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WWII Code Breaker Shares Her Secret to Turning 100

Centenarian Julia Parsons, who spent war deciphering German messages, refuses to accept limitations

spinner image julia parsons a world war two codebreaker shows us a photo of herself as a young woman in uniform
Courtesy of Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh Oral History Initiative (Farkas Collection)

A parade in Pittsburgh on March 2 celebrated the 100th birthday of native Julia Parsons, a World War II veteran who for decades maintained that she worked a quiet, ordinary desk job during the war. In reality, her job was anything but ordinary.

Parsons was one of thousands of women whose little-known story of deciphering encrypted messages sent by the Japanese and German forces played a pivotal role in helping the Allies win the war.

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From college to code breaking

Fresh out of Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University) in 1942, Parsons read in the newspaper that the Navy was accepting women for a unit called Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, or WAVES. After joining and completing three months of general training, Parsons was sent to a communications annex in Washington, D.C.

When her group was asked if anyone spoke German, Parsons responded that she took two years of German in high school.

"That hardly qualified me for much of anything in the translations line,” Parsons told AARP, “but they sent me right off to the section where I worked decoding the German submarine traffic, which is what I did until the end of the war."

Because the premise of WAVES, established in 1942, was to fill certain military roles to free up more men to fight overseas, almost all of the service members who worked decoding enemy messages were women.

"Although we did have four or five men in the office, most of them were mathematics professors,” said Parsons. “They were very nice, but they were not regular Navy people."

Using one of the first computers, called the “Bombe,” Parsons assisted in uncovering messages that the German High Command sent to its submarines. Decoding would reveal where submarines planned to meet, their mission destinations and the weather conditions. More mundane personal messages that would have typically been sent by mail related to family deaths, new babies and upcoming weddings were also decoded.

Parsons, in her early 20s at the time, got an apartment in Washington with another woman who worked in the Japanese section of the WAVES. However, despite their curiosities, the two would never talk about their respective work with one another.

"Everybody was united against Hitler,” Parsons said, so no one pried each other for information.

When the WAVES weren't decoding messages for the Navy, Parsons recalls going to Hains Point, a park in southwest Washington, where people would ride horses, rent boats, fish and enjoy picnics. On other occasions she remembers going to the theater, parties and dances.

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"I loved Washington. It was so nice. And there wasn't much traffic then either,” she said. “Our lives were so simple compared to now."

Decades of secrecy

Parsons credits the war with bringing women into the workforce. But after serving in such a fascinating job, she found it difficult to return to normal life.

"I couldn't believe I was back in a kitchen,” she said.

"Old people just kind of accept their limitations and drop out. My whole theory on my longevity is that I just kept telling people, 'I can still do that.'"

— Julia Parsons, a 100-year-old World War II veteran

Nonetheless, the WWII code breaker remained tight-lipped about her time in Washington for over 50 years until a trip she made back to the capital in the late 1990s to visit a friend she had made while serving.

The pair visited the National Security Agency's (NSA) National Cryptologic Museum in Maryland, where, to their surprise, they saw the machines they used to decode messages on display.

"We were just shocked because we had no idea it had been declassified,” she said. “For 30 years we could have been talking about it but we didn't because we knew we weren't supposed to."

According to Parsons, the Navy told her that it didn't keep track of where anyone was after the war so it was unable to tell the former code breakers that the program had been declassified.

Turning 100 amid the pandemic

Today, the retired lieutenant is a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. She lives alone and tends to her house with “no problems at all."

As a member of the Veterans Breakfast Club (VBC), a nonprofit dedicated to creating communities that listen to and share veterans’ stories, she has spent the past year attending Zoom calls with veterans from different eras living all around the world.

"There have been veterans on (Zoom) talking, which we would not have if we were still meeting in the restaurants. So, this has been an advantage of this year of the pandemic. It's been really great for me,” she said.

As a result of her service, she was able to get her second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital and recently went to the supermarket for the first time in about a year.

"Everything was still the same. A whole year later. It's still the same and the lines are just as long. Nothing has changed,” she said.

The significance of becoming a centenarian – there are fewer than 100,000 in the U.S. — didn't register until her birthday approached.

"The 100 struck me. I thought, 'For heaven's sake. How did this happen?,'” she said. “You live day after day, and all of a sudden, you're 100. I've been very fortunate. I've never had a serious illness. It's an odd feeling. It's really odd."

She said she doesn't feel 100 at heart and still thinks the way she always has throughout her life.

"Don't ever admit you can't do anything if you haven't tried to do it,” she said. “Old people just kind of accept their limitations and drop out. My whole theory on my longevity is that I just kept telling people, ‘I can still do that.'"

Aaron Kassraie writes about issues important to military veterans and their families for AARP. He also serves as a general assignment reporter. Kassraie previously covered U.S. foreign policy as a correspondent for the Kuwait News Agency's Washington bureau and worked in news gathering for USA Today and Al Jazeera English.

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