Medals of missing WWII pilot presented to family
By DREW BROOKS | The Fayetteville Observer | Published: August 8, 2018
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — Alan Parker was still a boy, only 14 years old, when his older brother's plane went missing over Saipan in 1944.
Ensign Paul A. Parker, a Navy pilot who served with Fighter Squadron 25 aboard the USS Cowpens amid World War II, would never come home to North Carolina.
Years later, the younger Parker, now 88, said his brother's medals also went missing after the death of his parents.
"Nobody knows what happened," he said.
On Tuesday in Fayetteville, copies of those medals were returned to the family in a small, informal ceremony at the North Carolina Veterans Park.
An Air Medal with Gold Star, Purple Heart, World War II Victory Medal, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal, Navy Unit Commendation Ribbon and Combat Action Ribbon were presented to Parker by retired Navy Capt. Andrew Karakos.
The awards represented a snapshot of Ensign Parker's career before it was cut short over the Pacific. Their presentation was made possible through the efforts of Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr. and Navy officials.
A member of the U.S. Naval Reserve, Ensign Parker took part in numerous air battles as the U.S. military fought its way toward Japan in 1944.
Piloting a Grumman F6F Hellcat, he shot down at least three Japanese planes during a series of battles that stretched from late January to early June, according to the Navy.
On Feb. 16, 1944, Ensign Parker destroyed a floatplane reconnaissance bomber off the coast of an island then-named Truk in what is now Micronesia.
On Feb. 22, 1944, he shot down a Japanese twin-engine torpedo bomber in defense of the American fleet near the Mariana Islands.
And on April 22, 1944, he shot down a twin-engine fighter off the coast of Hollandia, New Guinea.
On June 11, 1944, four days before U.S. forces would land at Saipan for the start of a bloody battle that would last nearly a month, Ensign Parker was part of a fighter sweep of the airfields on Guam, Rota, Tinian and Saipan, according to Navy records.
"Apparently complete surprise is achieved, for the sweep as a whole is a great success," one Navy official wrote of the attack. "The one sour note is Parker's disappearance after a dogfight with some Zekes."
"Zekes" were Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter planes used by the Japanese during the war. Ensign Parker is believed to have been shot down by the enemy planes.
On Tuesday, Karakos explained the situation in the Pacific at the time that Ensign Parker went missing.
U.S. forces were island hopping, he said, moving ever-closer to the Japanese mainland in preparation for a possible invasion.
Ships and planes would bombard the islands before land forces moved in, he said. But still, the fighting was a difficult slog.
"Each island was a bloody mess on the ground," Karakos said.
The retired Navy captain carefully pointed out each of the medals he presented, explaining why they were ordered they way they were in a small shadow box.
"I can only imagine," Karakos said of the battles in which Parker took place.
Alan Parker said he, too, can only imagine what the war must have been like for his brother, as well as his parents.
At one point, he said, his parents had four sons fighting for the Navy in World War II, including three in the Pacific.
"I've been thinking a lot about how they managed that," Parker said.
He thanked Rep. Jones and the Navy for providing the family with new copies of the medals.
Jones, who was unable to attend the ceremony, said he has long had a fascination with Ensign Parker, stemming from a visit to a Farmville cemetery many years ago.
The congressman said he was visiting his own parents' graves when he came across a headstone for Ensign Parker, who went missing at the age of 21.
He asked the Navy for information on the pilot. And then sought out his family.
"Through the years I became somewhat obsessed," Jones said.
With the help of historians at East Carolina University, Jones orchestrated an exhibit honoring Ensign Parker and other World War II troops from North Carolina at the May Museum in Farmville earlier this year.
That exhibit also features copies of the medals. But Jones said he wanted the family to have something, too.
Having his older brother's medals back in the family is important, Parker said, especially as those who knew him get older.
"As long as the medals are around, he'll be remembered," he said.
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