How one woman helped decode Nazi messages and win World War II

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In the dark days of World War II, the secret staff of a large building on Nebraska Avenue NW in Washington held a dash of its success. Each time a German U-boat was sunk by the US Navy, cheers erupted and another mark was added to a list recounting this deadly game of cat and mouse that played out in the North Atlantic.

The women working in this office had an important, albeit clandestine, mission: to decode Nazi Enigma messages so Allied navies could locate enemy submarines and prevent them from sinking ships carrying troops and ammunition to the front. They were code breakers in the Navy program called Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, or WAVES.

“We were getting several messages a day and we had to figure out what they were saying,” Julia Parsons recalls. She was a WAVES Lieutenant in the office known as OP-20-G, short for Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, Office of Naval Communications 20th Division, Section G/Communications Security. “We knew some of them were models and some were personal messages. We usually had an idea that something was going on that day, so we tried to figure out if any of the orders were related to that.

Now a vivacious, living 101 in Pittsburgh, Parsons described the life-saving mission she and other female cryptologists performed 80 years ago deciphering enemy messages. His section in OP-20-G focused on German communications while another worked on Japanese codes. Members of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) also worked to break the numbers used by Germany and Japan.

During World War II, women were not allowed to serve in combat roles. However, the army desperately needed people to help with all kinds of work while able-bodied men served on the front line. In 1942, Congress created the WAVES, Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (now WAC), Women Airforce Service Pilots, Marine Corps Women’s Reserve and Coast Guard Women’s Reserve. Some 350,000 women served as cryptologists, nurses, pilots, mechanics, clerks, drivers, telephone operators, and in other roles to help the war effort.

The women in Parsons’ office concentrated on cracking the daily codes sent out by the German Navy. Using Enigma machines, German sailors encoded critical communications before broadcasting them to “wolfpacks” – groups of German submarines that attacked American convoys in the Atlantic. The Nazis thought the system that used three (and later four) rotors to encode messages multiple times was too complex to break. This was not the case.

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“We didn’t break it,” Parsons said. “Alan Turing and his team in England did it. We had one of his computers, the Bombe, in the building where I worked. We tried to figure out what the message was saying, and then we worked out what we came up with. called up a menu showing what we thought the letters were. This was fed into the computer, which then spat out all the possible wheel orders for the day. These changed every day and the settings changed twice a day. day, so we were constantly working on it.”

Once the messages were decoded, the information would be passed on to Naval Intelligence. When the location of a submarine was discovered, it was added to a large map showing the movements of Allied and German shipping across the Atlantic.

The role of Parsons and other women and cryptanalysts at WAVES cannot be underestimated. In 1942, German submarines sank over 500 ships in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. By the end of the war, American forces had destroyed nearly 500 submarines, largely through breaking the Enigma code. Prime Minister Winston Churchill is said to have believed that success was the greatest contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. Some historians have suggested that breaking the Enigma code shortened the war by two years and saved millions of lives.

“We continued the work of Turing and the staff at Bletchley Park in England to crack the codes,” Parsons said. “When we started doing it, the British were short of manpower, so they asked the Americans for help.”

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The purpose of the WAVES women was to save American lives by sinking German U-boats before they could attack Allied shipping. At first, the news of a destroyed submarine was cause for celebration. But it became more painful as the war dragged on and its human cost became more evident.

Once, Parsons helped decode a congratulatory note to a German sailor at sea on the birth of his son at home. A few days later, she learns that the father’s submarine has been sunk, with no survivors. “To think that we all contributed to killing someone did not sit well with me,” she said. “I felt really bad. This baby would never see his father.

In 1943, when she was 22, Parsons had volunteered to serve in the WAVES. She transferred to OP-20-G when the Navy discovered she had taken two years of German in high school. These courses allowed him to read and understand the messages once the code was broken.

During the war years, Parsons lived in DC. She shared an apartment with another code breaker in a townhouse at 1633 Q St. NW, which became something of a crash pad for the military and others with no place to sleep.

“We had several beds and sofas,” she recalls. “If someone needed a place to spend the night, we put them up. There were so many people traveling through Washington during the war, and hotel rooms were hard to come by. Our apartment looked like a hostel. When someone got out of bed, another person took their place.

Because she was sworn to secrecy, Parsons never spoke about her time as a code breaker. She didn’t even tell her husband, Donald, until she learned that her work had been declassified. Married in 1944, Parsons finally told her his secret about 30 years ago.

“My husband would say we had a marriage based on lies,” she laughed. Parsons and her husband, who died 16 years ago, raised three children.

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Due to his connection to the Enigma machine, Parsons rose to prominence among a new generation of code breakers. She is a member of the International Conference on the History of Cryptology, and younger members ask her about her work.

She is also one of many female survivors featured in ‘Her War, Her Story: World War II’, a new television documentary about the role of women in the world’s deadliest conflict. The film was produced by Tim Gray of the World War II Foundation and is narrated by actress Jane Lynch. It opened at the Military Women’s Memorial in Arlington, Va., on Sept. 20 and airs on public television stations around Veterans Day.

“Julia Parsons and many other women were as important to winning World War II as any general leaning on a map or any GI carrying a gun into battle,” Gray said. “What these women have done, seen and, in many cases, experienced, is paramount in telling the overall story of the war.”

Parsons did not attend the premiere of the documentary. She had traveled to Washington on Memorial Day and said that at 101 she was not ready to make the trip again, although she was thrilled to see the documentary on TV and relive that thrilling time there. eight decades ago.

“It’s been a fascinating track for me,” she said. “I really enjoyed it. I liked it.”

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