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.
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.