The secret life of PFC Margaret Gilson

Inspired by a clue on their great-aunt’s gravestone, siblings from Fredonia discover that the woman thought to be an Army secretary may have been a WWII code breaker
ozaukee Press staff

Fredonia residents Phyllis Steffens and her brother Lawrence grew up not knowing much about their great-aunt Margaret Gilson. At 4 years old, Phyllis remembers visiting her in a retired priest’s home that Gilson was the caretaker of and cranking the phone while her great-aunt made a call.

Other than that, what she knew of her deceased relative were stories told by family members.

It wasn’t until Steffens was in her 30s that the full story of her great-aunt, a World War II veteran, unraveled.

One of Phyllis’ family members died in recent years and when she was at the funeral service she noticed the headstone of her great-aunt. It read, “Margaret A. Gilson, Wisconsin. Private First Class,  Second Signal Service Battalion.”

A Luxembourg native who emigrated to the United States at a young age, Gilson died in the VA Milwaukee Center on July 22, 1958, and was buried in Fredonia.

Phyllis had always known that Gilson had served in the military but never knew much about her duties. The rank on Gilson’s gravestone piqued her interest and she started making calls.

She said she contacted the Ozaukee County Veterans Services Offices and was told her aunt likely performed clerical duties for the U.S. Army. She was also told that her aunt’s battalion was one that was involved in a secret project to break Japanese codes.

According to a National Security Agency publication, women in the Second Service Signal Battalion intercepted and forwarded coded enemy messages to the Secret Intelligence Service, soldiers and others who worked to break them. Stationed in a vacated junior high school in Washington, D.C., called Arlington Hall, where Gilson worked, the women analyzed, decoded, translated and interpreted the messages.

The woman would also test U.S. communications to ensure they were safeguarded from threat.

“The Second Service Battalion monitored U.S. Army radio transmissions looking for poor communications practices which would make it easier for the enemy to encrypt U.S. messages,” the NSA report stated.

Details of the code breaking work and Gilson’s involvement may have gone undocumented because the project was classified until decades after the war. The NSA report states that women accepted into the cryptologic field were sworn to secrecy and that the penalty for discussing their work outside of the approved channels could be death, as it was considered an act of treason during the war.

Gilson’s battalion, time of service,  knack for figures, tied it all together, Phyllis said.

“It was something more than what was written on the paper,” she said of Army documents listing Gilson as a clerk.

When the realization of Gilson’s true work in the Army solidified, Phyllis said she was elated.

“She was accomplished in her own rite, but when you find out about the adventures she had, it’s just like wow,” she said. “I”m just really proud of her. I wish I would have gotten to know her better.”

A year older than Phyllis, her brother Lawrence remembers more details about his great-aunt.

“I was a small boy but I remember her very specifically,” he said.

He remembers Gilson as a proper, organized woman who canned pears, enjoyed clothes shopping in Milwaukee with her mother and ran the books for her family’s business, Gilson Foundry, a business that produced cast iron cement mixers.

While leading a relatively sheltered life, he said, she was quite intelligent.

“She had a good head for figures,” he said.

Lawrence said he learned from family members that despite having a comfortable life and a five-bedroom house in Fredonia, Gilson volunteered to leave her life behind and serve in the Army when WWII began.

“Her life was just fine and she gave up all of that,” he said.

After being placed in her battalion — potentially after solving puzzles and other tests the Army would test cryptology candidates with — she left for Washington D.C. for long hours of work and less comfortable accommodations than her home.

Lawrence said when the war was over, Gilson came back to Fredonia and picked up life as she had left off, telling friends and loved ones she had done little more than type and organize.

When Lawrence heard the results of Phyllis’ research, he said he acquired a new admiration and pride for his family lineage. He said women in his family had always been intelligent and that Gilson must have been truly gifted to be involved in the code breaker group.

“She had to be really smart to do it. It took the cream of the crop,” he said.




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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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Port Washington, WI 53074
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