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Secret Keeping 101—Dr. Janice Martin Benario

Janice Martin Benario was born in Baltimore, Maryland and went through the public school system. She wanted to go away for college but ended up attending Goucher University in Baltimore. It was at Goucher where Benario's wartime experience started.

She majored in Latin and minored in History. Benario was a senior in 1943 and everyone on campus did something to help out with the war. People realized it was a war that had to be won. In the fall of Benario’s senior year she was stopped in the hall by an English professor who told her that the navy was offering a course in cryptology at seven women’s colleges. Benario was offered a spot in the course. If she finished it successfully there would be doors opened to work in the war effort. Benario was informed it was a secret program. I would be treasonous to speak of it outside of the university walls. There were ten to 12 women in the class and they met once a week for about 15 weeks. Benario recalls working on Fridays and having to lie to people inquiring about it. When she looks back on it, Benario thinks it wasn’t necessarily a specific skill she possessed which led elite, in-the-know faculty to select her for this honor. Rather, it was that she seemed like “someone to be trusted.”

All of the women finished the course and in the spring the college held a public induction service for the women going into the service. Benario went on active duty in early July 1943. Some were sent to Mt. Holyoke and some were sent to Smith for officer training classes. They studied all types of material. Benario was among one of the first groups of women’s line officers in the navy at the time. She went into active duty in early July 1943.

The officer training class had 80 to 100 women in it from the seven women’s colleges. About three quarters of the women were cleared to handle top secret material in Washington, DC. They reported to the main navy building in D.C. and received their specific orders. Benario was assigned to OP-20G. Her branch in the office had to do with reading German naval enigma traffic. They had to monitor high level German communiqués that were being sent to u-boats. Benario’s office was at the Naval Communications annex off of the corner of Massachusetts and Nebraska Street. It was right across the street from American University.

Their first day they were indoctrinated and told never to talk or breathe a word about the work they were doing, otherwise they were to be treated and punished as traitors. Benario kept her mouth shut during the war and especially after the war. Benario’s parents died without knowing what she did during the war. All they knew then was that she received messages in her office andthey were decoded. In fact, husband Herbert Benario didn’t learn of her service in Washington, D.C. until 25 years into their marriage and nearly 50 years after the war was over.

The machine room was underneath their office.

“I remember there was cardboard over those windows so no one could see, and no one could walk in unless they knocked and someone let them in,” she said. They had two translators on duty at all times. The messages came in strips of letters. They then assembled the German words and translated it. The messages were typed and handed to the senior watch officer. Benario was a junior watch officer.

She said that every morning, between 7:30 and 8 a.m., she and fellow codebreakers “would get together an envelope of the messages we had translated for the day…and every day around that time there would be a knock at the door, and here was a Naval officer from the main Navy department with a big, leather pouch, which he could lock and unlock. We took our envelope, put it in that bag, and he locked it up, got in his car and drove it to the main Navy department.”

She then went on to get her M.A. and Ph.D. degrees at Johns Hopkins University. That’s where she met future husband Herbert Benario. They were wed in 1957 and moved to Atlanta in 1960, where she was a professor at Georgia State University until 1984.

Below: Janice at 95.

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