Her face lit by the soft glow of a green-shaded desk lamp, Janice
Benario wove her fascinating tale.
With the overhead lights off and people spilling onto the floor
since every seat was occupied, the Jones Room felt like the setting
of a large ghost storywith Benario closest to the fire.
Benario, professor of classics emeritus at Georgia State University,
related her experiences as an ensign in the U.S. Navy during World
War II in her talk Top Secret ULTRA: The Allies Secret Weapon
in the Battle of the Atlantic.
The title of the April 24 event was interesting enough, and Benarios
relaxed and at times dramatic presentation of the cloak-and-dagger
aspect of her military career fit the shadowy appearance of the
room quite perfectly.
The need for secrecy was so ingrained in me that I almost
forgot about it, Benario said.
Good thing she didnt.
ULTRA was the code name for the Allies effort to decode the messages
of Germanys Enigma machine, which resembled a typewriter.
If the Allies could break the German code without the enemys
knowledge, the effect would be devastating for the enemy. All Germanys
military had utilized the code since the 1920s, but Benarios
work focused on its use by the German navy.
While ULTRA may not have single-handedly won the war, it most certainly
shortened the conflict and made defeating the Germans much less
costly for both sides.
Benario told of how she was recruited by the U.S. Navy while still
an undergraduate, majoring in Latin at Gaucher College in Baltimore.
A 20-year-old senior, she enrolled along with 1012 others
in a secret course in cryptography. She would eventually join the
Navys WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emerg-ency Service).
After graduation, she went to officer training and in the spring
of 1943, she was assigned to Washington. Soon after receiving her
assignment, Benario was given specifics.
I was told I would be handing a level of intelligence almost
no one else even knew existed, she said. Simply talking
about it would be treason in wartime.
Benario was assigned to ULTRA. By 1943, the German code had already
been brokenthe effort began in the early 1930s with the Polesand
the Allies were reading German communications on a daily basis.
Upon receiving her assignment, Benario went right to work.
We were glorified paper pushers, Benario said. But
it was what we were pushing and where we were pushing it [that was
important], she said.
The paper Benario pushed consisted of decoded German messages describing
U-boat operations in the Atlantic Ocean. Benario and her fellow
WAVEs (she was one of four in the office) would plot the U-boats
coordinates, then forward the messages along the line. Often, messages
that passed through Benarios hands would find their way into
those of Adm. Ernest King, Chief of Naval Operations.
Using this information, the Allies would adjust their shipping
accordingly to avoid submarine traps, as well as track down the
Benario was on duty in the office until after the Japanese surrender
in September 1945. Her work was so secret that she couldnt
discuss it with anyone until more than 30 years after the end of
the war. The existence of ULTRA, in fact, was unknown to most of
the world until it was detailed in a 1974 book by F.W. Winterbotham.
Benario clearly enjoyed telling her story from the more mundane
aspects (her work hours, which varied widely) to the stunning (she
was in the office when the Allies stormed the beaches at Normandy,
June 6, 1944, and was aware of all communication both friend and
It wasnt until 1991, though, that the gravity of the work,
and her place in it, really hit Benario. Her husband, Herbert, professor
of classics emeritus at Emory, bought her a just-published book
on ULTRA, Seizing the Enigma: The Race to Break the German U-Boat
Codes. The book contained several photographs, one was of the
office where she worked and its 20 or so employees. She saw herself,
and the experience hit home once again.
I then realized what it meant to be in that small office,
I knew Id married a powerful woman, Herbert Benario
joked from his seat in the audience when he was asked about how
he learned of his wifes wartime activities.
Following her discharge as a lieutenant junior grade in 1946, Benario
earned masters and doctoral degrees in classics at Johns Hopkins
University. She paid for her schooling with the GI Bill.
After 24 years as a classics professor at Georgia State, she retired
in 1984. She didnt stay home long, thoughshe taught
Latin at Emory from 198994.