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Stories of Honor: Rare WWII woman veteran helped end the war early with code breaking

Winona Daily News - 8/14/2022

Aug. 13—In 1944, Eleanor (Czaplewski) Johnson, who grew up in Winona, joined the Navy to help in World War II — even though her mother didn't want her to, as her two older brothers had already joined.

For two years, she spent her time working in Washington, D.C., intercepting and breaking codes coming off of ships, using "enormous" machines to do so.

While she and her fellow "WAVES" — Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service — worked around the clock, her shifts changed every week.

She was trained for the position first at the Bronx campus of Hunter College in New York for six weeks, then for a couple more weeks in Washington before starting.

But Johnson — who was a Specialist Q Third Class — wasn't able to tell any of her loved ones about her position. She was sworn to secrecy by the United States government for 40 years. She couldn't even tell her husband, whom she married a year after leaving the Navy.

"This being top-secret work, we were told they would shoot us if we talked about it. I made a call home after being sent to Washington, D.C., and my parents wanted to know why the FBI was checking up on me by talking with the neighbors. They did this to all the WAVES who were in code breaking," Johnson wrote in 2003.

She concluded the 2003 writing by saying, "Being in the service is a part of my life I will never forget. I learned to work as a team and cherish some of the friendships I've made. I still keep in contact with some of the Waves I worked with. Times have changed, but they can't take the memory away of when were young and so proud to be a member of the U.S. Navy."

Johnson wrote similarly in 2005, saying, "I found another family in the military. The women I met in the WAVES were each other's best friends and sisters; I cherish their friendships still today."

She also mentioned then that her time in the Navy taught her responsibility.

Johnson was informed by her captain that the work her and her fellow Waves did was highly important.

"Our captain also told us that because of the top-secret work we did, the war ended two years early," she wrote in 2005.

"I'm so proud," Mary Kay Ehleiter shared about her mother, who died in 2007 at 85 years of age. "Because not that many women served in World War II."

Ehleiter and her three brothers stood out as children because of their mother's military service — their friends' mothers did not serve in the war.

While Johnson had dresses and other commonly worn women's clothing of the time, Ehleiter remembers her wearing blue jeans and T-shirts.

She also remembers how her mother enjoyed sports. According to Johnson's obituary, she was the pitcher for the Watkins women's fast pitch softball team when they won the city championship in 1946.

Ehleiter said Johnson taught her kids to share her love of sports, while Johnson's husband, Clint — a fellow World War II veteran — worked long hours.

Ehleiter said her mother also taught her and her siblings to not be afraid to be themselves and taught them about loyalty.

Ehleiter, writing to Johnson near the time of her passing, said, "Growing up in a house with all boys, one might think I was spoiled. I wouldn't say that, you treated all of us the same. The boys learned to cleaned house, washed clothes and do dishes. I, on the other hand, worked in the yard or shoveled snow with them. We were not raised with the boy's work or girl's work. It was just work — that was just one of the valuable lessons in life you taught us. I grew up in a house with a strong mom one who spoke her mind and lived her life side by side with her husband. The dad didn't rule our house, it was a joint effort by both of you."

Ehleiter continued, "Your experiences in the Navy help to groom or guide you to who you are today. It took a special young lady to join the service during WWII. I'm very proud to say, 'My mom was one of those special ladies.' So many people are surprised when I say that both my parents served during WWII, and they say, 'Really, what did your mom do?' I proudly tell them, a code breaker for the Navy stationed in Washington, D.C. You always taught me I can do anything I set out to do. You taught us not to be quitters but fighters. A lesson we've all carried with us in life."

Johnson was nominated by her niece, Connie Tropple, for the Stories of Honor series because "of what the military meant to her."

Johnson's life after the military included being "a member of U.S. Naval Cryptologic Veterans Association, a past president of the American Legion Unit 435 Auxiliary, past president of the 5th District Auxiliary, and she was a longtime volunteer of the Minneapolis Veterans' Hospital," according to her obituary.

Johnson raised her children and lived the rest of her life in the Twin Cities area.


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