As a young woman in 1940s Seattle, Merlaine “Mikki” Carpenter longed for an adventure.
“We were so confined when we were growing up,” Carpenter said. “We went to school and did our homework. We didn’t do much of anything.”
Her parents didn’t believe in women going to college, so she went to work for the Seattle aircraft company Boeing, doing keypunch, an old-fashioned version of typing that involved punching holes into cardstock.
Keypunch ultimately led Carpenter to a 20-year career in the world of code breaking, first in World War II and later at the National Security Agency. Carpenter celebrated her 100th birthday Feb. 25 at a Millersville church surrounded by about 100 friends. Amid balloons and cards, including a note from Anne Arundel resident and “Wheel of Fortune” host Pat Sajak, her family and friends discussed how Carpenter’s decision to enter the military changed everything for them.
As a 20-year-old working for Boeing, Carpenter was making a comfortable living, but she couldn’t shake the thought that a world war was underway, claiming the lives of young American men every day, and she wasn’t a part of it.
“I talked to a couple of fellas that were at Boeing and they said, ‘Oh you shouldn’t go in the Navy. Those girls aren’t very nice and once you go into the Navy no man will want you, which was so ridiculous because when I went in, I had never met so many nice girls in all my life,” Carpenter said in a 2015 video clip.
Carpenter decided to enlist, but she’d need to wait a year, as women under 21 needed their parents’ permission to join the military at the time and her mother wasn’t so keen on the idea.
In August 1944, Carpenter became a WAVE, or Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service. She and other women from the Pacific Northwest boarded a train that took them to the East Coast for boot camp where they marched, sang songs and, as she viscerally remembers, cleaned toilets.
She soon learned her experience in keypunch was invaluable for the war effort. It was a critical skill in the process of cryptology or code breaking. She was stationed in Washington, D.C., where she and her colleagues would help collect information and keypunch documents to pass onto the code breakers to help them crack the encryptions. She mostly worked on Japanese codes, said her son Bill Carpenter.
Carpenter and the other communications technicians worked round the clock in shifts. She says she’s still averse to ham sandwiches as she now associates them with 5 a.m. meal breaks during the graveyard shift.
“It was exciting,” Carpenter said. “I was learning new skills.”
A few months after leaving the Navy in 1946, Carpenter married Bill Carpenter who was previously stationed in Hawaii. While she first thought his group of men were rowdy and rejected advances from some of them, she liked Carpenter.
Bill Carpenter enlisted in the Navy with his best friend the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941, said his son Bill Carpenter Jr.
“His friend wanted to go on a ship, Dad didn’t want to, so he didn’t, but his friend did go on the boat and a few months later it was sunk. He lost his life,” Bill Carpenter Jr. said.
Bill Carpenter decided to work in cryptology and helped in the Allies’ efforts at the Battle of Midway. When the Japanese decided to attack Midway Island, the code breakers intercepted their messages, enabling the Allies to prepare for the attack. It led to a major turning point in the Pacific Theater.
Soon after, the two married and had five children as they traveled around the world for Bill’s work, which included stints in Germany, Japan and Guam. Mikki Carpenter said she loved traveling, which allowed her to meet new people, see new sites and expose her children to different cultures.
When the family returned to the states and her kids were older, they settled in Glen Burnie. Carpenter and her husband went to work at the National Security Agency and returned to the world of code breaking. This time she was more directly involved in the code-breaking process, looking into Russian encryptions.
“He was in the room next to ours,” Carpenter said, but they couldn’t tell each other or their kids what they were doing during the day. “That was hard at first.”
Carpenter still loves puzzles and word games and unscrambling things in her mind, however, as she’s aged, she’s been less game for it.
“I did crossword puzzles all my life,” she said. “Now I don’t know how to do crossword puzzles.”
As Carpenter slows down and reflects on her century of life, the code she hasn’t yet been able to crack is what has enabled her to live so long.
“I didn’t ever think I was going to make it,” she said. “I’m very surprised.”
Her kids and grandkids have some theories. They believe the skills she learned in the military, like organization and discipline, have guided the way she lived.
Her granddaughter, Jess Cooney, said when she thinks of her grandma, the first memories that come to mind are Carpenter coming to her house when it was in disarray and whipping everyone into shape, organizing all the laundry and cabinets.
“She’s an incredible, disciplined person. She eats three meals a day. That’s all she eats. She doesn’t snack in between. She’s always been like, ‘Everything in moderation.’ She has her meals. She has her one glass of boxed wine. Her one coffee in the morning,” Cooney said. “The other thing that I personally think is the key to her longevity is she is up for trying anything.”
While Carpenter’s husband died in 2005, she is still surrounded by family, living in Millersville with her son John and daughter-in-law Dayle. She also has 12 grandchildren and 30 great-grandchildren. The family recently took her to visit her future resting place at Arlington National Cemetery beside her husband.
Ever the modest mother and veteran, her kids say they hope she understands the impact she’s had.