A Canadian opens up about her secret wartime work — eavesdropping on Japan

Almost 80 years after the fact, retired sergeant Marjorie Stetson is only now able to talk about her top-secret work on Japanese codes during the Second World War. She's sharing her story ahead of Remembrance Day.

Retired sergeant remembers what it was like on the 'front line of the radio war'

Almost 80 years after the fact, retired sergeant Marjorie Stetson is only now able to talk about her top-secret work on Japanese codes during the Second World War. This photo was taken in 1944. (Submitted by Marjorie Stetson )

At age 97, Marjorie Stetson has never told anyone her secret code number — until now.

That's the identity code — 225 — that she typed on every page of her highly classified work for the Canadian Armed Forces during the Second World War.

The retired sergeant's wartime work was so covert, she said, she had to sign 15 separate copies of Canada's Official Secrets Act.

"Nobody knew where I worked," Stetson told CBC News from her home in Massachusetts ahead of Remembrance Day. "Nobody knew what we did. Even my parents never knew what I did in the service."

Her husband, an American sailor she met at a celebration marking the end of the war, passed away a decade ago. She never told him what she really did during the war.

Today, Stetson herself is only now learning about the true scope of her role and the significance of all those sheets of white paper she filled with encrypted messages from Japan.

WATCH | Retired Canadian sergeant reveals her secret work from WW II:

Retired Canadian sergeant reveals her secret work from WW II

1 year ago
Duration 2:19
'Nobody knew what we did,' says Marjorie Stetson, 97, who intercepted Japanese codes during the Second World War.

"She was on the front line of the radio war," said military historian David O'Keefe, who studies Second World War code breaking and signals intelligence. "She really was at the forefront of a dawning of a new era."

Stetson's work made her part of a large transatlantic intelligence network that played a direct role in the United States' decision to drop atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, said O'Keefe, a professor at Marianopolis College in Quebec.

The last one standing

Stetson used a radio receiver to intercept Japanese army and air force communications. She used a special typewriter to transcribe the Japanese codes she heard. Those number-filled documents were sent to code breakers in the U.S. and sometimes England, said O'Keefe — giving the Allies an intelligence edge in the Pacific region

"What she was involved in was extremely important for the war effort," he said. "All that information she gets is eventually turned into actionable intelligence, which then translates into better decision-making and perhaps the saving of thousands, if not millions, of lives."

Stetson is the only woman out of the dozen she worked with who is still alive to tell her story.

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the establishment of the Canadian Women's Army Corps (CWAC). Faced with a shortage of manpower in 1941, the military created the CWAC and enlisted thousands of women to serve. It's a milestone that paved the way for women to serve in the regular forces.

Stetson joined the Canadian Women's Army Corps (CWAC) in 1942 at the age of 18. It's the 80th anniversary of the formation of the CWAC, a pivotal moment that paved the way for women to serve in the regular forces. (Submitted by Marjorie Stetson)

Stetson was just 18 years old when she joined CWAC in 1942.

Her father was injured in the First World War; when he vowed to serve again, Stetson said she wanted to join instead. The army made her wait until her birthday.

Spies in the orchard

After spending two days scrubbing floors in Montreal, she was offered to take a course on telegraphy in Kingston, Ont. She said her time in the Girl Guides gave her a grounding in Morse code and soon she was sent across the country to join an exclusive team.

Stetson said she was one of a dozen women picked up in a truck every day and driven to a hidden location — a white building in a plum orchard in Victoria, B.C.

Stetson said a photographer on her shift took this photo of the building she worked at in Victoria during the Second World War and shared it with her. (Submitted by Marjorie Stetson)

No one unauthorized was allowed into building #3SWS, or permitted to know what went on inside.

"Some of the girls weren't terribly excited about their jobs, but I loved my job," Stetson said. "I liked hearing it and copying it down."

Sealed off by secret work, Stetson said, she had no sense of what was going on with the wider war. She recalled an alert after a German submarine was reported near the coast in 1945 — an emergency that scarcely slowed her and her colleagues down.

'Don't ask me anything else'

"We had to wear our gas masks and our hard hats," she said of the incident. "And just keep working ... It brought you closer to the war.

"We had no idea what was going on there. We just knew what we did and it went to the people who were transforming it into English."

One day, she said, she was invited into an office where a superior praised her work as "first class."

"He said everything I typed was correct," Stetson said. "I said to him, 'Tell me where it goes.'

"He said, 'It goes to Washington, but don't ask me anything else. I can't tell you anything else.'"

It wasn't until three years ago — when Liz Mundy published her book Code Girls — that Stetson started to learn about the intelligence network she served.

Mundy's book told the previously untold story of the tens of thousands of women who served as code gatherers and breakers during the war and helped to save countless lives.

Serving in silence

Sworn to secrecy, their efforts went undisclosed and uncelebrated until 2018.

Stetson said she tracked down Mundy after reading the book and learned she was among the last members of the network still alive.

O'Keefe said that information within the network was "stovepiped" — military members were told only what they needed to know to do their work.

The Americans were responsible for the signals intelligence network on the West Coast, said O'Keefe. Stetson's information likely would have been sent to Seattle before being shared with Washington, he said. 

From there, the encrypted messages could either be sent to code breakers in England or deciphered in Washington, he said.

O'Keefe said that information harvested from those messages was used against both Japan and Nazi Germany.

Stetson with her mother and their dog. She never told her parents what she did during the war because she was sworn to secrecy. Her mother passed away without having an inkling, she said. (Submitted by Marjorie Stetson )

The intelligence that led to Hiroshima

He said the Allies were "quite successful" at breaking Japanese Army and Air Force codes. Their most significant breakthrough happened in 1945, O'Keefe said, when decoded messages showed the Japanese knew exactly what the Allies intended to do when it came to invading the home islands.

"It was quite certain that it was going to be a bloodbath," he said. "The Japanese knew what was going on, and through reading their codes, you could see the dispositions they were making, the preparations they were making and, perhaps more importantly, the fact that they weren't going to surrender any time soon.

"They were planning to go down in a blaze of glory."

O'Keefe said that information filtered up to the highest levels of Allied leadership and led directly to the decision to use nuclear weapons in warfare for the first time.

That decision is still profoundly controversial. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians. It also hastened the war's end and eliminated the need for a bloody ground invasion.

Stetson likely will never know whether her stacks of neatly typed papers with the number 225 on them played a role in that decision. 

"It was a terrible, terrible war," she said. "You want to sit there and cry for all those who never came home ... I hope the world never has another war."

But at age 97, she said, it's a relief to finally be able to talk about a part of history that came close to being forgotten. 

"I hope people know that those of us who rushed in, we didn't just wash dishes," she said. "We worked hard, we really worked hard."

The women who worked at #3SWS held an annual reunion. The last was in Ottawa, where they visited the National War Memorial in 1982. (Submitted by Marjorie Stetson)


Ashley Burke

Senior reporter

Ashley Burke is a senior reporter with the CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa who focuses on enterprise journalism for television, radio and digital platforms. She earned the Charles Lynch Award and was a finalist for the Michener Award for her exclusive reporting on the toxic workplace at Rideau Hall. She has also uncovered allegations of sexual misconduct against senior military leaders. Her beats include transport, defence and federal government accountability. You can reach her confidentially by email: ashley.burke@cbc.ca or https://www.cbc.ca/securedrop/