Julia Parsons volunteered for the Navy WAVES—“Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service”—in 1942 after graduating from Carnegie Tech. She studied cryptology at Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School at Smith College, and then she was ordered to Washington, D.C. for top secret duty.
She joined section SHARK, whose job it was to de-code German U-boat message traffic sent via the ENIGMA machine. Deciphering the messages involved working with “Bombe,” one of the first computers. For most of the war, Julia knew the locations of German U-boats in the North Atlantic and, because of the personal nature of many of these messages, had intimate knowledge of enemy crews’ lives.
After the war Julia lost her job as a cryptologist, which was one of the best and most exciting she ever had, although “I never spoke about what I did for many years. Not even my husband knew what I did.” Julia finally broke her silence about her top-secret work in 1997.
For over fifty years Julia Parsons kept her work on the Enigma Project a secret. “It was just something that you didn’t talk about,” she confides. Even to this day, decades after the WW II German code breaking operation has been declassified, Julia gingerly tells of her experiences as a young, 23 year old naval intelligence officer.
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Lt. Commander Mark Thornton was one of the most hard-charging captains in the Royal Navy. He drove the men of his H.M.S. Petard mercilessly with constant drills and severe punishments for those who failed to meet his exacting standards. One favorite exercise rehearsed the attack and boarding of a German submarine. “Other destroyers might sink U-boats,” Thornton later declared, “but we would capture one!”
Inspiring Thornton’s improbable goal was the horrific toll U-boats were taking on Allied shipping in 1942. In the first six months of that year alone, the German sub fleet sank almost 600 Allied ships and destroyed over 3 millions tons of badly needed cargo, while losing only six U-boats. Behind this success was a newly designed four-wheel Enigma machine, the M4, whose encryption the Kriegsmarine (German Navy) considered impregnable. For nine months, the brains at Bletchley Park, the secret code-breaking center in Great Britain, worked on cracking the M4 code. They got nowhere until October 30, 1942, when the crew of the H.M.S. Petard got a chance to put their training into action in the Mediterranean.
After receiving word of a U-boat near the Nile delta, the Petard, along with four other destroyers, pursued U-559 relentlessly for sixteen hours, bracketing the German sub with as many as 288 depth charges that cracked the U-boat’s hull and eventually forced it to surface. Thornton’s men spotted U-559’s conning tower rise above the waves, and they opened fire with 20mm and 40mm guns. The submarine began to sink as its crew baled out. Thornton saw his chance. Some of the Petard’s men leaped into the water while others formed boarding parties and lowered themselves in boats. Pushing through the German survivors, they entered the sub and ransacked the radio room, grabbing anything that looked confidential and passing it back to the men in the boats. Lt. Anthony Fasson, the Petard’s second-in-command, tried to wrestle the Enigma machine itself out of the sub as the stern dipped sharply. Before he could emerge from the control room, the gushing water tipped the balance, and the sub slipped beneath the surface, taking Fasson and one other man with it. These two would receive the George Cross posthumously, but the reason for the awards would remain secret for over thirty years.
Among the documents retrieved from the U-559 were two code books used by the Kriegsmarine to report on weather and submarine positions. Once these books reached Bletchley Park, code breakers could track U-boat movements again, and the Allies could begin to fight back and eventually win the Battle of the Atlantic.