Hillsdale College alumni have accomplished many great things, but Elizebeth Smith Friedman is in a class of her own.
This summer, the United States Coast Guard announced it would name its 11th Legend-Class National Security Cutter after Friedman, a 1915 alumna of the college.
When the Coast Guard’s crypto-nautical unit began, it consisted entirely of Friedman and her clerk. Friedman’s tools were only a pencil and a piece of paper, but that was enough. Over the course of Prohibition and World War II, the pair deciphered a total of 12,000 messages from Rum Runners, who illegally transported alcohol onto ships, to and from their fleets of boats landing on the American coast. Additionally, the unit intercepted radio signals from Vancouver to Mexico on the West Coast, from Newfoundland to the Bahamas on the East Coast, and from Cuba to British Honduras.
Friedman came to Hillsdale College in 1913 after transferring from Wooster College because it was closer to her ill mother. After graduating in 1915 with a degree in English, and an alumna of the Pi Beta Phi sorority, she headed to Chicago in search of a job.
It was her passion for Shakespeare and determination to prove his connection to Francis Bacon, however, that brought her to the Coast Guard after she shared her passion for the playwright during a phone call to Colonel George Fabyan. After she married William Friedman in 1917, the pair moved to Washington, D.C., to work for the War Department. From there, her career in the Coast Guard began, eventually earning her the title of ‘America’s first female cryptanalyst.’
Her accomplishments are numerous and range from decoding messages from Mandarin and becoming a secret agent for the Treasury Department to testifying in smuggling trials.
“It was her love of language studies that really aided her,” said Linda Moore, Mossey Library’s retired historian. “It shows you what you can do with an English degree.”
This isn’t the first time Friedman has been recognized for her extraordinary career. She received an honorary law degree from Hillsdale College in 1930 and is listed on the C.I.A. Wall of Honor.
But the Coast Guard ship is the highest honor of all.
According to the Coast Guard, the ship is one of the largest, and most sophisticated ships of its time. The 418-foot ship cuts through hazardous waters around the globe and will be primarily stationed between the North and East Pacific.
“Legend-Class cutters honor women and men who have a legendary status in the Coast Guard’s rich history,” the Coast Guard said in a press release. “These individuals reflect a proud diversity of missions, historical periods, and career backgrounds, and continue to inspire us.”