Janice Benario, 97, worked on WWII code-breaking team

Janice Benario, photographed in her Decatur apartment, is a 95-year-old resident who served as a World War II WAVE working on part of the Enigma project. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM
Janice Benario, photographed in her Decatur apartment, is a 95-year-old resident who served as a World War II WAVE working on part of the Enigma project. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Janice Benario squawked loudly, as she realized that a cloak-and-dagger secret from her past was now on public display.

One day in the early 1990s, she was perusing a book her husband had given her on the World War II Enigma project, the Allies’ successful top-secret effort to break the code the Germans used to communicate with U-boats in the Atlantic Ocean.

“It was one of the first books published on that. She let out a shriek and my father walked into the room,” said son Fred Benario. “She showed him a picture in the book and she was in that picture,”

She had kept her participation in the top-secret program that tracked and decoded the location of prowling enemy submarines under wraps, even from her family, for decades.

But husband Herbert said the “reveal” was not too surprising,

“I knew she was in the WAVES (women’s naval service) but I didn’t know exactly what she was doing,” he said. “And she was a very talented woman.”

A recent issue of Boucher magazine featured Janice Benario, 95, on the cover. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM
A recent issue of Boucher magazine featured Janice Benario, 95, on the cover. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Benario, 97, whose work — along with many others’ — was key to the Allies’ success in the Second World War, died Dec. 3 of natural causes. Survivors include sons Fred and John and husband Herbert. No memorial service was held.

Janice Benario told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2018 that the road to her deep-cover assignment began with a professor at her school, Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland. It was October of 1942.

Taking Benario into an office and shutting the door, the instructor said, “I’m going to invite you to a class given by the Navy, and you don’t dare mention it outside this room because this being wartime, it would be considered treason,” she said.

After eight weeks of training in cryptology, she reported to a Navy communications annex in Washington D.C. — a former school with blacked-out windows, and she lived in a nearby dormitory.

The younger Benario said his mom was not a codebreaker, but her role was important nonetheless. She read messages between top German commanders and sub crews and determined who to pass them along to among the appropriate Navy brass.

She told the AJC that each morning “there would be a knock at the door and there was an officer from the main Navy department with a big leather pouch,” which he filled with the messages and then took to naval headquarters.

“My life was governed by secrecy,” she was quoted as saying in an obituary prepared by Emory University, where she later taught Latin. “We were not to breathe a word about what we were doing once we got into that office.”

It could be nerve-wracking work. She and women recruited from several other colleges worked 24/7 in rotating shifts, and strict accuracy was expected.

Discharged from the Navy in 1946 as a lieutenant junior grade, Benario earned a classics doctorate from Johns Hopkins University, where she met her husband. A move to Atlanta came in 1960. She went to work at Georgia State University as a professor.

After retiring from Georgia State, she began instructing beginning Latin classes at Emory, said Niall Slater, the former head of the classics department there.

“She was a superb teacher all her life.” he said.

Another turn in life came in 2003, when a women’s group at Emory asked her to give a talk about her codebreaking work, said Fred Benario.

“She prepared about a 45- to 50-minute presentation and it was a huge success,” he said. “People stood up and cheered. She spent the next 12 years giving presentations all over metro Atlanta.”

Benario said his mother blazed new trails in two key ways. Her wartime job demanded that she live independently — uncommon for a woman at the time. And she became a leading light in Atlanta’s World War II community in her 70s and 80s.

She pushed her envelope in another way as well, developing what Slater called “a broader interest in other aspects of World War II.” One example: Slater was a guest lecturer on a 2005 trip to Crete under the auspices of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The island had been captured by the Nazi’s during the war. Benario tagged along, as it brought together her interest in classics and World War II.

Fred Benario said that he doesn’t have any definitive word on why his mother was chosen for the critical war effort, but thinks it had much to do with her ample intelligence.

“She was an only child,” he said, “and her father was a lawyer, so her parents did a good job of raising a daughter who was treated as if her brain mattered.”

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