CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES

World War II

Bonalyn Selb

World War II Oral History Interview
US Navy, WAVES, Ultra Project
Date: September 10, 2003
Interviewer: Michelle Carrara
Summarizer: Macartan McCabe
Veterans History Project

Summary

Bonalyn “Bonnie” Wiedrich Selb was born in Batavia, New York, in 1923 and enlisted in the US Navy in 1943. Her family had an extensive military history, with ancestors who served in the French and Indian, Revolutionary and Civil Wars. One of Selb’s relatives was a Rear Admiral during World War I.

Selb was working at AT&T at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, transferring phone calls, and she graphically remembered the crying of mothers who had sons stationed at Pearl Harbor. This experience motivated her to enlist in the military; and, when Congress passed an act allowing women to serve, Selb signed up for the Navy. Although her father was originally against her decision, because he believed women had no place in the military, he eventually grew proud of his daughter’s service.

Selb attended basic training at Hunter College in New York City, and she recalled her time there as a period of culture shock, as she was from a small town in upstate New York. She was also not used to the strict routines involving marching to and from and being in classes from 5:45 AM till 9:30 PM. As part of her training, Selb memorized the Blue Jacket’s Manual and learned Naval history and protocol. Her training platoon was commanded by two male Marines who had served in the Pacific, who were bitter about their reassignment, which led to her training being tough. She did, however, recall that she became more prepared for military life than did other trainees.

Bombe code-breaking machine Ultra Project.

On completing basic training, Selb was assigned to the National Cash Register factory in Dayton, Ohio, where she worked on machinery for code-breaking machines known as “Bombes.” Civilian employees assumed that Selb and her fellow WAVES were new secretaries. She had to keep what she was actually doing a secret, as the project was classified, and leaking information totally forbidden. Selb was not allowed to even discuss what she was doing with her family, and she had to lie about her service until the project was declassified in the 1980s.

After serving in Dayton, Selb was transferred to Washington D.C. to work on the same machines she had assembled in Dayton. She recalls that the machines made a horrible noise and became very hot. The room they were in had no windows, which made the task even more uncomfortable. The machines were, however, vital to the protection of American convoys in the Atlantic, and later the liberation of Western Europe. The ‘Bombes” were able to break the German code and print the results. Selb’s task was to transfer those results to an office where intelligence people would further decode the information. She stated that it was rumored that the WAVES were so effective in breaking the German code that Hitler thought he had a spy in his entourage.

Bonalyn Selb received an honorable discharge in November 1945. Following her service, she joined the Navy Women Veterans Organization; and, at the time of her interview, she attended annual reunions. Selb enjoyed telling stories about her experiences, especially after her work was declassified in the 1980s. She became an editor for the National Organization of Women Veterans. Selb was awarded with the Victory Medal and the Exceptional Service Award for her service.

Researchers

Researchers interested in viewing our collections should contact Mr. Joseph Bilby, Assistant Curator, at (732) 974-5966.