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April 29, 2002

Benario shares war stories

By Eric Rangus


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 story—with 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 Benario’s 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 didn’t.

ULTRA was the code name for the Allies effort to decode the messages of Germany’s Enigma machine, which resembled a typewriter.

If the Allies could break the German code without the enemy’s knowledge, the effect would be devastating for the enemy. All Germany’s military had utilized the code since the 1920s, but Benario’s 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 10–12 others in a secret course in cryptography. She would eventually join the Navy’s 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 broken—the effort began in the early 1930s with the Poles—and 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 Benario’s 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 enemy.

Benario was on duty in the office until after the Japanese surrender in September 1945. Her work was so secret that she couldn’t 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 foe).

It wasn’t 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,” she said.

“I knew I’d married a powerful woman,” Herbert Benario joked from his seat in the audience when he was asked about how he learned of his wife’s wartime activities.

Following her discharge as a lieutenant junior grade in 1946, Benario earned master’s 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 didn’t stay home long, though—she taught Latin at Emory from 1989–94.