WATERLOO -- In the space of about a year, Delores Schaack Burdett went from working in the office of The Rath Packing Co. to helping turn the tide of the battle in the Pacific in World War II.
But she couldn’t talk about what she did for decades.
A 1938 graduate of East High School who grew up on High Street near the school, she joined the U.S. Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) and was part of a top-secret code-breaking unit.
Burdett, who now lives in Florida, was a member of The United States Naval Communication Intelligence Organization, based in Washington, D.C. She was a Navy intelligence communications specialist.
That was nearly 80 years ago. She turns 100 on Jan. 18.
"We decoded the Japanese messages. It was really quite an experience," Burdett said from New Smyrna Beach, Fla., where she lives.
“Our fleet intercepted the messages, and when they came to us, we decoded them,” Burdett said. On one occasion, she said, “I had gotten a message and it was telling about how the Japanese were planning to attack one of the islands. We got the message transcribed and out to our fleet and they destroyed that (Japanese) fleet.
"But we couldn't discuss anything about our work -- only within the walls of that room,” she said. ”It was that secret."
It was so secret, Burdett said, she couldn’t even discuss an award she received for her work after the war.
The Navy awarded the Naval Communication Intelligence Organization, including Burdett, a unit commendation for their work. But the notification letter she received about the award said, “It is directed that, because of the nature of the services performed by this unit, no publicity be given to your receipt of this award.”
“I couldn’t tell my husband -- nobody,” she said. “I packed it away in the bank. It was there for 50 years, and after 50 years they said we could talk about it.”
And her husband Glenn, originally from Tennessee, was a career Navy man. “All he knew was, I was in communications. I couldn’t tell him any more.”
They married during the war, having been introduced through a mutual acquaintance in Washington.
Of their first date, she said, "We went out that night and spent the whole evening discussing how we were against wartime marriages. And then, we got married!"
Glenn subsequently served in the Philippines during the war. The couple lived in Waterloo for a time after the war. Glenn returned to the Navy and served 26 years, through Korea and Vietnam, and 25 years with the U.S. General Services Administration in Washington, before he retired and they moved to Florida. They were married 70 years, with two children and three grandchildren, and he died in 2014 at age 92. She misses him terribly.
She also remembers an office co-worker from Rath, Bob Manske, who also joined the Navy and was killed on the USS Arizona in the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that plunged the U.S. into the war. She enlisted in the WAVES shortly thereafter.
“Now that I’m going to be 100 years old, I look back on it, and I’ve had quite a life, and that was an experience not many people had.”
In 2017, her unit received some long-overdue recognition with the publication of a New York Times bestselling book, “Code Girls: The Untold Story of the Amercan Women Code Breakers of World War II,” by Liza Mundy. Since then, she’s talked more about her service and had articles in the local Florida papers.
“It’s ironic,” she said. “I was at the beauty shop, and one of the fellas that works there said, ‘Can you believe that’s the woman who kept her mouth shut for 50 years?’ But that’s what we did. We knew how important it was.”
In November 1945, after she’d left the Navy, she received a letter from U.S. Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal underscoring the importance of her work.
“I want the Navy’s pride in you, which it is my privilege to express, to reach into your civilian life and remain with you always,” she said.
It has, and it will.