Julia Potter was born March 2, 1921, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her father taught at Carnegie Institute of Technology (which later became Carnegie Mellon University) and Julia earned a bachelor’s degree in the humanities there. Following graduation in 1942, she found employment with the Army in an ordnance factory. The job supported the war effort, but Julia wanted something more challenging. A newspaper article she read announced the Navy was accepting women into the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, created by the Navy Women’s Reserve Act) and with her college degree, she could become an officer. She applied, and after three months of officer training at Smith College, she was sent to the Navy’s Office of Communications in Washington, DC.
The Navy needed more office space in Washington as the war effort expanded. To meet that need, the War Department commandeered properties that suited the pressing needs at hand. The Mount Vernon Seminary, a private college-prep school for girls on Nebraska Avenue, was deemed perfect for the US Navy’s version of Blecheley Park. The Navy eventually paid for the property (less than it was worth) but it immediately became the Naval Communications Complex, where code breakers lived and worked.
Arriving in early 1943 at the Nebraska Avenue Naval Communications Complex, Julia (by virtue of the fact that she’d had two years of German language in high school) was assigned to OP-20-G (Office of Chief of Naval Operations, 20th Division of the Office of Naval Communications, G Section). This group was dedicated to unraveling the codes used by the U-boats of the Kriegsmarine operating in the North Atlantic. The work was classified Top Secret. She couldn’t tell anyone what she did. She couldn’t even discuss the work with her roommate, who did the same work but on Japanese communications. Whenever the subject came up, Julia would just say she had a desk job.
The work was both challenging and fun, although frustrating that she couldn’t tell anyone what she was doing for the war effort. Julia describes it as trying to solve “anagrams every day or crossword puzzles or something”.
There was little time for socializing, but one of her coworkers wanted to go to a reception for newly-commissioned Army officers from Oklahoma, and asked her to come along. Strictly speaking the invitation was open to WAVES who were from Oklahoma, such as Julia’s coworker. As a favor to her friend, who didn’t want to go alone, Julia went anyway, and wrote Duncan, OK, as her hometown on her name tag. A newly-minted Army lieutenant from Duncan struck up a conversation with her, and tried unsuccessfully to find places and people in Duncan that he and Julia would have in common. She didn’t fool him for long. Lieutenant Donald Parsons shipped off to the Pacific, but they married before the war was over. After the war, they were blessed with three children, eight grandchildren, and eleven great-grandchildren.
Julia kept her work during the war a secret as required, even from her husband, for over five decades. The work was declassified in the sixties, but Julia didn’t find out until 1997. By that time it was too late to tell her parents, but she was able to share it with her husband before he passed on. And of course her children, and grandchildren must be very proud of her.
On Tuesday, March 2, 2021, Julia Parsons celebrated her 100th birthday. In her honor, a parade of firefighters, police, veterans, and active-duty service members marched down her street in front of her home in Pittsburgh, PA. In the evening, her birthday was celebrated online through a Zoom virtual meeting. Both the parade and the Zoom conference were organized by the Veterans Breakfast Club of Pittsburgh, a non-profit organization dedicated as a forum for local veterans and their stories.
[I was late to the Zoom party, the sound was muted and there seemed to be no way to un-mute, but I was able to see the participants, including Julia. She looks like a spry and active 70 year old, just like she does in the following video intereview, which had to have been made very, very recently.]
“An interview with Julia Parsons, Navy WAVES lieutenant” (3:56):
Question of the Night: Do you enjoy solving puzzles, riddles, anagrams, crossword puzzles, or mysteries?