The Faces of 90.5 WESA
Thu September 19, 2013
Meet Julia Parsons, Pittsburgh Native and WWII Code Breaker
Imagine your mom, or your grandmother, maybe even your great-grandmother, with a secret past. Perhaps you know that she’s lived through some major historical events like World War II.
Now imagine finding out she not only lived through it – but was an integral part of secret military operations during the war.
That is part of Pittsburgh native Julia Parsons’ story. She was part of an all-women’s German code-breaking team.
“Nobody ever talked about it, this was really a secret thing … there were thousands of people there, and nobody ever found out that we could read their code. The Germans never found out,” Parsons said.
Parsons was a 1942 graduate of what was then known as Carnegie Tech, and at the time she was unsure of where that education would take her.
“When I graduated I had what is now known as humanities, then they called it general studies, which equipped you for nothing in the world really,” she said. “You had to take either a secretarial or library minor, so I took the library minor.”
Joining the Military
Parsons was young, unmarried, and U.S. involvement in World War II was ramping up. So after college she decided to take an Army ordinance job.
“We were checking gauges,” Parsons said. “The steel mills were making shells and all that kind of ordinance equipment, and they were hiring all the Rosie the Riveters to work there, which was the first time women had been in the steel mills, it was considered very bad luck to have women in – so they did not accept Rosie gracefully.”
She worked there for about a year.
“And then I saw in the paper one day that the Navy was asking for college graduate women to come in and go to OCS type thing – I forget what they Navy called it – Mid Shipmen’s School.”
On to New Adventures
Parsons answered the ad and went off to Smith College in Massachusetts to train. While there she took a couple of cryptology classes.
“I had never been in New England before, which was interesting because it was still snowing then, and I had never seen white snow before," she said. "Pittsburgh was so dirty then, just so dirty and New England was so clean and so pretty."
But Parsons didn’t stay there long. She completed her training at Smith and went to Washington, D.C. There she waited with other women to find out what her assignment would be. Then one day someone asked the group if anyone spoke German. Parsons had taken the language in high school, and that was good enough for the Navy.
“I was put in the German section,” she said. “The German section that did the U-boat traffic was what I got into. We were to decode the message from control to the U-boats, the North Sea, the Bay of Biscayne, the Channel, the whole bit.”
All-Women’s Code-Breaking Team
Parsons’ section was called "SHARK," and their job was to decipher codes sent via the so-called "ENIGMA machine." That involved working with one of the first computers.
“They had dozens of messages every day telling the U-boats where to be, where the next gathering would be, where the dangerous convoys might be, if they wanted to avoid them,” Parsons said. “They would also send personal messages such as ‘happy birthday’ or if someone had a baby they would congratulate them. There were all sorts of filler traffic when they weren’t having any official messages.”
Parsons was working as a code breaker when she met her future husband — himself an Army man.
“I met him at a party one night and we were married a year later … I never told him anything,” she said. “I think it was so drummed into us that you didn’t tell. They had signs all over the place, the posters that said, ‘loose lips sink ships,’ everybody was doing something, and nobody asked anybody really.”
Not that keeping job specifics from friends and family was an easy thing.
“It was hard because you would have loved to have bragged that you were doing something really important,” she said, “but that’s the way it was.”
Opening Up About Her Past
So when did Parsons open up about her code-breaking days? Not until the late 1990s. The program she had been part of was quietly declassified in the 1960s. Then one day in 1997 she and her family visited a museum in Washington, D.C. and she got a surprise.
“We went over to see what it was and there was the ENIGMA machine, variations of it, and all these huge computers and I thought, ‘How can they do this?'" she said. "And that’s when I found out it had been declassified 30 years before and nobody knew it, well we didn’t know it anyway. I was really shocked.”
The docents were telling stories of the women code-breakers and, according to Parsons, had a few facts wrong here and there, but she didn’t say anything at that point.
Her family had known she was in the Navy, and now that the program was declassified, Parsons started sharing details. Though for her two daughters and one son, the news wasn’t earth-shattering.
“They were very interested but you know, this is mom,” she said with a laugh, “I don’t think they ever read into it or delved into it at all.”
That was pretty much confirmed by one of Parsons’ daughters.
“She’s still just mom … because it wasn’t really any part of our growing up. She was a mom for far longer than she was in the service,” said Barbara Skelton.
That’s not to say her kids weren’t proud of her. Her other daughter, Margaret Breines, said they were always proud of her, even before finding out about her code-breaking work.
“I think that she’s an amazing person,” Breines said. “It was an amazing thing that she had gone to college then decided she’d go off and join the Navy, then to go off to Washington that kind of amazed me more because you think of your mother of someone who just sits at home."
Breines said she and her sibling slowly learned that their mother’s time in the service involved more than office work.
“She would talk about what she did, but it was never in great detail, because you know, growing up I think to your children you’re just always there so you don’t ever feel you need to tell these stories in detail,” she said, “so my sister and my brother have learned all of this as she’s gotten more involved in later years as to what she did.”
But the sisters say a few things clicked into place when they learned of their mother’s secret military duties.
“We’ve always been a puzzle family,” said Barbara Skelton. “Her (Parons’) family was always a puzzle family. It’s always crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, so the fact that she was involved in decoding certainly makes perfect sense — and she’s very good at it.”
Parsons has been sharing her story for years now, whether it’s for a Ken Burns documentary or a presentation for a Girl Scout troop, she said she tries to leave her audiences, especially the all-female ones, with a clear message about the future and what can be learned from the past.
“I would like them to realize they did not have all their doors open to them before our peer group started getting out and getting into the world and letting people know that women could do the same jobs that men could do,” Parsons said. “They could do interesting things and get out and see the world if they want to. It was a fascinating time, and it was a pleasure to be doing something really important”
After the war, Parsons was a school teacher for a time, raised her three kids and traveled the world with her husband, who died about five years ago. Nowadays, Parsons spends her time playing Bridge and going to book club meetings, the symphony and lectures.