As told to Todd DePastino

WWII Code Breaker and Navy WAVE Julia Parsons holding photo of her younger self

The war came at a perfect time for me. I was a senior at Carnegie Tech about to graduate with a General Studies degree that equipped me to do practically nothing in the real world. After working a few months in the summer of 1942 in an army ordnance lab checking gauges on shells made in Pittsburgh’s steel mills, I read a newspaper article about the Navy accepting women into service as commissioned officers for the first time. College graduates could earn commissions by going through an officer candidate program. I signed up right away and became a Navy WAVE­­ Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service. 

Some girls—and we were called “girls” in those days—had fathers who weren’t too happy about their daughters joining the Navy. But my father, a professor at Carnegie Tech, had no boys, and he was proud of me and proud, too, to hang the blue star service flag in our window to show that we were doing our part. It’s sad that I never got to tell him about what I did as a WAVE, which was declassified only after his death. I could tell him only that I did “office work.” He’d have been fascinated by the truth. And proud.

I shipped out for officer training on April 13, 1943. We marched from the Keystone Hotel on Wood Street downtown to the old P&LE railroad station across the river. We went straight through the back door and on to a train.

“Goodbye, Pittsburgh!” I thought, relishing my chance to see more of the world. My first great shock was the sight of white snow in Northampton, Massachusetts. In dirty Pittsburgh, fallen snow merely provided a backdrop for the black soot that rained from the skies without cease. I marveled, too, at the ubiquitous New England evergreens. These trees were rare back home, where poisonous acids polluted the air. 

Several hundred of us young women crowded into the dorms of Smith College—“U.S.S.

Northampton”—for Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School. We marched to and from classes (the only marching we’d ever do in the Navy) intended to equip us for useful Navy work. The focus of our coursework was cryptology, but we also took classes in physics, Navy history, and identifying ships by their silhouettes. They worked us hard, and those of us who scored high enough upon graduation shipped straight to Washington, D.C. I was among that group, as was my roommate, Sandy.

Sandy and I stayed in Quarters “D”—a naval barracks—with 4,000 other WAVES before finding third­floor walkup rooms in Georgetown, a posh area now, but not then. Washington hummed during the war years with important people doing important work, and all of them in uniform, it seemed. There were uniforms from all over the world, a veritable United Nations on the streets, scuttling in and out of buildings, all working hard for the war effort. Everyone Sandy and I knew came through Washington sooner or later, and there was always someone—a friend of mine or a friend of Sandy’s—sleeping on one of our pullout couches.

When we arrived in Washington, we reported to the Naval Communications Annex housed in a former girl’s school, the Mount Vernon Seminary, located in Northwest Washington on Massachusetts Avenue near Ward Circle. The complex is still there, serving a similar purpose with the Department of Homeland Security. We gathered in a beautiful campus chapel and sat in velvet padded pews, the kind with little doors at the end of the rows, and waited for our assignments. Someone came in and asked, “Does anyone here speak German?” I raised my hand because I’d taken two years of it in high school. They shot me off to the Enigma section immediately, and I began learning how to de­code German U­boat message traffic on the job, day one.

The U­boat section was code­named SHARK (there was a separate ship section, with which I had no contact). Enemy messages arrived all day from all over the North Atlantic, plus the North Sea and the Bay of Biscay. The Allies’ receiving towers would intercept German coded radio messages, and operators would transmit them via teletype to Washington, D.C., where armies of technicians like me would begin trying to decode them. Decoding wasn’t easy, and it would have been impossible if the British hadn’t captured a German Enigma machine and three months’ worth of code (and three months only) from German submarine U­ 559 in October 1942. 

WW II M4 Enigma MachineThe machine they captured was the M4 Enigma, for U­boats only. It looked like a typewriter in a small wooden cabinet. Inside the cabinet is where Enigma worked its diabolical (to us) magic. Each key on the typewriter was wired to a wheel, and each wheel to another wheel, and then to two others—four wheels in all. Each wheel changed the letter that went into it, so that the letter that was typed went through four generations of change before outputting as a seemingly random letter. The wheels were removable and could be rearranged, and their alphabet settings could also be changed, and they were, every twelve hours. The morning code was never the same as the afternoon code. The only rule, and it was one that proved tremendously useful to us, was that the outputted letter could never match the inputted letter. It was a safety measure the Germans had built into Enigma, but it helped us to eliminate plausible but false messages.

We would receive the messages and put them on tickertape in one long unbroken line of letters. Then, using the code captured off the sinking U­boat, we would set our Enigma machine for the morning’s or afternoon’s code, run the received message through Enigma, and read the outputted message. We got better and better at matching the decoded message with our other intelligence and got so that we could pretty much track U­boat fleet movements throughout the Atlantic.

When the three months’ worth of captured code ran out, we were stuck. Enigma became an enigma again. The U­boat traffic became unreadable. To us, decryption was a logic game, but we also knew that many American and Allied lives—indeed perhaps the outcome of the war in Europe—depended on our efforts. From 1939, groups of German U­ boats—“wolfpacks”—stalked and sank thousands of Allied ships. American soldiers and sailors, as well as millions of tons of supplies and equipment destined for Great Britain and the Soviet Union, went down in the Atlantic, greatly harming the war effort. If we couldn’t win the battle of the Atlantic, we might not be able to win the war.

The messages we decoded were specific in directing U­boats to rendezvous with other ships in certain locations. We had a huge map of the Atlantic Ocean on the wall divided into numbered quadrants with pins marking the last known locations of every U­boat. If we didn’t break the code for two or three days, we didn’t know if the U­boats had changed position, and American convoys leaving New York or Boston or Virginia might just sail right into the middle of a wolfpack. 

One of my fellow WAVES in our department, Jean McDevitt, had a husband who sailed every six weeks or so on convoys as a Navy officer. Whenever he’d shove off, Jean would come into our room and say, “Ok, now, get busy. Mac’s convoy left today. You’d better break that message traffic. I want Mac to come home alive.” And she’d come round every hour or so to see if we’d broken the code. So, this was all very real and immediate for us. We knew lives were on the line. Our effort to do the impossible, to break the unbreakable code, was serious business. 

Every once in a while, we’d catch a break. U­ boats sometimes lost radio contact, and when they’d surface to recharge their batteries, they’d radio their base requesting that missed messages be re­sent. Sometimes we’d be able to match these recoded messages against messages sent in the old code we’d broken. When that happened, it was like picking a lock and opening a door to a room full of useful information.

Female officer working on WW II code breaking machine “Bombe”We got help from a marvelous machine, entirely new to us, called a “Bombe,” a computer. As big as a piano, the computer took the information we fed into it about possible wheel orders and settings, along with the messages we’d received and not decoded, and then worked through the different possibilities. A lot of the work, however, was still done by our fallible human brains.

One week, when we hadn’t been able to decode any messages at all, I got the task of creating a huge paper spreadsheet containing information on all the messages we’d received in the past six months: the subject, the time and date, the sending location, etc. The spreadsheet revealed a small detail that we’d missed about the daily message traffic. Every night at 7:30pm, a German control center sent out a weather report for the Bay of Biscay. Every night, like clockwork: the same message sent at exactly the same time. 

The wording was virtually the same each night—verboten in any code operation­­and the sender even failed to use dummy words at the beginning of the messages. Because we knew the message content, we could work backwards and figure out the afternoon code. We’d simply wait until 7:30pm, receive the message, break the code, and then work like mad deciphering the messages we’d received earlier that day. We did this from the time I made the spreadsheet until the end of the war. It was our permanent solution to the problem of the code. Simple human carelessness on the Germans’ part. The only time we tripped up was when the message sender accidentally misspelled “Biscay” as “Biskay.” That threw us off, but the next day, we were back on track.

My work on Enigma was exciting and fascinating, but it was sad and poignant also. After months of daily eavesdropping on U­boat messages back and forth, we really got to know those German crews, like characters in a book. Not all the messages were official war business. There were many personal ones: “Congratulations, your son was born yesterday” or notes of support from loved ones. These Germans were just people like we were. Many of them probably didn’t want to be at war under the ocean. They longed for home like our boys did. When a U­boat went down, I would think, “there goes that little boy’s father.”  

I recall one U­boat commander wondering in a message why American airplanes were always overhead when his ship surfaced. He knew their code was being broken. But no one in Berlin would listen. When our planes eventually destroyed that ship, it bothered me a lot, as it did many of my colleagues. We fought an intimate war in our Enigma section, and our intimacy with enemy crews bred ambivalence about their destruction. We had to sink those U­boats. I just wish we’d have saved more of their crews.

Another difficult part of the job was that we couldn’t talk to anyone about it. Not one word. We’d been warned on the first day that we weren’t ever to discuss it with anyone outside our section. If we did, we’d be arrested for treason, and the penalty was death. We took that threat seriously and understood the danger of loose lips, which, in my case, really could sink ships. My roommate Sandy worked in the Japanese section, and she never talked about her work either. I met my future husband while I was in Washington (we got married in that same beautiful chapel where I’d received by assignment to Enigma), and he never knew what I did—decades later, he still didn’t know.

WWII Code Breaker and Navy WAVE Julia ParsonsThe war’s end was bittersweet for me. I loved my work at the Naval Communications Annex, and the end of the war meant the end of that work. There was nothing to do. Women workers all over America—both those in uniform and civilians—lost their jobs so that the returning servicemen could reclaim theirs, and rightly so, I suppose. But it meant that women really had very few options, except to go back to the kitchen or perhaps find a job as a teacher, nurse, or secretary. World War II was our moment of glory, when we did just about everything, and its memory remained with us and nurtured, I think, our breakout decades later.

I remained completely silent about my wartime work until 1997, fifty­two years after the war, when my old friend Jean McDevitt and I paid a visit to the National Cryptologic Museum near Fort Meade, Maryland. The exhibits there astounded me. Here was every sort of Enigma machine–early models, late models—on display for all to see with detailed explanations of how they worked. I asked a tour guide about it, and he said that our secret work at the Communications Annex began to be declassified in the 1970s. I shook my head in dismay.

All those year of silence, I think, did a disservice to history. The museum exhibits were riddled with small errors about details that were vitally important to us, such as the string of numbers we entered into our computers (it was 1­26, not 0­25, as the exhibit claimed).

It’s been good to break the silence. Good for me and for history.

Join us for Julia’s 101st Birthday Party! Wednesday, March 2 at 9:00am on Zoom. All are welcome!