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21Country: Recognized at last, efforts of cryptanalyst pioneer Elizebeth Smith Friedman celebrated

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HUNTINGTON, Ind. (WPTA21) - “Not once did she mention anything that she did,” Chris Atchison told ABC21. “I checked with all the cousins, she never talked about anything that she did… not once, to anybody! And it turns out, that she did a lot.”

Atchison is speaking of his grandmother, Elizebeth Smith Friedman.

He traveled from Tucson, Ariz., to 21Country for the dedication of state historical marker honoring the remarkable story of Friedman.

As a young boy, Atchison lived with his grandparents in Washington, D.C.

Things he thought were normal then, stick out as odd, now that he knows more details on his grandparents secretive work.

“Things were going on in the house at that time, that seemed a little out of place for a grandmother,” Atchison described. “in other words, people would come over and have long conversations in the living room, or the office upstairs. They would come over in military dressed uniforms and seem to talk in hushed voices over things.”

“We would get dressed, walk over to the Capitol and talk with, I presume, congressman and aides,” he added. “She was still working when I lived with her.”

Elizebeth and her husband, William, were American heroes, actively involved in U.S. efforts during World War I and II.

She was a trailblazer, even as a young girl.

“She was going to college when women didn’t go to college,” Atchison said.

Elizebeth’s father, though strongly against it, loaned her the money to do so… but she had to pay it back, with interest.

After graduation, and a year of teaching, she traveled to Chicago, in hopes of a better future.

There, she met a rich entrepreneur, George Fabyan, who brought her to Riverbank Laboratories, where she began to learn how to decrypt secret messages.

It was there that Elizebeth would meet her husband.

The two clicked, both in learning how to crack codes, and with each other.

“My grandfather, by the way, called my grandmother his divine fire, which is awesome,” Atchison said. “He really relied on her love, and her care, to see him through some really strenuous times.”

Soon, with global conflict underway, Fabyan recognized their skills, and recommended them to be utilized by the government.

"We had no code breaking whatsoever, basically, after the civil war,” he explained. “They were given to the U.S. military to break codes in 1917, when we got into the First World War.”

“She draws my grandfather into cytology and code breaking, he becomes the preeminent codebreaker in America, breaks the Japanese purple code,” he continued. “For the pacific theatre in World War II. That changes the outcome of that war, period, end of story!”

Elizebeth would reveal the dangerous intent of the Nazis, decoding radio messages sent to spies in South America.

This, at a time where it was odd for women to work, let alone lead and teach military leaders her unique craft.

“My grandmother’s still doing the job with the navy, breaking enigma, a cypher machine with a pencil and paper, literally,” Atchison told us. “And taking care of the home, and taking care of my mother, and taking care of my Uncle John, and taking care of my grandfather, and doing all of this.”

During prohibition, Elizebeth helped the U.S. Coast Guard fight organized crime, and put an end to rum runners and international drug smugglers.

But as a little boy growing up in their home, years after their impressive contributions to America, Atchison knew very little of their work.

“My grandfather working for the army, my grandmother basically working for the navy… they weren’t allowed to talk about work - which is bizarre!”

Looking back, Atchison realized his grandmother tried to teach him her skills.

Often times, birthday and Christmas cards would have hidden messages concealed in them.

“If I had known then, what I know now, I probably would’ve tried to go the secret agent route, and become James Bond,” he joked, “but I didn’t know!”

Due to the classified nature of the Friedman’s body of work, much of it was unknown until decades later.

“His legacy starts coming out in the 70’s and she saw that it was her job to protect his reputation and his legacy,” he added.

Elizebeth’s full contributions, aren’t fully known today, as boxes of her documents remain unsorted.

But in the last few years, she’s finally being recognized for defying social norms, to help protect her country.

In 1999, she was inducted posthumously into the NSA Hall of Honor.

In 2014, the ATF dedicated its National Headquarters Auditorium in her name - Atchison, and some of her family in Huntington attended.

In 2019, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution recognizing her contributions as a cryptanalyst.

The U.S. Coast Guard announced last year, that they are naming the 11th Legend-Class National Security Cutter after her.

Construction on that ship began this year.

In January, PBS debuted a documentary on her impressive career, called The Codebreaker.

“A little farm girl from Indiana, who goes out, and kicks ass, and beats nazis with a paper and a pencil,” Atchison concluded. “I think that’s an important story for young women and young men, that you don’t have to come from anywhere in particular, that you can go out and do great things.”

On August 26, a public dedication ceremony at Memorial Park in Huntington was held, revealing a state historical marker commemorating Friedman as a pioneer in cryptology.

Mayor Richard Strick said “Friedman’s work in codebreaking and her significant accomplishments throughout her career cannot be overstated. Her achievements, particularly toward the outcome of the second World War, give all of us an example of how our personal passions can be translated into public good.”

The marker is the thirteenth of its kind installed in Huntington County.

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Daniel Beals

Daniel Beals is the producer of the ABC21 feature franchise “21Country”. He is constantly on the lookout for ideas that capture the “people, places, things, and history” that makes Northeast Indiana unique. Feel free to reach out: dbeals@wpta21.com.

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