WWII code-breaker Julia Parsons to be honored for 100th birthday and top-secret service
By JOANNE KLIMOVICH HARROP | The Tribune-Review, Greensburg | Published: March 1, 2021
GREENSBURG, Pa. (Tribune News Service) — Julia Parsons knows how to keep a secret.
She was tight-lipped about one for more than 50 years.
Parsons, 99, of Forest Hills, was a code-breaker in World War II. She served in the U.S. Navy's WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), after graduating from Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon) in 1942.
Following cryptology training at the Naval Reserve Midshipmen's School, Parsons was sent to Washington to be a code-breaker. She worked on one of the first computers to decode German U-boat message traffic sent via the Enigma machine, according to Todd DePastino, founder and executive director of the Veterans Breakfast Club, a Pittsburgh nonprofit dedicated to sharing veterans' stories.
But "we never talked about it," Parsons said from her home on Friday. "Because you never knew who was listening. Also, no one asked me, so it was easy to keep a secret. I never told my husband. I never told my parents. I never told anyone. I wasn't good at keeping secrets as a kid, but I knew this was important information to keep to myself. It was a top military secret."
DePastino said she knew the locations of German U-boats in the North Atlantic. She worked six days a week rotating among three shifts. The overnight hours were the toughest trying to stay awake.
She finally broke her silence in 1997, the year she discovered that the information was declassified in the 1960s.
It won't be a secret that Parsons is turning 100 on Tuesday. DePastino has a parade planned at noon and a virtual party later that evening.
Parsons was born March 2, 1921. Her mother, Margaret Potter, lived to be 101. Her father, Howard Potter, who died at 79, was head of the industry machine shop at Carnegie Tech, where Parsons enrolled after graduating from Wilkinsburg High School.
After joining WAVES, Parsons was selected for the coding assignment because she studied German in high school.
"She is 100% with it and sharp," said DePastino, who has been hosting virtual events because of the pandemic. "She attends our Zoom meetings and hangs on every single word listening to veterans and asking them questions. She is definitely a treasure and a role model. She is the perfect balance of modest and proud of her service to her country."
Parsons said there were times she felt bad because she knew people were getting killed.
There was one from a wife telling her husband their child who was 5 was sending his love. The dad died on the submarine.
"It was an odd feeling," she said. "They were like characters in a book. You felt like you knew them."
DePastino said he is grateful for the chance to celebrate the 100th birthday of someone who did such important work.
"I could not believe I was turning 100 until the cards started coming," said Parsons as she pointed to a pile of birthday cards on her end table. "I was thinking the other day, 'Oh my God, how did I get here?' "
Parsons and her husband Don, whom she met in the service, were married for 62 years. He died when he was 82.
When she was 40, Julia Parsons got her teaching certificate and taught English for five years in the North Allegheny School District before her husband's work as an engineer in the Army took them overseas.
They had three children: Bruce, 75, who lives in Charleston, S.C., Margaret Breines, 72, of Westport, Conn., and Barbara Skelton of Erie, 69. They have eight grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.
Parsons loves to play bridge. At one time she belonged to five bridge groups. She said she would like to play online but most of her friends don't know how to operate a computer. She said being able to see people from all over the world on a video screen is a positive of the pandemic.
"My kids have been determined to bring me into the 21st century," she said. "I have a laptop and an iPad. I still have a flip phone. I don't want a smartphone. I had less trouble with coding than technology."
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