Betty Petrie was born in 1915 in Los Banos and died in December at the age of 106. At the time of her death, she would have been the oldest World War II survivor in Kern County.
For most of us, these reported events are all we know about Petrie, who was sworn to secrecy what she did during the war. Petrie’s silence is typical of thousands of American women who did critical, sometimes very dangerous, top secret work that helped win the war.
This is also why it took decades and the declassification of documents to learn of their bravery and commitment. Many women, including Petrie, have spent their lives being silent. Even their families did not know their secrets.
After the war, Petrie resumed an ordinary but fulfilling life as a wife, mother and teacher.
But we can read the clues to decipher Petrie’s war mission. Lt jg Elizabeth Ann MacDougall’s years of service, where she worked and her “communications” assignment, and the shroud of secrecy she maintained until her death have led most to conclude that she was a code breaker.
More than 10,000 American women have been recruited to crack codes and intercept communications. They provided vital intelligence to the Army and Navy to protect American troops and defeat the Japanese and German armies.
Petrie grew up in rural Stanislaus County, the daughter of Scottish immigrant Archibald MacDougall and Megdalena Breunig of Colorado. After graduating from high school in 1933, she attended the University of the Pacific in Stockton, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in history in 1937.
While she was teaching at Salinas, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States declared war. Many still debate why the nation was caught off guard by the attack, but the need for improved intelligence gathering was clear.
As decryption was considered less prestigious than combat and akin to “secretary work”, many men avoided the mission. The nation has turned to women, with the Army and Navy recruiting heavily among recent graduates and teachers with proven math skills and the ability to sit for days staring at strings of nonsensical letter combinations to find patterns that would crack the enemy’s codes.
The women selected for the mission, which was headquartered in Washington, DC, excelled at the task. By the end of the war, they provided so much information about ship movements and supplies that the army could barely keep up.
Liza Mundy, author of 2017’s best-selling “Code Girls,” stumbled upon women’s contributions while reading about Project Verona, a mostly female US decryption unit that focused on Russian intelligence during the Second World War. World War and the Cold War.
Mundy noted that many code breakers – men and women – have cracked under the pressure of their intimate knowledge of the triumphs and tragedies of war. They had to live “with the true knowledge of what was going on during the war … and the specific knowledge of the (fate) of their brothers”.
On the home front and in the military, the growing number of women in uniform also sparked hostility. Women were recruited to free men from home front jobs to fight. But some men and their families resented the endangered soldiers.
Rumors also abounded that the women were actually prostitutes in uniform to maintain the morale of the troops. And many high-risk jobs, including ferry pilot jobs, have been classified as “civilian”. Women pilots were denied even basic benefits to protect and help them. In the middle of the war, many jobs were absorbed by the uniformed services.
After her release in 1945, Petrie returned to California, studied under the GI Bill at a San Francisco trade school, and went to work for a large insurance company.
In 1947, she married Thomas Petrie, a Bank of America auditor and former Army captain. The couple lived in San Francisco for a few years, before Thomas moved with the bank to Los Banos, Turlock then Shafter in 1961. Thomas died in 1963. Petrie never remarried. The couple had a daughter, Sue Paxton, who now lives in Bakersfield.
Petrie taught kindergarten at Richland Elementary School until her retirement in 1983. She was also active in community organizations, winning a community service award during the Vietnam War for helping send hundreds of soldier care package. She was a member of St. Therese Catholic Church, where she was known to attend daily mass.
A voracious reader, Petrie painted, sewed, knitted, did embroidery and loved to travel, when she was not playing bridge. Petrie liked to talk about his family, friends and former students, but not about the war.
Petrie lived on her own until just a few years ago when she moved to Brookdale Riverwalk helped live in Bakersfield, where veterans and local dignitaries gathered in 2019 to honor her when issues health prevented Petrie from flying to Washington, DC, with Kern County’s Honor Flight.
“I’ve been a volunteer with Honor Flight for several years and we’ve had several women on our flights,” Cheree Linford said. “As with their service, the number of women who have participated in honor flights significantly outnumbered the men. They were a delightful bunch; very brave to say the least.
“They must have been tough. They were truly in a man’s world and there weren’t the safeguards that we as women enjoy today to protect ourselves from harassment. Any of them would say they just wanted to serve their country and contribute to the war effort.
Since the Revolutionary War, women have served to some extent – as spies, in espionage and resistance, but especially in caring for wounded soldiers. According to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, by the end of World War II, more than 350,000 women wore American service uniforms. Although not assigned to combat roles, 423 women were killed and 88 taken prisoner.