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Make WAVES: Erna Bentley

Rhode Island Daughter recalls her World War II service

Erna Schoen Bentley was 21 years old when the United States entered World War II, and almost immediately she looked for a chance to contribute. As the oldest daughter in a family with no sons, she saw it as her duty to serve. She also thought it would be a nice change of pace from the sleepy Connecticut town she called home. In March 1943, that opportunity came. She and a friend went to New York City to sign up for the women’s branch of the U.S. Naval Reserves, known as Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES). “We went there to do it together, but my friend had a change of heart and did not enlist,” Mrs. Bentley recalled.

On April 9, 1943, Mrs. Bentley arrived at the U.S. Naval Training School in Cedar Falls, Iowa. After training there and at the Washington, D.C. Navy Yard, she reported for duty at the Naval Communications Annex in Washington as a communications specialist in cryptography. There she and 4,000 other women spent the duration of the war working to decode secret messages from the German and Japanese governments.

It’s been nearly 75 years since the war ended, but Mrs. Bentley still won’t discuss details of her top-secret assignment. It’s clear, though, that her memories of that time are still vivid.

Take, for example, the evening spent aboard the USS Wisconsin. At the invitation of their former commanding officer, Mrs. Bentley’s unit boarded the battleship for dinner and a tour. “Until that night, I never realized just how enormous the guns were on a ship,” she recalls. “We were not allowed to talk to anyone about our whereabouts or activities for three days afterward [to ensure] ship security.”

Or the time she and her friend, on leave, decided to skip their usual train stop at Hartford, Conn., and continue to the end of the line, to Montreal, Canada. While there, she met her future husband, David, who invited her to have dinner at his mother’s house. A long-distance courtship ensued.

Her favorite story involves removing a nest of roosting pigeons outside her Washington apartment window so that she and her fellow WAVES, who had just worked the night shift, could sleep. Mrs. Bentley and her roommate helped hold the legs of another roommate, who was dangling out of the window to reach the nest. The characters in this story, Josephine and Nellie, turned into Mrs. Bentley’s lifelong friends.

During her time of service, the Naval Communications Intelligence Organization (NCIO) received personal commendations from the Vice Chief of Naval Operations, the Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet and the Commander of the South Pacific for its contributions to the war effort. Mrs. Bentley was promoted quickly to petty officer first class, a rank she held until the war ended. In addition to the World War II Medal and the American Campaign Medal, Mrs. Bentley was authorized to wear the ribbon bar of the Navy Unit Commendation, awarded for meritorious conduct by the NCIO. In 2018, she added another honor to her name—the Women in American History Medal, presented by the Rhode Island Society DAR and Phebe Greene Ward DAR Chapter, Westerly, R.I. 

After the war, she took time off to travel, mostly to Canada to see David. They married in 1946 and had two daughters, Linda and Wendy, a few years later. Last year, she became a DAR member, joining daughter Wendy Bly and granddaughter Kristy Head in Phebe Greene Ward Chapter.

“I am so honored to now be a part of the DAR,” she said. “It’s our history and heritage, and we have to keep it intact for future generations.”

Thanks to Wendy Bly and Kristy Head for interviewing Mrs. Bentley.