Shelter Island woman lived ‘Imitation Game’ reality

Viviene Gershon dressed in her Women’s Royal Naval Service uniform in the early 1940s when she worked on a secret code breaking project. (Credit: Courtesy Photo)

Viviene Gershon dressed in her Women’s Royal Naval Service uniform in the early 1940s when she worked on a secret code breaking project. (Credit: Courtesy Photo)

There’s Hollywood. And then there’s history.

Shelter Islander Vivienne Gershon knows only a little about the first but a lot about the second. Especially the inside story, now the subject of a popular film, of one of the most remarkable feats of World War II — the breaking of the German military code by a group of British patriots.

Gershon was a part of that effort, a secret operation code named ULTRA, so secret, in fact, that the British government waited more than 20 years, long after the war ended, before lifting restrictions on revealing anything about ULTRA.

“I had signed the Official Secrets Act,” Gershon said recently at her Island home, a Tudor-style house with leaded windows, a testament to her English upbringing. She never discussed her wartime work with anyone, taking her oath seriously. If anyone divulged their work “they’d have a life in prison,” she said, adding wryly, “or some other sort of doom.”

Gershon never told her father exactly what she was doing for the war effort. With a smile, she said, “I’m sure he thought I was doing a little typing somewhere.”

Instead, she was helping save lives by operating a machine that decoded the enemy’s plans.

Sunday night, Gershon watched the Academy Awards and rooted for “The Imitation Game,” which was up for eight Oscars, including best picture, actor (Benedict Cumberbatch) and supporting actress (Keira Knightley). It took home the award for best adapted screenplay.

The film is a fictionalized (some would say very) recounting of the cracking of “Enigma,” the Germans’ encryption machine, by a group of mathematicians led by Alan Turing at Bletchley Park, a country mansion set in Buckinghamshire in southeast England. The film’s drama focuses on Turing’s genius and how he tried to keep his homosexuality hidden, fearing arrest and imprisonment.

Gershon never met Turing, but she was there, working on the project. She’s seen the film, and when asked about its veracity, said, “Oh, it’s been fixed, they had to make it a movie, didn’t they?”

But she added that all in all, she thought it was great.

Born in a small Yorkshire market town in the north of England, Vivienne attended boarding school, ironically enough in bucolic Buckinghamshire. She went to school in the far south of the country, she said, tongue in cheek, because her parents “were trying to get rid of my North Country accent.”

When she graduated from high school, the war was on, with the German Wehrmacht rolling from victory to victory through Europe and bombing British cities.

Gershon explained that everyone was enlisted in the war effort, and she returned home from school and worked for a while caring for returning veterans. She then joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service, known as the Wrens, at the end of 1942. Soon she was transferred to London where she went through basic training — “We were taught to salute and there was a lot of marching” — and selected to work on the super secret team assembled at Bletchley Park.

She, along with teams of other young women, were billeted in country houses, working on what was considered an unbreakable code. Gershon recalled how the young women slept in bunk beds in what was formally a grand ballroom of a large manor house — not quite Downton Abbey accommodations — and considered themselves lucky when they could find a smaller room to share with just a few friends.

Vivienne at home on Shelter Island. (Credit: Ambrose Clancy)

Vivienne Gershon at home on Shelter Island. (Credit: Ambrose Clancy)

Turing and others constructed a machine called “Bombe,” which when programmed with German codes could begin to unravel them. Gershon was one of the operators.

“The machine could run for hours, with millions of calculations,” she said, and one of her duties was to gather information from the machine and communicate it to the mathematicians for analysis.

The hours were long, and sometimes on free days she’d get a train to London — when the blitz, or German bombing, ceased — change for another train at 9:15 p.m. and be home in Yorkshire at 3 a.m. Other times, she and friends would explore the countryside or go to Oxford and Cornwall.

The war changed everything for Britons, she said. One life-changing moment came when she met a young American airman named Archie Gershon at a Halloween dance in 1944. They fell in love, married, had two boys and eventually came to the United States, settling in Port Washington.

When one of her sons was a little boy, a friend of his said he was going to a place called Shelter Island to visit his grandparents. With a sense of adventure, Gershon packed up her kids and husband and went out east to see the Island.

Here, along with Archie, who has since passed away, they owned and ran a shop called the House of Glass for many years located at the corner of Route 114 and Duval Avenue, with a gift shop on one side and hardware supplies and a garden center on the other.

Memories of her time at Bletchley Park flooded back when, around Christmas, while visiting one of her sons in New Jersey, they went to see “The Imitation Game.”

“It was enjoyable,” she said.