Sensational Seniors – February 2018

This “Sensational Seniors” article features the engaging personality of Paul Parker, who celebrated his 95th birthday on December 21, 2017. Paul resides in Pioneer Village and is a Jacksonville treasure, and is one of our few surviving World War II veterans. Paul has a story to tell, beginning with his birth in 1922 in Creswell, Oregon.

Paul remembers that he moved three times before he started school as his father was a Methodist minister in charge of reviving Oregon Methodist churches. His father’s mantra was, “If I can’t get a church up and running in four years, it is time to move on.” As a result, the Parker family, after Creswell, relocated to North Bend, Monroe and Nehalem where Paul remembers, “I had the most fun of my life.” The family eventually settled in Drain with Paul graduating from high school in 1941.

Like so many of the young men of his generation, he felt an obligation to help the World War II war effort, and in his case he joined the Air Force on December 31, 1941. He remembers being in his first barracks listening to the Rose Bowl game that had been moved to Durham, North Carolina, as the authorities feared that the Japanese would launch an air strike on the Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena. He had enlisted as a private, but it was suggested that, once on base, he put in a request to become an aviation cadet. He followed this advice and put in his request. After approved, he was sent to New Orleans to a private aviation school where he “Learned a lot about airplanes but not too much about flying.” After a short stay at the Cadet Classification School in Nashville, Tennessee, he qualified as an Air Force pilot trainee. When asked about what drove him to want to be a pilot, Paul mused, “As a kid I was fascinated with airplanes and flying. I made toy airplanes and made myself a set of wings in an attempt to fly around our back yard.”

Lieutenant Parker graduated from flight school at Luke Air Force Base on October 1, 1943 and was sent to Santa Rosa as part of a P-39 squadron. He remembers that the airfield at Santa Rosa was totally camouflaged and that from the air “Looked like landing in a corn field.” While in Santa Rosa, he logged some flight hours by flying back to Drain where he put on an air show at his old high school for his mother and his high school English teacher. Pneumonia prevented him from being sent to Europe, so he reluctantly settled in to be a flight instructor, first in Ephrata, Washington, then in Santa Rosa and finally Hawaii. While in Hawaii, one day he and his wing man decided to have a little fun by flying under a Navy plane followed by a rather dramatic roll. Unfortunately, his wingman clipped the Navy plane and Paul immediately thought, “I am in big trouble.” And, indeed, he was soon called into his commanding officer’s quarters after the incident and told, “You have a decision to make. We can conduct an inquiry which most likely will result in you being grounded for life, or I can send you West.” Paul remembers this as a no-brainer and within days he found himself on the island of Ie Shima, 300 miles south of Japan, flying a P-47N plane that could carry enough fuel to fly for nine hours.

Most of his flying was to other Japanese islands, providing air defense for Okanagawa and carrying 500-pound bombs with a delayed fuse. Paul relates, “I did six bombing sorties into Japan, but we were fortunate to never meet up with Japanese fighter planes. The most challenging and dangerous flights were a couple I did into China where we were to bomb an oil refinery, but not hit the nearby prisoner of war camp.”

Lieutenant Parker was on a solo flight, 13,000 feet above Tokyo when, unbeknownst to him, WWII ended. It wasn’t until they landed back at their island base that they were greeted with the wonderful news. When asked what they did when learning that the war was over, Paul, rather incredulously, replied, “Well, of course, we got drunk.” A month later found 23-year-old Paul back in Drain, Oregon wondering what he was going to do with the rest of his life. Part of the answer came while visiting a friend in San Francisco when Paul met an attractive schoolteacher, Millie, who in 1946 became his wife. Utilizing the GI Bill, Paul enrolled in college at San Jose State, later transferring to San Francisco City College to be closer to his wife’s school. A final transfer was made to the Armstrong School of Business at Berkeley where he graduated in three and a half years with a business degree.

His first post-military job was with Dun and Bradstreet in San Francisco where he served as a credit reporter, but the “flying bug” was still very much with him, so he signed on with the California National Guard. One Saturday morning at a squadron meeting, the commander asked, “Is anyone here interested in going on active duty?” Paul says he is not sure why he raised his hand, but it might have had to do with the fact that “The National Guard planes were old hand-me-downs, and I knew that in active service I’d get to fly the newest planes the Air Force had.” Back in the Air Force and now with a Captain’s rank, his first assignment was to Duluth, Minnesota, which made Paul question his decision to go back on active duty. “I don’t have the vocabulary to describe the cold weather in Duluth, and the friendliness of the people matched the weather.” From Minnesota he was sent to Fairbanks, Alaska another cold spot but the friendly people and the birth of his daughter, Debbie, in 1955 offset the weather. Other transfers came along and the Parker family found themselves in Waco, Texas in 1957 where Debbie’s brother, Rob, was born. From there he switched gears and spent five years in Orinda, California as an Air Force recruitment officer working in colleges, interviewing potential Air Force officers. He made Major, and he and Millie purchased their first home. He finished his career in Denver as an Information Officer where he inherited the job of editing and publishing the monthly newspaper. He retired from the Air Force in 1966 as a Lieutenant Colonel.

Only 44-years-old, Paul was not ready to retire from working and made a significant career move by becoming a Boy Scout administrator, a job that lasted for twelve years and included stints in Eugene, Portland, Japan and Hawaii. Still, with the extra twelve years of work, Paul was not done and started a third career in the insurance business, first in Beaverton, Oregon and then in Phoenix, Arizona where he assisted older couples in getting insurance on their mobile homes. “I enjoyed working with people, talking to them and helping them get affordable and needed insurance.”

As Millie’s health began to deteriorate, they made a decision in 2005 to move to Jacksonville to be close to their daughter, Debbie Earley, and her husband Jim. Millie passed away in December 2016. Paul smiles when remembering Millie, “She was a great lady as long as we did everything her way. See, she was used to being a second grade teacher and in charge.”

Paul’s Pioneer Village apartment is full of memorabilia from his service and other working years. He has his complete flying record showing 3,900 hours of flight time and numerous photos. But he is most proud of his two children and his photo display is proof of that. We all owe a debt of sincere gratitude to Paul Parker and the ever-dwindling number of WWII veterans who so unselfishly ensured our freedom.