
I’ve learned not to judge people by appearances.

 

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