Audrey Burriss & Joseph Kasko
(Rock Hill, S.C.) — Jeuel Bannister Esmacher was a junior at Winthrop University — known then as Winthrop College — in 1943 when the military took over Bancroft Hall to set up classes and living space for the Army Air Corps Cadet Training Program.
It was at that time, during the height of World War II, when Esmacher, now 97, was first introduced to cryptology.
“While I was at Winthrop I took every course they offered on cryptology and I became very interested in that, although my major was music,” said Esmacher, who graduated in 1944 and was a guest on the Palmetto Report podcast.
After graduation, she became the first female band director in North Carolina, while working at a school in King’s Mountain.
“When I was a band director I got information that I could be used in Washington, (D.C.), so I went to Washington to work with all the cryptographers,” she said.
Esmacher’s story was unknown, until it was featured in the 2017 award-winning and New York Times best-selling book, “Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II,” which interviewed several women about their secret work during World War II.
Esmacher — who currently lives in Anderson, but grew up in Starr, S.C. — was one of 10,000 women who worked for the Army and Navy as codebreakers during the war.
“We had to, of course, sign papers that we would not speak about any of this,” said Esmacher.
As a result, many women died, without telling their families about their work during the war, before the story became public.
More than 75 years later, Esmacher said she is grateful to finally able to speak about her unexpected career as a cryptographer.
“It’s a relief, because I didn’t know this had been declassified until the book came out, ‘Code Girls.’ The author of that book, Liza Mundy, came to my home and interviewed me, but I didn’t know when this was going to be printed. Those of us who worked (as cryptographers) were not told it was going to be released to the public,” she said.
“I’m proud that I was able to serve in that capacity, because during the war everybody was so patriotic. You wanted to do anything that you could to help out our (military) services, so I’m happy about it.”
Esmacher — who comes from a family of Winthrop women, as her mother and sister are both graduates — said her time at the school prepared her for her work as a codebreaker.
“As soon as the service people came in on our campus and took over Bancroft (Hall) with enlisted men, they put courses in that we could take for credit and one of them was cryptology and that caught my attention and I took every course that was offered while I was there,” she said.
Winthrop began offering the first course in cryptology in the spring of 1943 and it’s estimated that between 60 and 100 women took the class, which was described as a national defense course that could help students become useful to the Army’s Signal Corps.
However, the exact number is unknown due to the secret nature of the class, as it was never listed in the course catalogue and a class roster was never kept.
Although, according to Dr. Ruth Stokes, who developed and taught the cryptology course, 33 of the first 34 women who took the class were ultimately offered jobs with the Signal Corps. The class was taught until the spring semester of 1945.
“I wondered why I was chosen, but they said that they liked to get musicians and I never knew why until I really did a lot of questioning. It was because musicians have to look in so many places and so many parts of your body work at once, in order to make music; your feet, your hands, your eyes, your head,” said Esmacher.
In 2019, Esmacher returned to Winthrop for her 75th class reunion to receive the Mary Mildred Sullivan Award, which, recognizes an alumna for selfless dedication of time, energy and talent in service to others.
She said she hopes her story of service, which has also been recorded as an oral history for Winthrop’s digital archives, might help people come together.
“There’s just so much now that people are fussing about, whether you’re a Republican or you’re a Democrat, and I would like them to do like we did at the end of that war, where it didn’t matter what you were, you were just patriotic and you were an American citizen and you just did the best you could,” said Esmacher.
“I just wish we could get to that point now.”