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Goucher’s secret ‘code girls’ helped end WWII

Janice Martin Benario

In 1942, in a locked room at the top of a building in downtown Baltimore, 10 young women learned cryptology under the supervision of a Pulitzer Prize winner and a Navy officer. The building was Goucher Hall, in the days when the college was still located in the downtown part of the city, and the Pulitzer winner was Professor Ola Winslow, who was recognized in 1941 for her biography of 18th-century theologian Jonathan Edwards.

The women, members of the Goucher College class of 1942, were known as WAVES—an acronym for Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service—and many of these Goucher students, along with selected students from the class of 1943, went on to work on the top secret mission of decoding the complex German Enigma code machine. Their work directly contributed to the Allied victory in Europe in World War II.

“It’s not a surprise to me that Goucher women were chosen,” said President José Antonio Bowen. “Part of the Goucher attitude has always been that women were as capable as men.”

At the time, in the early ’40s, the dean of students was Dorothy Stimson, a scholar of Copernican theory. She earned her Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1917 and became dean at Goucher in 1921.

Her cousin was Secretary of War Henry Stimson. After Pearl Harbor, wrote Liza Mundy, author of the book Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II, “he put in a quiet word asking for some of Dean Stimson’s best senior girls” from Goucher to aid in the war effort.

When she began the research process for her book, Mundy worked closely with cryptographers and historians at the National Security Agency and National Cryptologic Museum. As she delved into the materials, she learned that many of the cryptographers in the early-mid ’40s were college students and recent graduates; Goucher was one of the first schools she came across.

“Goucher probably has the best records of the women and the work,” Mundy said, “A lot of schools don’t know about the history or their own role in it. Hats off to Goucher for making the effort to record this history and to honor and recognize the women.”

Indeed, throughout history, Goucher students have been undaunted, bravely facing and overcoming obstacles, and the Goucher WAVES “Code Girls” of World War II thoroughly embodied this spirit.

Among them was Latin major Janice Martin Benario ’43, a Baltimore native, who worked as part of the Navy’s Enigma code-breaking team known as Operation ULTRA.

In 2013, Benario, by then Dr. Janice Martin Benario, spoke to a group of seventh and eighth grade students at the Paideia School in Atlanta, GA.

“My life was governed by secrecy,” she said, her Baltimore accent still apparent after more than 40 years in Atlanta. “We were not to breathe a word about what we were doing once we got in that office. In wartime it would have been considered treason if any talk had gotten out.”

According to a 2010 Cryptologia article, when the war ended, Janice Martin completed her active duty at the U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery in Falls Church, VA. In 1946, she was discharged as a lieutenant junior grade. She went on to earn M.A. and Ph.D. degrees at Johns Hopkins University, where she met her future husband, Herbert Benario.

Benario’s ability to keep a secret held fast. Herbert never learned of his wife’s service in naval cryptology during the war until 25 years into their marriage. Of course, most of the information was classified until the late 1990s. Benario only began speaking publicly on her experiences in 2002.

When the opportunity was finally available to shine a spotlight on the WAVES, Goucher’s Curator of Special Collections and Archives Tara Olivero provided research assistance to Mundy for her Code Girls book, helping her cull through Goucher’s history.

In the early days of World War II, the college developed a war program called the Defense Program.

“They took up a call to service and community,” Olivero said.

Student committees were dedicated to training—from nursing and mechanics to education, protection, and community service. The curriculum was redesigned. The school paper featured advertisements for military participation, alongside the clips about students getting engaged or other social concerns.

“It was one of the first times for women in the workforce,” Olivero said. “We were shedding the idea that college was just for women to find husbands.”

“It was a rare moment in American history—” Mundy writes, “—unprecedented, when educated women were not only wanted but competed for.”

With men fighting overseas, women were needed at home to take up the mantle—rather than merely decorate the mantelpiece. Engineering and chemical firms, the Office of Strategic Services, and the FBI all began recruiting women students at top schools like MIT, Wellesley, Vassar, and Goucher.

That’s not to say, of course, that sexism wasn’t still front and center.

“Select beautiful ones for we don’t want them on our hands after the war,” Mundy writes one electrical company specified in its request to Goucher for 20 female engineers.

The students were smart, loyal, and willing, but they had to prove they could be tenacious by enduring the long hours and high demands of training.

Working the midnight to 8 a.m. night shift was biology major Frances Steen ’42. Duty to country was part of the Steen family tradition. Her brother Egil, a Naval Academy graduate, was on North Atlantic convoy duty, and the family strove to contribute where they could, even saving bacon grease, which could be used to produce glycerin for bombs. Steen’s ambition was to become a doctor. “They laid their plans aside to answer the Navy’s call,” said Mundy. “The work was extremely stressful; they knew the men whose lives they were trying to save.”

By 1944, Steen had been promoted to lieutenant. She’d spent a year as part of the team recovering the code that helped orchestrate Operation Vengeance, the 1943 military operation that took down Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander-in-chief of the Japanese Imperial Navy and one of the masterminds behind Pearl Harbor. Steen was now part of the Enigma chain decoding German ciphers.

During one of her watches, a message came in that the ship captained by her brother was targeted for a kamikaze raid. Despite the advance knowledge, nothing could be done to prevent the attack. The boat was sunk, and Egil Steen was one of only a few men to survive.

The codebreaking way of thinking never left Steen. “Her thought processes were highly analytic and different from what most people’s were,” her son, James “Jed” Suddeth Jr., told Mundy.

In 2004, Rear Admiral (Ret.) David Shimp arranged for Frances Steen Suddeth Josephson to be honored by the Navy Cryptologic Veterans Association. Suddeth, who served in the U.S. Naval submarine force, offered a brief, heartfelt tribute:

“As an American citizen, with all the freedoms we have, I thank you; as a fellow naval officer, I salute you; and as a son, I love you.”

Steen died in 2007, of natural causes, at the age of 86.

She, Janice Martin Benario, and all the Code Girls of Goucher are part of the college’s long tradition of courageous service and barrier-breaking.

“The code girls are one example,” said President Bowen. “We have lots of other examples of firsts. The first woman doctor in the U.S. Army was a Goucher graduate, as was the inventor of the TB test. To be undaunted is the sense of perseverance, of doing good work, even if it’s not in the spotlight, will pay off for you and for the good of your fellow human beings. A lot of what we are about is finding potential. It happens in ways both big and small.”

He continued: “We are connecting the future to the past. While we adapt to change and propel forward, we remain true to the undaunted spirit of our history.”

– Holly Leber Simmons


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