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Pearl Harbor


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. Everyone wanted to do something to help. 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. 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. All of the women finished the course and in the spring the college held a public induction service for any and all 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. The officer training class must have 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. Benario went on active duty in September of 1943. All they knew then was that they received messages in their office as they were decoded. The machine room was underneath their office. They had two translators on duty at all times. [Annotators note: the Interviewer pauses the interview for about 30 seconds because of a noisy ladder in the background.] 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. In her office she had people who worked only during the day. Benario was a junior watch officer. They had pins on a giant map of the Atlantic which represented all known German u-boats.


[Annotators Note: Janice Benario served in the navy as a member of the WAVES and worked with ULTRA intercepts decoding messages about German u-boats and ship movements.] They had a pin for every submarine and a pin with a flag on it for every convoy. One of their main jobs was to keep the board updated. They had to work watches. One was from eight to noon, the second was from noon to four and the third was from eight to midnight. Every morning they had to provide a report on the messages that were decoded during the previous shift. Some envelopes were marked Ultra Top Secret and immediately that envelope had limitations on who could see it. An armed guard would collect the report and put it in a locked pouch. The man carried it to his car and drove it down to the main naval department and eventually it would work its way up to Admiral King [Annotators Note: Admiral Ernest J. King was the Commander in Chief of the US Fleet and the Chief of Naval Operations]. The messages they decoded were sent from a German Enigma machine. The army, navy and air forces of Germany all used Enigmas. The Enigma machine was used to its full capacity by the German Navy. The Germans were convinced that the Allies had no way of cracking the Enigma. The Germans did not find out until the 1970s that the United States had cracked the code during the war. Every day the u-boats had to send in a position or weather report. Sometimes they reported seeing ships and convoys and they also reported on sunk ships. They were able to read this German u-boat traffic. Benario is still not used to being able to talk about it. A German operator would have a message that he put into the Enigma letter by letter. The Enigma worked by changable electrical currents. The current would go through all of the wheels and eventually the letters would light up. The messages were then sent by Morse code and they were picked up by receiving stations in Britain and off of the east coast of the United States. The British received the same message so their code breakers could take a swing at it. Benario learned later on that the British had in fact turned over the entire code breaking operation over to the United States. By 1943 the United States and Great Britain had decided to swap information they had on Germany. There was a group of women in Ohio who worked at a switchboard and they were an unknowing part of the United States spying scheme. By the time Benario got in they were able to translate a message in less than 14 hours. In the beginning of the war the Germans changed the Enigma settings once a week. By the end of the war they changed the keys every day.


[Annotators Note: Janice Benario served in the navy as a member of the WAVES and worked with ULTRA intercepts decoding messages about German u-boats and ship movements.] There were three rotor wheels to each machine [Annotators Note: Enigma machine]. Each rotor had 26 notches for each letter of the alphabet. There was a plug board with 26 plugs. The Germans boasted that there were 59 million different combinations and set ups on the Enigma machine. They were able to figure out the combinations until German words appeared. When words appeared they knew they had the right combination. Their office only got the results of the messages. There was another office that handled the messages as they came in directly. They only received paper with the messages on it. The preparations for D-Day relied on all German Enigma traffic and not just u-boat traffic. Other departments were instrumental in decoding other German radio traffic. They were able to convince the Germans through the careful release of information that the invasion of France was going to come from somewhere else. Benario was focused on the Battle of the Atlantic. By 1943 when Benario joined, the Battle of the Atlantic had turned. They were sinking more submarines every day. The u-boat threat was still around throughout the war but it was not as big of a threat after 1944. In September 1945 Benario had six more months to serve so she was reassigned to the Bureau of Medicine in downtown Washington, DC. Benario was given a day job reading correspondence courses which navy doctors had to take. In March 1946 Benario was put on inactive duty. WAVE officers could not be discharged officially until 1955. Before that time happened, Benario had used four years of the GI bill to get her masters and PhD from Johns Hopkins. Enlisted WAVES had to live in barracks. The barracks were fairly large. Officers were given 21 dollars a month to use for housing. They could live wherever they wanted to. Some of the girls got together and rented a house. Washington, DC had many women’s boarding houses that would serve breakfast and dinner. The women were able to take advantage of this food. They missed very few of the meals. Benario lived near Dupont Circle. She always had civilian roommates. She had one roommate who swore she was going to get Benario to talk in her sleep about what she did during the day. Of course Benario never did. The WAVES were very proud of their uniforms. Washington was full of service people and it was incredibly safe. Benario would go to work somedays at 11 at night and she had no fear walking from the bus to her apartment. [Annotators Note: a brief pause takes place while the interviewer waits for some outside noise to settle.] Benario never felt any animosity towards her from males. Everyone was specially chosen in Benario’s office. Most of the men in the program had PhDs or were college professors. Intellectually, they were all on a level playing field.


Janice Benario never received any awkward treatment from men. Since she was an officer she may have commanded respect. Benario felt that everyone looked up to people in uniform. For a number of years Benario has given talks about her experience during World War 2. She notes that she was concerned about her job and not social issues. Benario never felt compelled to talk about her job. She does not remember signing a secrecy order but it was heavily implied. All Benario had to tell people was that she was not able to talk. Benario wonders if something as top secret as Ultra could be kept secret today. Benario never felt the urge to tell anybody about it. It was not declassified until 1973. There were a couple of books published on the subject. Benario was married by the 1970s. Her husband’s parents were born in Germany. By the 1980s Benario had let her husband know that she was working on the Atlantic side of the war. Benario’s parents died before she was able to tell them. Benario saw a picture of herself in a book in 1991 and that was what propelled her to begin talking about her experiences. Benario remembers the exact moment she discovered her picture in the book. She reported her role to Goucher University. In 1992 Goucher published an article in its alumni magazine entitled Goucher’s secret contribution to the war. Churchill had at his disposal an Enigma machine because of the work of Polish cryptanalysts. Benario likes to look at the little events and how those events shaped the war. Churchill was very fond of his code breakers. Churchill said the code breakers were like his geese that laid golden eggs and never cackled. Once Benario’s photo was published in the book she began to tell more people exactly what she was doing. Benario had information on clandestine American operations to obtain an Enigma. As the war went on they captured U-505, which had an Enigma on it. The Germans thought it was sunk but it was crippled to the point where an American ship had to tow it.


Janice Benario did not think about her job too much while she was doing it. Every once in a while they got excited when they saw that a German u-boat was sunk. They kept track of neutral shipping as well. Sometimes they could glean clues about German u-boat activity from civilian shipping records. People in general felt that they had to win the war. They were fighting to keep their liberty. There was never any thought of losing the war. The worst point for Benario was when they received reports of ships sunk off of the coast of America that could be seen by civilians in cities. There were a couple of months when the German u-boats sunk a lot of ships. Benario was taking a current events course in 1941 and she recalls following the Japanese aggression in the southwest Pacific. The office they worked at had a locked door on it. Her office was contained in an old all girls school. Only a few high ranking officers were allowed to go into Benario’s office. No one was really let in or out. They had no cleaners. Telephones were not secure at the time. They were not allowed to speak about anything over the phone. Benario ran into a couple of the submarine tracking folks. No photographs were ever taken into the room. The war was over in 1945. Benario had taken some business courses but realized quickly that was not what she wanted to do. Benario lived at home immediately after the war. She lived very close to Johns Hopkins and Goucher. When Benario was 13 or 14 she read a book called Patty Went to College. She realized that she wanted to do something in the college environment. Most of the graduate students at that time were people who were on the GI Bill. Johns Hopkins Department of Classics realized that they needed to get students in and out quickly. She finished her PhD and her master's within 4 years. The GI bill paid her tuition and 100 dollars a year for books. She also received 75 dollars per year for living. After graduating she looked around for teaching jobs and was able to get a position at Sweetwater College in Virginia.


Janice Benario met her future husband at a Latin seminar at Johns Hopkins. Benario’s husband took a position at Emory and they have been there ever since. Benario had two children born in Atlanta. Benario recalls the events of 7 December 1941. She lived about 15 minutes from Groucher. She heard the announcement when she was studying. It was hard for her and her family to believe that war was starting. Benario never dreamed that the United States would be involved in another war. Eventually rationing came. Benario never heard anyone complaining about what they had. They worked with what they had. There was never any choice. Benario’s father was an attorney. He dealt with county real estate. Benario never felt deprived. Benario was in Washington when Roosevelt [Annotators Note: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt] died. She was with people she worked with. They went down near the White House. Benario was in a crowd of people paying their respects. There was a great deal of sadness. Then again this was war and these things happen. People got back to their jobs. There was no not going to work just because someone died. Benario’s family was Republican through and through. Her father had voted for Roosevelt but he did not tell anyone else in the family. She does not remember too much about VE Day. Benario heard after everyone else. Messages were still coming in. She thinks that the course at Groucher changed her life. If she had not taken that class then she would have never been an officer. She was able to take her experience as an officer and use the GI bill. Benario was able to reap many benefits of her service. Benario’s contacts were able to help hook her up with different jobs. She retired from teaching in the 1990s. Beginning in 2002 Benario has began to tell her World War 2 experiences. She is still doing it to this day. Benario believes that it is important that people today should learn about World War 2. Benario is horrified when she finds out that kids do not know much about World War 2. She has not spoken at any schools but has friends who have. Students are increasingly more interested about World War 2. She enjoys teaching students. In high school and college Benario had a great appreciation for history. She believes it is important that we have The National World War II Museum. She grew up learning about World War 1. World War 2 was on such a big scale and she was glad when the World War II Memorial was built on The Mall. There is a memorial to women who fought in all of our nations wars. Benario was very pleased when she heard that there was The National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

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