The Washington DC National Mall in World War II

DC Mall 1942
Photo: US Navy History and Heritage Command #80-G-K-14433.  Click image to enlarge.  See a closer and somewhat clearer view.

DC Mall 2010
The DC Mall in 2010
DC mall map 1945
DC Mall Map 1945 (USGS)
The Wash­ing­ton DC Na­tion­al Mall when my Mom and Dad worked at the Navy Depart­ment during World War II, which is how they met. The Navy Department building is at right center, just above the trees, the front half of the long series of structures along the right side of the Mall, entrance at Constitution Avenue and 17th Street NW. The rest of the series comprises the Munitions Building, which was the Pentagon before there was Pentagon. These were all built in 1918. The structures that line the left of the Mall in the top photo are temporary buildings (Tempos) I-J-K-L that housed the US Navy Bureau of Supplies and Accounts during the War. The complex at the bottom (on the Washington Monument grounds), Tempos 3-4-5, was occupied by the Bureau of Ships. All these buildings are gone now, replaced by gardens and memorials including the World War II memorial at the east (near, in this photo) end of the Reflecting Pool, where the oval-ish pool is in the photo, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial at about the far end of the Munitions building in the photo. Constitution Avenue (a.k.a. B Street) is to the right; the diagonal street is Virginia Avenue, the Lincoln Memorial is at the far end of the pool, and Memorial Bridge connects to Arlington, Virginia, and the Arlington National Cemetery, where my WWII Marine veteran Uncle Pete is buried, not far from the Iwo Jima memorial (he was there).  All of this is in walking distance.

National Mall 1946

Aerial view of DC Mall 1946: Photo: US Coast and Geodetic Survey LOC G3851.A4 1946.U2; click image to enlarge. See the full photo.
Map of DC temporary buildings
Federal Works Agency map 1946: Detail of National Mall - Click to enlarge
Navy Department
The Navy Department building in 1953 (US Navy photo) - Click to enlarge
National Mall aerial view, 1946. The temporary buildings where my Mom lived are in the bottom half of the image, left of center on the "peninsula". The Navy Department is above the right end of the mall. The Lincoln Memorial and Memorial Bridge are at far left; the Washington Monument is at far right with long shadow. The corresponding map at left labels the buildings; it's just a small section of a much larger map. My father was still working in the Navy Building in 1946, and soon after that he'd be working in Tempos I-J-K-L alongside the Reflecting Pool when they were occupied by the newly formed CIA. He took me to all of these buildings when I was a child. The temporary buildings as well as the Navy and Munitions buildings were demolished between 1964 and 1971.

WAVES barracks and Signals work

DC WAVES barracks DC WAVES barracks
WAVES barracks in West Potomac Park; Right: Curie Hall.
Photos:  DC History Center.
I had always assumed that my Mom lived in the temporary buildings that were adjacent to the Reflecting Pool, because I remember her pointing them out to me in the 1950s, picnicking on the Lincoln Memorial lawn. But I see on the Federal Works Agency map that behind them (about where the FDR memorial is today) were other temporary buildings explicitly designated as dormitories and residence halls and identified by the Historical Society of Washington DC as Navy WAVES barracks, naming Curie Hall as an example. So it turns out Mom was pointing at buildings that were behind the ones we could see: WAVE Quarters B, West Potomac Park (but see note 6 below).

Navy bombe during WWII
World War II: "Code girl" with Bombe in DC Navy Annex
And what were all these WAVES and sailors (like my mom and dad) doing there throughout the war? Signals Intelligence. Military messages were generally transmitted in ciphertext, i.e. encrypted. Some of the WAVES and sailors worked in cryptography, encoding and decoding Navy messages as well as trying to break the codes of Axis messages, such as U-boat and Japanese Imperial Navy traffic. Others (like my mom and dad) sent and received Navy messages, presumably encrypted, in Morse code. Nobody was allowed to talk about this work, not even after the war, but the reason I know they weren't codebreakers is that they were enlisted, not officers. To break Axis codes, the cryptographers were aided by massive "bombe" machines like the one at left. Although originally the codebreakers worked in the Navy building, by late 1942 the operation had outgrown the space so the Navy took over the 38-acre campus of Mount Vernon Seminary at 3801 Nebraska Avenue, about four miles NNW of the Navy building, and it became the new top-secret Naval Communications Annex. More about my Mom's Navy work here.
  1. Mundy, Liza, "Code Girls - The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II", Hachette Books (2017). Chapter 6, "Q for Communications", is about the WAVES codebreakers and the buildings they lived and worked in. My Mom was not a code breaker but I believe she worked with them as receiver and sender of encrypted messages.
  2. WWII Women Cracking the Code, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum: "A major part of the WAVES’ job was building and operating the Navy Cryptanalytic Bombe, a 2.5 - ton electromechanical device developed to break the four-rotor enigma messages from German U-boats. Six hundred WAVES worked three eight-hour shifts, seven days a week at the National Cash Register Company (NCR) in Dayton, Ohio, where they learned how to solder and connect wires, read electrical diagrams, assemble rotors, and build 121 of these machines with no idea what they were building or why. It was tiresome, tedious work that allowed no room for error. After the first successful Bombe run in May 1943, the WAVES traveled with their Bombes by rail back to the Navy Annex in Washington, DC, where they operated the machines through the end of the war."
  3. US Navy Bombe, Wikipedia (accessed 19 March 2021).
  4. Naval Security Group WAVES during WWII, (accessed 19 March 2021).
  5. Temporary buildings of the National Mall, Wikipedia (accessed 19 March 2021).
  6. East and West Potomac Park, National Register of Historic Places Inventory - Nomination form for federal properties, 30 Nov 1973: "In 1944, a complex containing three dormitories to house 2,500 WAVES (Women Appointed to Voluntary Emergency Services), a mess hall, an infirmary, and a recreation building, was constructed..." Then where did Mom live in 1942 and 1943???
  7. Did you know that Washington DC was a hotbed of New Deal construction? See the new New Deal Washington DC Map and Guide from the Living New Deal at the University of California at Berkeley [see sample].
Frank da Cruz family history Page created: 2017 Latest update: 21 May 2021