The great communicator
February 2, 2009
By Jeff Richards
World War II vet recalls his days as a Navy signalman
The air about the Philippine islands was filled with gun smoke and artillery, as more than 200 American ships converged on the Leyte Gulf in October 1944.
After missing the call to general quarters and being locked out, Signal Corps Major Kermit R. Parker witnessed one of the greatest battles of World War II from the deck of his ship.
He wasn’t afraid of the battle. He didn’t know it was going to happen.
“If I’d have known what we were going into, then yeah, I’d have had a lot of trepidation,” Parker said with a laugh. “They dumped us is what they did —off the ship and onto the landing craft.”The Battle of Leyte Gulf during World War II is, in terms of number and size of ships, one of the largest naval battles in human history. More than 3,500 U.S. soldiers lost their lives.
Parker arrived there after six years in the military and having never once fired his government-issued .45 caliber pistol in combat. As a part of the Signal Corps, Parker’s specialty was electronics and radio communication, not combat. It was a specialty that served him long after retirement from the military in 1958, after 20 years.
Parker’s road to the military began like many others during the Depression era of the 1930s. Parker, 17 and out of work at the time, saw notice that army recruiters were coming to town in Wenatchee.
The recruiter’s pitch was simple — $21 a month, three meals a day and free housing.
“Three meals a day looked awful darn good,” Parker said. “And I had missed many meals in my childhood.”
Originally recruited to be a tanker, Parker didn’t enjoy working with tanks, and he requested a change to working with radios.
Parker had dropped out of high school, but in his final year, he took a course on radio electronics, where he discovered a passion and an aptitude for such duties.
“That class was the basis for the rest of my life,” he said. “I just had a knack for fixing things.”
His knack came to be relied upon by Parker’s commanding officers at Fort Lewis, where the “if you can’t fix it, call Kermit” syndrome began.
Even today, at 89, Parker is still the one to go to for fixing electronic equipment, said his wife of 27 years, Janet Wilcox-Parker.
Parker’s work as a switchboard operator at Fort Lewis put him in contact with many famous military men but none more so than eventual General and President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Through conversations over the switchboard, Parker got to know Eisenhower, a lieutenant colonel at the time. Eventually, he became the regular handyman of Eisenhower’s wife.
“She was always breaking things,” Parker said.
His service took him from Fort Lewis to Trinidad, which he described as being like Hawaii without tourists, to the front lines of the World War II Pacific Front in the Philippines.
After the Battle of Leyte Gulf, Parker witnessed another historic event — General Douglas MacArthur’s return to the Philippines after he was driven out by the Japanese two years earlier, an event which prompted MacArthur to promise, “I shall return.”
Parker watched as the photographers and media crew swarmed about MacArthur while he marched to shore through the knee-high beach surf. Of course, the dramatic event couldn’t be done properly in one take.
“If they didn’t get it right the first time, then they’d all go back and do it all over again,” Parker said.
In the Philippines, Parker led his unit, tasked with setting up radar stations designed to track enemy aircraft.
When the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, Parker said he remembered being relieved because it meant the war was ending.
“We were so darn used to war at the time that another instance didn’t mean much to us,” he said.
When war began in Korea five years later, Parker was assigned to Seoul, South Korea. The U.S. along with its allies had just liberated the city from the North Korean army, and the city was badly damaged. Parker worked from a former all-girl’s school to help rebuild communications in the city.
At the end of the war, South Korea President Syngman Rhee presented the Bronze Star to Parker, who received it on behalf of his unit.
Parker retired after 20 years in the military in 1958. While stationed in Korea, he had spent much of his time photographing the people and city, and in 1996, the Korean Broadcast System bought the rights to a video Parker made of his photos. The video, with new narration in the Korean language, aired in two 30-minute segments in South Korea.
“It was all about how the people lived then, nothing military,” Janet Wilcox-Parker said.
To this day, Janet Wilcox-Parker said she enjoys listening to her husband’s stories of his time in the military and knows them almost as well as he does.
“He’s a good storyteller,” she said.
Parker has written an unpublished autobiography, which details his life from his days growing up to retirement from the military. Parker has continued to use his electronics skills through ham radios and model trains, which his wife said he is well known for among other enthusiasts, just as he is for his military service.
At the end of his autobiography, Parker muses about finishing the story of his life. He said he doesn’t know who would read it, but after all he’s been through, he figures someone might want to know.
Reach intern Jeff Richards at 392-6434, ext. 236, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment on this story at www.issaquahpress.com.