The Fort Dodge woman was told that she must never talk about what she was doing. If she did open her mouth — if she revealed anything — she would be shot by a firing squad.
Hughes followed that order so well that her military career remained an enigma to friends and relatives for decades.
But in recent years she revealed that her top-secret job was to help crack the Enigma, the complex code that German admirals used to communicate with their lethal U-boats.
Convinced that the passage of decades made her orders and her code-breaking know-how obsolete, Hughes continued revealing her story Monday.
With Messenger Editor Emeritus Walt Stevens as a moderator, she talked about her World War II experience during a Senior University session at Friendship Haven. About 40 people attended.
A photo of Hughes working on a huge code-breaking machine called a “bombe” filled a screen behind her as she recounted her experiences.
Hughes said she never had the full picture of the code-breaking operation. She said someone told her what settings to use on the bombe. She made the needed adjustments and turned the machine on. Eventually, the machine would spit out a printed message that was immediately taken to another room for further decoding.
‘‘We never knew anything that took place with that paper,’’ she said.
She said she believes her work helped bring her four brothers safely home from combat.
‘‘If I had to do it over again, I’d have gone in the Navy earlier,’’ she said. ‘‘I’ve never been sorry about going in the service.’’
‘‘I think it made me a better person,’’ she added.
Hughes graduated from Fort Dodge Senior High School in 1938. After high school she worked in the S & H Green Stamp Department of the Boston Store on Central Avenue. She was still working there during the early years of World War II.
She recalled that an Army nurse came in the store one day in the spring of 1943.
‘‘Boy, I tell you she looked beautiful in that uniform,’’ Hughes said.
She and the nurse started talking about military service. Hughes said she was thinking about enlisting. The nurse talked her out of joining the Women’s Army Corps, but Hughes was still interested in the Navy.
A short time later, she headed for the recruiting office in the old Post Office at the corner of Central Avenue and Ninth Street. She said she walked in the Ninth Street doors, had second thoughts about what she was doing and went out the Central Avenue doors without ever going upstairs to the recruiting office. A few days later, she returned and went in the recruiter’s office. She walked out as a new enlistee, wondering just what she had gotten herself into.
Like all the other women who enlisted in the Navy during World War II, Hughes was assigned to the Women’s Auxiliary Volunteer Emergency Service. The members were called WAVES.
As soon as she emerged from boot camp at Hunter College in New York City, she was assigned to the code-breaking operation.
During a little more than two years in the Navy, Hughes was stationed in Washington, D.C. and Dayton, Ohio. Working eight-hour shifts to run the bombes was her chore at both places.
In Washington, the code-breakers had taken over a former girls school on the eastern side of the city.
In Dayton, the military was using the property of the National Cash Register Co. Hughes said the bombes were located in a seven-story building downtown. The WAVES lived outside town in a camp the company used for retreats and training sessions.
The bombes Hughes spent her working hours with were rudimentary computers that were 7 feet tall, 11 feet long and weighed 5,000 pounds. She said there were at least 16 of them and they ran 24 hours a day.
To comply with her orders to maintain secrecy, Hughes had to make sure the letters she wrote home were pretty bland. She worked to find ways to avoid the specifics of what she was doing.
‘‘You can always think up some kind of story,’’ she said.
Hughes was discharged from the Navy in December 1945. In March 1946, she got a job with Fort Dodge Animal Health and worked there for 35 years.
Contact Bill Shea at (515) 573-2141 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Messenger photo by Bill Shea
Helen Hughes, of Fort Dodge, describes her World War II service in a unit that broke the German Enigma code. Walt Stevens, editor emeritus of The Messenger, was the moderator for Hughes’ talk Monday afternoon at Friendship Haven.