Indiana County native, Cold War code-breaker, dies at age 101
Angeline Nanni could have lived her life in relative peace and quiet working at her sisters’ Blairsville beauty shop.
Instead, she became part of one of the most important counterintelligence programs of the Cold War.
Ms. Nanni and her compatriots in the Venona Project helped decrypt thousands of coded messages sent by the Soviet Union during World War II — a massive code-breaking effort that revealed extensive Soviet espionage efforts in the United States, infiltration of government agencies and the names of spies.
“It was almost like Facebook, where you look for circles of friends and networks. They really were able to peel back the onion from the institutions,” said her nephew, Jim DeLuca.
She was the last of the female code-breakers who served on the Venona Project.
Angeline Rose Nanni, of Washington, D.C., formerly of Creekside, Indiana County, died Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019, at St. Andrew’s Village, Indiana. She was 101.
Born in Creekside on Aug. 2, 1918, she was the daughter of Philomena and Biagio Nanni. She graduated from Indiana High School in 1937 and got her beautician’s license, going to work for her sisters’ beauty shop in Blairsville.
But fate had a life-changing, and history-changing, vocation in store for her. She went to Washington in 1944 to test for a job with the Army’s Signal Intelligence Service and showed an aptitude for code-breaking.
Ms. Nanni worked for the top-secret Venona Project out of Arlington Hall in Virginia until her retirement in 1980. Family members who attended her retirement party didn’t even know what she was retiring from.
The group successfully translated about 3,000 encrypted messages, including ones related to the Cambridge Five spy ring in the United Kingdom and major KGB espionage agents such as Klaus Fuchs, Harry Gold, David Greenglass, Theodore Hall, William Perl and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, according to the National Security Agency’s Center for Cryptologic History.
DeLuca said family members, once the program was declassified in 1995, came to look on “Aunt Angie” as a role model. “Those women did in the 1940s what women aspire to do today,” he said. “It’s come a long way because we had role models like Aunt Angie to look up to.”
Ms. Nanni traveled in retirement. She spent time with her former colleagues, traveling to places such as Maine in the summer. She also stayed active with cultural and community life in D.C., where she continued to live, and attended the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle.
“She lived her life fully. She was really very active,” DeLuca said.
Ms. Nanni was preceded in death by three sisters and two brothers.
Prayers of transfer will be held at 9:15 a.m. Saturday at James F. Ferguson Funeral Home, Blairsville, prior to a Mass of Christian Burial at 10 a.m. at SS. Simon & Jude Church, Blairsville. Interment will follow in St. Bernard’s Cemetery, Indiana.
Memorial contributions may be made to the charity one’s choice.
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Stephen at 724-850-1280, [email protected] or via Twitter .