Forest Hills’ code breaker Julia Parsons is honored for her 100th birthday and high secret service

Julia Parsons knows how to keep a secret.

She had a tight mouth for over 50 years.

99-year-old Parsons from Forest Hills was a code breaker during World War II. After graduating from Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon) in 1942, she served in the US Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service).

After training in cryptology at the Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School, Parsons was sent to Washington to join a code-breaking unit. According to Todd DePastino, founder and executive director of the Veterans Breakfast Club, a Pittsburgh nonprofit dedicated to sharing veteran stories, she was working on one of the first computers to decipher German submarine communications sent through the Enigma machine.

But “we never talked about it,” said Parsons on Friday from home. “Because you never knew who was listening. Also, nobody asked me so it was easy to keep a secret. I never told my husband. I never told my parents. I haven’t told anyone. As a kid, I wasn’t good at keeping secrets, but I knew this was important information to keep to myself. It was a strictly military secret. “

DePastino said she knew the locations of German submarines in the North Atlantic. She worked alternating between three shifts six days a week. The night hours were the hardest to stay awake.

She finally broke the silence in 1997 when she discovered the information was released in the 1960s.

It’s no secret that Parsons turns 100 on Tuesday. DePastino has planned a parade at noon and a virtual party later in the evening.

JoAnne Klimovich Harrop | Tribune review

The birthday cards are rolling for Julia Parsons (99) from Forest Hills. The US Navy veteran from World War II turns 100 on March 2nd.

Parsons was born on March 2, 1921. Her mother, Margaret Potter, was 100 and 1/2 years old. Her father, Howard Potter, who died aged 79, was the director of the industrial machinery shop at Carnegie Tech, where Parsons enrolled after graduating from Wilkinsburg High School.

After joining WAVES in 1942, Parsons was selected for the coding assignment because she was studying German in high school.

Today “she is 100% involved and astute,” said DePastino, who has hosted virtual events because of the pandemic. “She attends our Zoom meetings and hangs on every single word, listening to veterans and asking questions. She is definitely a sweetheart and a role model. She is the perfect balance between being humble and proud of her service in her country. “

Parsons said there were times when she felt bad knowing that people were being killed.

There was one from a woman who told her husband that her child, who was 5 years old, was sending his love. The father died on the submarine.

“It was a strange feeling,” she said. “They were like characters in a book. You felt like you knew her. “


Courtesy Julia Parsons

A photo of Julia Parsons, 99, of Forest Hills when she was in the U.S. Navy during World War II.

DePastino said he was grateful for the opportunity to celebrate the 100th birthday of someone who did such important work.

“I couldn’t believe I was 100 years old by the time the cards came,” Parsons said, pointing to a stack of birthday cards on her end table. “I was thinking the other day, ‘Oh my god, how did I get here? ‘”

Parsons and her husband Don, whom she met in church, had been married for 62 years. He died when he was 82 years old.

When she was 40, Julia Parsons received her teaching certificate and taught English in the North Allegheny School District for five years before her husband’s work as an army engineer took her overseas.

They had three children: Bruce, 75, who lives in Charleston, SC, Margaret Breines, 72, of Westport, Conn., And Barbara Skelton, Erie, 69. They have eight grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.

Parsons loves to play bridge. At one time she belonged to five bridge groups. She said she would like to play online, but most of her friends don’t know how to use a computer. She said it was positive for the pandemic to be able to see people from all over the world on a video screen.

“My kids were determined to take me into the 21st century,” she said. “I have a laptop and an iPad. I still have a flip phone. I don’t want a smartphone. I had fewer problems with the coding than with the technology. “

JoAnne Klimovich Harrop is a contributor to the Tribune Review. You can contact JoAnne at 724-853-5062,, or on Twitter.

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