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World War II fighter pilot, 97, honored in North Las Vegas

Updated June 29, 2019 - 8:52 pm

While in the Air Force and the U.S. Army Air Corps, Maj. James Parker prided himself on always taking the left seat in the cockpit.

“I was always the pilot, never the co-pilot,” the 97-year-old says with a smile.

The World War II veteran has a decorated military career to show for it, with 49 years of flying experience and 23,000 flight hours under his belt. To honor his achievements, the city of North Las Vegas declared Saturday “Jim Parker Day.”

At the Sun City Aliante Community Center on Saturday afternoon, the Veterans Club of Sun City Aliante, a representative from Rep. Steven Horsford’s office, North Las Vegas Councilman Richard Cherchio, Councilman Scott Black and a roomful of his friends and family celebrated Parker’s service.

“He’s really an icon. He’s an amazing person,” said Cherchio, whose father also served in World War II. “There’s a lot of living history of service to our country right in front of us here, and I thought, why don’t we have a special day for Jim?”

The idea was carried out by Vietnam War-era veteran and Parker’s neighbor, Richard Lawhead, who organized Jim Parker Day because, he said, Parker is a “true national treasure.”

For the humble Parker, it was also a chance to match his grandson, retired Air Force Maj. Trent Arnold. The two wore their blue military uniforms to mark the inaugural makeshift holiday.

“Life experience is something, in my book, to learn and grow by,” Parker said Saturday, proudly sitting next to his wife, Joyce. “I still consider myself an ordinary guy that got lucky with all of these wonderful experiences, and I’m still living today to talk about them.”

Parker called the recognition “an unexpected honor,” noting “At least somebody saw I probably went above and beyond in parts of my life.”

Parker was presented Saturday with a glass case displaying the medals he earned during his service, including the Air Force Commendation Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross. Samantha Bivins from Horsford’s office awarded him with the first monthly “Horsford Hero” award for veterans. Two women from the Quilt of Valor organization presented him a handmade quilt depicting ships and aircraft at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

His grandson, Arnold, also received a quilt.

“This is for a man who survived the greatest world war, for a man who honored his God, his country and his family, to see him safely home each time he took flight,” the retired Air Force major said of his grandfather.

“Jim Parker’s discipline has contributed to a family tree the size of a redwood. … Look at the veterans around you and set the stage to tell their stories before it’s too late.”

A farm boy’s dreams

Parker, the fifth of six children, said he always dreamed of flying as he was growing up on a farm in the small town of McCaulley, Texas.

“I’d never seen an airplane, but yet here I am, backwoods on a farm, wanting to be a pilot,” Parker said in an interview Wednesday at his home in Sun City Aliante.

On March 28, 1941, at 19, Parker hitchhiked to the recruiting station with 20 cents in his pocket and enlisted in the Army Air Corps.

Parker recalls standing with about about 300 recruits at basic training. The group was asked how many of them had a high school diploma. Twenty-two, including Parker, raised their hands and were selected for pilot training.

He passed the test and entered training in February 1942.

Shortly after, he met Joyce, his wife of 76 years, at a Halloween party. He was 20, and she was 19. They were married on Oct. 7, 1942, by a judge in a Reno courthouse. Parker credits some of his accomplishments to his wife, because “behind every successful man is an even stronger woman.”

“I could do anything I wanted, as long as she approved of it first,” he added, jokingly.

Parker remembers spray-painting “Joyce Ann” onto his Douglas A 20 HAVOC, a plane he later flew over his family’s farm and his old schoolhouse in Texas. He remembers that as he buzzed low overheard, the kids in the schoolyard all ran out and waved at him.

The couple have three adult children: Jimmy, Patti and Susan. They went on to have four grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren and two great-great grandchildren. In their Sun City Aliante home, pictures of the happy and vibrant couple document the life they shared together. These days, Parker takes care of his wife, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease five years ago.

Despite her loss of memory, Joyce Parker remembers her husband well. On a recent morning, she repeatedly told him the same four words he said he hopes she will never forget.

“I love you, James.”

Reality of war

After Parker attended bombing navigator school in Waco, Texas, he had orders to go to Saudi Arabia. He flew a Grumman SA-16 “Flying Boat” and performed air rescue missions in the Persian Gulf.

While training pilots, he had a motto.

“If you say you can do it, then do it!”

Parker said that he wasn’t quite sure yet if he was ready for war when he enlisted, but a crash landing while stationed in Pergola, Italy, opened his eyes to the reality of it all.

“I grew up real fast on that flight,” he said. “I didn’t know whether I was a real man or just a baby, but combat changes that real fast.”

Parker remembers Dec. 19, 1943, vividly. His B-17 “Flying Fortress” was flying over Germany on a bombing mission when the nine-man crew was attacked head on by about 40 enemy fighters, armed with rockets and a 20 mm cannon.

The plane was struck repeatedly, and its elevators, radio, interphone and oxygen systems became disabled. Carefully maneuvering the aircraft, Parker managed to beat off consistent attacks until they were clear of the target. The crew is credited for destroying six enemy fighters and damaging several others.

“I had the best gunners in the world, and they took care of the situation,” he said. “They never ran out of ammo. They were in complete control.”

It took four hours to crash-land to safety with only a throttle control, and Parker was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and 10 Air Medals for his bravery.

But Parker, a devout Christian, said God deserved the commendations.

“He talked to me and told me what to do for four hours. He kept giving me instructions to keep the thing in the air,” Parker said, still visibly affected by the terrifying moments in the cockpit.

“That day he proved he was worth believing in.”

Words of advice

Before retiring from the Air Force in 1962, he flew the last B-36 bomber into the Air Force National Museum at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio.

He then began his career in civilian flying and flew planes for companies such as Farah Slack Co., the Petro Truck Stop Co. and Martin Aviation.

As a civilian pilot, he said, he had the privilege to fly celebrities such as Frank Sinatra and former Texas Gov. John Connally.

Parker recalls a lighthearted time with Sinatra, when the singer, who frequently requested Parker for a pilot, asked him if he would like an autograph.

“I said, ‘I’ll tell you what, you’ve got a blank check. Just sign your signature.’ He just cracked up. He got the biggest kick out of that. I knew then he was the kinda guy that I liked.”

Parker takes things a little slower these days. He spends time with his family, and he passed his driver’s test in March with flying colors. It’s easier than flying, Parker said. All you have to do is pay attention. Plus, he said, he has a built-in GPS system in his head.

He also has some advice on longevity. He said he has never had a taste of alcohol in his life. He needed all the mind he had to get everything right, he said. But Parker still might try it when he turns 100.

“If you keep your mind alive and actively do things you’ve never done before, you’ll succeed,” he said. “Once I got in an airplane, I didn’t want anything else.”

Contact Briana Erickson at berickson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5244. Follow @ByBrianaE on Twitter.

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