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A Woman Helps Break the German Code During WWII

Parsons learned about Pearl Harbor the day of the attack, later it would affect her whole life

julia parsons then and now

Ross Mantle

Julia Parsons at her home in Pittsburgh, and photos from her time in the Navy during the war.

En español

Julia Parsons was a senior at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh when she first heard of Japan’s attack on America.

“I was going to a friend’s house to give her a birthday present,” she recalls. “The radio was telling me about Pearl Harbor. I remember thinking, Where on earth is that? Little did I know that it would affect my whole life.”            

After Parsons graduated in 1942, she saw a newspaper story about opportunities for women in the Navy.

“I got my commission and was sent to Washington, D.C.”

One day, an official asked if anybody in her group of recruits could speak German. She could, a little.

“They sent me immediately to the German section of the communications annex in Washington, which was the big code-breaking place for the Navy. Our section did German U-boat traffic. We hadn’t broken a code for a long time,” she says. “Everybody was trying everything they could think of. Then we noticed this one message. The Germans had gotten very careless, and they sent the same one every night. The wording was exactly the same every night, at the same time, giving the weather for the skippers for the next day. That was all we needed. That broke the code.” 

When the war ended, Parsons went back to Pittsburgh. There was an adjustment. “It was hard to go back to the kitchen.”

She worked as a high school English teacher and was married for 62 years to husband Don, whom she met during the war. Fearing some of her exploits were still classified, she didn’t tell her family about her role in World War II for decades. “I was very proud of what we had done. It was phenomenal.” 

In March 2021, Parsons turned 100 and celebrated with a Zoom party. She has no idea how she has managed to live so long.

“The war taught me to drink and to smoke, and I certainly did that for years and years,” she says. “I’ve been very fortunate. I don’t think I lived any kind of exemplary life, but I’ve loved it.” 

Alex Kershaw is a best-selling author of several books about World War II, including The Liberator, which became a Netflix miniseries in 2020.

Editor’s note: This article, originally published Nov. 30, 2021, has been updated with new information.