World Warfare II code breaker Julia Parsons celebrates her 100th birthday with a parade and a zoom social gathering
Julia Parsons of Forest Hills helped win World War II. The secret, invisible war was waged behind the battlefields.
Parsons helped break the Germans’ naval codes, often pinpointing the exact locations and plans of their fearsome submarine fleet (U-Boot-Fleet), whose flocks of wolf packs threatened to cut off the shipping lanes that linked the United States with England.
Parsons didn’t begin talking about her wartime experiences until 1997 and took her mission of secrecy to heart. Not even her husband knew what she was doing during the war.
She will be 100 years old on Tuesday. Past her home in Forest Hills, there is a parade (with local first responders, veterans and civilians) and a zoom party where she talks about her long life and wartime experiences. The festival is organized by the Pittsburgh-based non-profit Veterans Breakfast Club, which collects and preserves the stories of veterans – and has given Parsons a crucial sense of connectedness.
NEXTpittsburgh caught up with Parsons, who was born in Oakland, raised in Forest Hills, and graduated from Carnegie Tech. She joined the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) military unit and landed at a naval facility in Washington, DC
“They came through and wondered if anyone could speak German and I raised my hand. I said, “Well, I had two years of it in high school.”
That was enough for the Navy. She studied cryptology at the United States Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School at Smith College and was then sent to Washington DC for top secret duties.
“It decoded the radio communication between the high command in Germany and the submarines themselves,” explains Parsons. “You sent many, many messages every day. They twinkled back and forth the whole time. “
The Germans had the Enigma machine, which they believed could not decipher its radio transmissions. But Polish and British scientists, led by the legendary Alan Turing, worked on it and eventually developed important electromechanical devices called bombs (and the world’s first real computer, Colossus) to crack German codes. When the Americans entered the war, they developed their own bombs.
So successful was Parsons that she gained an in-depth knowledge of the lives of German crew members, especially their more successful and deadly captains.
“We got to know some of these skippers by name because they have been around for so long,” says Parsons.
It was hard work – the Germans were always changing their codes – and an abstract, math challenge, but it was about real life. If the ship convoys were destroyed, the war effort – and even Britain’s food supply – would collapse.
“Our only goal, of course, was to sink the submarines,” she recalls. “I didn’t think about the poor souls on board. But then I guess you’re not in wartime. “
“By then, many, many friends of mine had already been killed. It was a brutal war. Sure, it still bothers me. We lived in Europe for a few years and every time we went to Germany I thought, “Yes, I could have helped wipe out some of the family members of these people.”
Parsons and their staff didn’t break the codes every day. However, she feels she saved the lives of many Allied sailors when messages were decrypted and ships were diverted from roaming submarines.
“They said we did; At least I hope we did, ”says Parsons. “I had two friends from college who were sunk on the submarines and never heard of it again. It must be a terrible death. Yes, I can’t imagine anyone wanting to get on a submarine. “
Her office was a strange place, surrounded by strange machines that no one but their inventors had seen before.
“There were many, many computers on the walls,” Parsons recalls. “They made a terrible noise. And they were very hard to work with. “
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They were careful to ensure that the Germans did not know that the Allies had cracked their codes. Admiral Karl Dönitz, who was in charge of the German Navy, had no idea.
“I think on his deathbed they said he was still denying that his code could be read,” says Parsons.
However, German subcrews had their suspicions.
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