WWII Code Breaker, Who Kept Her Work Secret For Decades, Celebrates 100th Birthday
Pittsburgh-native Julia Parsons wasn’t able to talk about her work code-breaking German messages during World War II for decades because her work was top secret. Parsons told WESA’s The Confluence that her father thought she just worked a desk job.
“At that point, there were signs everywhere that said, ‘Watch what you say,’ you know, the old ‘loose, loose lips sink ships’ type of thing,” Parsons said.
Parsons operated a German Enigma machine that the Nazis used to encode strategic messages. After decoding these messages, Parsons was able to find the location of German U-boats and learn more about the enemy crew.
“We called it America’s best kept secret,” Parsons said.
She first entered the Navy in 1942 after graduating with a general studies degree from Carnegie Tech, the predecessor to Carnegie Mellon University. She joined the Navy Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, also known as “WAVES.” The program was created when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Navy Women's Reserve Act in 1942.
Parsons joined the Enigma section of the WAVES since she had two years of experience learning German in high school.
She said the responsibilities and implications of her job were challenging to her conscience.
“I felt some of what they call survivor's guilt. [It is] one thing to enable someone to sink a submarine. But it's another thing to think about the lives that you're taking with it,” Parsons said. “I had a sense of guilt in there for having helped to destroy the German submarines. It just still bothers me sometimes when I think of those lives lost.”
She said the job was made more bearable when she thought about the lives she was saving.
The first time Parsons spoke to her family about her code-breaking work was in 1997, when she learned that her mission was declassified after visiting the National Cryptologic Museum in Maryland.
“They knew that I had done some kind of undercover code work, but we had never discussed anything about it,” she said.
True to the problem-solving nature of deciphering, Parsons said she still enjoys activities like puzzles, anagrams and crosswords. “That’s been natural for me.”
Listen to their conversation on The Confluence.