Navy WAVE, WWII Code Breaker Will Celebrate 100th Birthday with Her Own Parade

Julia Parsons holds a World War II-era photo of herself.
Julia Parsons holds a World War II-era photo of herself. (Courtesy Veterans Breakfast Club in Pittsburgh)

A World War II code breaker who helped hunt down Nazi U-boats turns 100 on Tuesday and will be honored with a parade past her house in Pittsburgh.

Julia Parsons, who served in the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, or Navy WAVES, said her work was aided enormously by the sheer arrogance of the German High Command in believing that the allies couldn't possibly break their vaunted "Enigma" code despite warnings from their own U-Boat commanders.

She told of deciphering messages from a U-boat commander who surfaced his submarine to contact his controllers. The gist of his message was, "Every time I surface, within a half hour there's an airplane overhead. I think they're reading our code," Parsons said.

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"As soon as they surfaced, they would radio off to control," she said. "It was their own stubbornness that did them in because they didn't believe anybody could read their code. That's how we got our best clues. They kept using it, which we were very happy about."

For her 100th birthday on Tuesday, the nonprofit Veterans Breakfast Club of Pittsburgh, which provides a forum for veterans to meet and tell their stories, has organized a parade of local police and firefighters, veterans and current service members past her house. There will also be a virtual birthday party open to any who'd like to attend.

"Julia's story is simply incredible and, as a long-time member and participant with Veterans Breakfast Club, we are honored to celebrate this milestone with her," Todd DePastino, founder and executive director of VBC, said in a statement.

Those wanting to wish Julia a happy 100th can join her virtual birthday party beginning at 6:30 p.m. Eastern on Zoom.

Does Anybody Here Speak German?

Parsons -- then Julia Potter -- was among a remarkable group of women recruited for the WAVES and Women's Army Corps, or WACs, to assist in super-secret intelligence work against the German and Japanese war machines.

Their overlooked story was recounted by Liza Mundy in her book, "Code Girls -- the Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II."

The book focuses on those recruited from historically women's colleges such as Bryn Mawr, Wellesley and Goucher College in Baltimore, whose dean was Dorothy Stimson, a cousin of Secretary of War Henry Stimson.

Parsons came to the job by a different route. She grew up in Pittsburgh in the era of belching steel mills, which cast a permanent pall over the city. Her father, a teacher at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University), often came home at midday to change his no-longer white shirt collar, she said.

She went to Carnegie Tech, where she received a bachelor of science degree in humanities. She volunteered for the WAVES in 1942.

"If the war hadn't come along, I'd probably have gone to library school and become a librarian," Parsons said. But she saw in the Pittsburgh newspapers that the Navy had started taking women; if they had a degree, they'd be sent to Smith College in Massachusetts for three months of specialized training.

At the end of the training, one of the instructors addressed the women and asked, "Does anybody here know German?"

"I raised my hand and said I had two years in high school," Parsons said. "Well, I was the only one who put my hand up so they sent me down" to a closely guarded communications annex in Washington, D.C., that worked on German submarine traffic.

"I don't know how I got to be there," she said. "We had no special training in any kind of code work. They had taught us to use a teletype machine, but that was about it."

The women were sworn to secrecy, and there was no time for social life. But Parsons admitted to telling a fib to attend a party at one of the big hotels.

There was a reception for a group of young men from Oklahoma who were about to be commissioned in the Army. Word went out to the WAVES that anyone from Oklahoma was invited to attend. Parsons had a girlfriend from Oklahoma who didn't want to go alone, so she fixed herself up with a bogus name tag saying she was from Duncan, Oklahoma.

One of the new lieutenants came over to ask about mutual acquaintances in Duncan. She tried to keep up the pretense, but he saw through it. She would marry Donald Parsons before the war ended.

Her husband would go on to serve in the Philippines and New Guinea and left the Army as a captain, she said. In later years, he would tease her by saying that her fib about being from Oklahoma was grounds for divorce, Parsons said.

She and the other "Code Girls" worked off versions of what was called the "Bombe" machine, one of the earliest computers. It was developed by British mathematical genius Alan Turing to break the Germans' Enigma code with the aid of more than two thousand women recruited for the task at the now-famed Bletchley Park site, northwest of London.

The Army and Navy later developed their own versions of the Bombe machine based on the work at Bletchley Park, codenamed "Ultra" -- the subject of several movies.

"Alan Turing and his gang did a fantastic job with that computer," Parsons said. "Between the computer and the Enigma, we finally got most of the messages done ,but it took a lot of work and a lot of people. And I loved the work.

"It was like doing anagrams every day or crossword puzzles or something," she said. "It was fun but also frustrating" in that she was sworn not to talk about it. She said she honored her oath long after the war.

The decoding work at Bletchley Park and in the U.S. was declassified in the 1960s, but Parsons did not learn of that until 1997, when she was finally able to tell her husband of what she did in the war before he passed away.

"But my parents never did learn of what I did," she said.

The secret has now been shared with her three children, eight grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren, said Parsons, who is still grateful for the chance the Navy gave her to serve.

"The Navy never stops giving," she said. "I met my husband through them and had the job of my life through them. And I got my [COVID-19] shots through them."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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