World War II marked a time when Smith students were ‘under obligation’ to participate in the war effort. Smith President of the time, Herbert John Davis, stated Smith’s intention to be “in common with all our colleges and universities, to take its full share of the national war effort.” Between planting victory gardens, joining WAVES, or being a ‘code girl,’ Smith students made significant contributions to the war effort.
In the months following America’s entry into World War II, Congress passed legislation creating a Women’s Reserve of the Navy. Women who enlisted would come to be known as WAVES, or Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service. Smith College campus became their training ground. Between 1942 and 1945, thousands of enlisted women came to Northampton to become officers in the U.S. Navy.
In the summer of 1942, Smith’s campus was transformed. Signs went up above the Alumnae House: UNITED STATES NAVAL RESERVE MIDSHIPMEN’S SCHOOL. The beds in Capen, Northrop, and Gillett houses (and all the rooms in the Hotel Northampton) were replaced with bunk beds. The dining halls were emptied and equipped with desks and blackboards; additional classrooms were reserved in Faunce Hall (now the Davis Center) and Seelye. The outfitting of what would become known as U.S.S. Northampton was complete.
Overall, the relationship between students and midshipmen was one of “mutual esteem,” according to Lt. Cmdr. Margaret Disert. Students tied red, white, and blue ribbons to the handlebars of their bikes to indicate that footsore WAVES could borrow them during their rare hours of weekend liberty, as most had not brought cars to campus. WAVES were often invited to house teas or outings, and President Davis spoke at a WAVES commencement and Director McAfee at a Smith Commencement.
In February 1945, as the ratio of officers to enlisted women was growing too high, the training school in Northampton closed. When the war ended soon after, the college returned to its regular routine.
From "Learning to ‘Be Navy’"
Early in 1942, just weeks after the attacks on Pearl Harbor, mysterious typed invitations began showing up in the personal mailboxes of select Smith seniors. The messages, as it turned out, were on behalf of the Navy, which was seeking Smith women who could be trained in cryptology—in other words, to become code breakers.
Finding women to decode cryptograms was part of a Navy strategy to “release a man to fight at sea.” In peacetime, the Navy had used men’s colleges and universities to recruit and train male cryptanalysts, those who analyze and break codes used in communications (troop movement, ship courses, munitions, supply routes, etc). With men deploying to the field, women were available and, as time would demonstrate, very capable.
Thus began a three-year project to train Smith women in communications to work in Washington, D.C., for the Navy. Few knew of the true nature of the training. One code girl, Marjorie Scott ‘42 said, “We were all warned never to mention what we were working on to anyone ever, under punishment of death.”
By the summer of ’42 there were 24 graduates of the Naval Communications course at Smith and a fall 1942 registration of 43 more. Cmdr John Redman acknowledged the success of their work in Washington in a letter from July 20, 1942, in which he asks for as many graduates as Smith College can send.
From "When We Went to War: Smith’s Hidden Weapon"