The Japanese attack on Pearl harbor took place on Sunday, December 7th, 1941. By the following Wednesday, America was formally at war with Japan, Germany, and Italy.
As the United States entered the conflict, it had 1.8 million citizens in uniform. Over the next twelve months, that number would more than double as another two million men and women enlisted or were drafted. By the end of the war, over 12 million Americans would be serving in America’s armed forces. 8.7 million of them went overseas.
My mother and father were two of the 8.7 million Americans who served on foreign shores during World War II. But, in January of 1942, they were still civilians and 5 full years away from the chance meeting my existence would depend on.
When the war began, my father (on the left in the picture of the four aviation cadets at the top of the page) was attending the University of Minnesota. He immediately withdrew from school and headed for his parents’ home in Accokeek, Maryland.
Thirteen miles south of Washington D.C., the area was so rural it had no post office. Accokeek mail came to the post office in nearby Piscataway. My father’s address was simply: T. A. Parks, Jr., Accokeek, Md. He had no problem getting his mail.
With no small amount of pride, my grandparents would tell anyone who would listen, they lived… “out in the country“.
Today, Accokeek is no longer out in the country. What was, back then, woods and fields, is now home to the Little Cuddle Bears Child Service, Dunkin Doughnuts, a couple of golf courses, and some housing developments with names like Windbrook, White Hall Forest, and Accokeek Acres.
There is no record of the exact date my father applied to join the Air Corps but, by January 16th, an Assistant Adjutant General sent out a postcard referencing his application. The communication arrived my grandparents’ home in Maryland on January 19th.
My father was informed that, at some unknown date in the “near future“, he would be advised to present himself to the Aviation Cadet Examining Board at Bolling Field in the District of Columbia for the physical examination.
No other communications exist that refer to the physical exam but a week after the first postcard, there is another slip of paper authorizing Thomas A. Parks, Jr. to appear two days hence for the educational exam.
Having already been examined physically and intellectually, dad would spend the entire month of February waiting for more information from the Army. He did have one military related chore that needed attending to. In spite of having already begun the process of joining Air Corps, the 20 year old, aspiring aviation cadet was still required to sign up for the draft.
On Monday, February 16th, my father went to the Prince George’s County Selective Service office to register and get his draft card.
The middle of the month another notification arrived.
To a young man trying to enlist, it must have seemed like the Army was taking its own sweet time signing him up. While he sat around his parents’ house in Piscataway, the war was raging. It dominated the front page of every newspaper in the country. All my father could do was read about it.
The day the March 14th notice was sent, the headline in the Cumberland Evening News in Cumberland, Maryland howled that the luxury liner, Queen Mary, carrying 10,000 US troops, had been torpedoed and severely damaged.
The great ship was fine. The news of the attack had come from a broadcast by radio stations in Italy. It turns out the Axis powers were probably fishing for denials of the story. A denial might help them locate the luxury liner which was currently sailing an elaborately circuitous route across the Atlantic and was carrying 10,000 troops. No denials were made.
There were a couple of other interesting stories on the front page of that issue of the Evening News.
The previous day, in New York City, at 3:30 in the afternoon, eight rounds from a 37mm anti-aircraft gun located on the East River, somehow, inadvertently got fired off in the direction of Manhattan. Seven of the one pound shells fell harmlessly in the river. The remaining projectile traveled a little over a mile and struck the 40-story Equitable Building located at 120 Broadway in the financial district.
The round hit the building between the 37th and 38th floors knocking loose a few bricks and, “…raining debris and shell fragments to the busy street below“. Fortunately, there were no injuries. Well… No physical injuries. Someone had to go through the rest of the war being introduced as, “The guy who shot the Equitable Building“.
The other headline that caught my eye had a Los Angeles, California dateline: “Tattoo Artists Experience Biggest Boom in 20 Years“.
Young men from all over America were enlisting. They were a long way from home and headed toward a very uncertain future.
The article explained that, for 50 cents, soldiers could get a tattoo of their girlfriend’s name, or their mother’s name, or a small dagger. For 1 to 3 dollars a new recruit could get a ship or a flag or a skull or roses or a spread eagle or, I assume, a much bigger dagger.
The only complaint the west coast tattoo artists had was, army enlistees were going for cheaper, low margin designs and avoiding the more profitable ones, like The Last Supper ($75) or The Resurrection ($125). When you look at those prices, keep in mind that, during WWII, the average monthly pay for a soldier was under $100.
A quick check on the internet indicates that today the Last Supper tat is still pretty popular but, like everything else, prices have gone up. Getting a tattoo of Our Lord and Savior dining with all 12 disciples will set you back 3 to 5 thousand dollars.
The article goes on to say, it was mostly Army guys getting ink because the Navy frowned on tattoos and expressly prohibited nudity. The tattooers told stories of sailors returning to their parlors, after being confronted by an outraged commanding officer, and reluctantly requesting that the artist, “put some pants on her“. Luckily for them, pants were cheap. For just an extra half dollar… decency achieved…problem solved.
One last observation on the Cumberland Evening News in general.
On December 11th, 1941, just four days after the sneak attack on America’s naval facilities in Hawaii, someone at the paper decided what the front page needed, every day, was a banner above the masthead reading, “Remember Pearl Harbor“. You know, just in case somebody forgot.
It took the paper a little over two months to realize no one was forgetting. Plus, with a World War to cover, someone must have pointed out the banner was taking up valuable front page real estate. The Cumberland Evening News stopped reminding its readers to remember Pearl Harbor on the 21st of February, 1942.
One month later, on March 21st, Thomas A. Parks, Jr., who, for the rest of his life, never forget how the whole thing started, formally enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps.
Things stated happening quickly. On April 4th, Major John A. McCrary, Jr. signed some very official looking orders and, finally, Pvt. Thomas A. Parks, Jr. knew where he was going, the names of nine of the people he would be traveling with, and when they were supposed to arrive. The orders did not tell him when or how they would leave.
Two days later, a letter from the Aviation Cadet Office revealed the Army’s travel plans for the newly minted Privates. They were leaving in four days.
To make sure the recruits understood exactly what they had signed up for, the letter ends with the threat of a Military Court Martial. It was the Army’s somewhat less than subtle way of saying, “Hey, listen up, we’re not screwing around here.”
The threat of military legal action did not concern Private Parks. He was overjoyed to finally have his marching orders. He was eager to get to the Aviation Cadet Replacement Training Center at Maxwell Field in Montgomery, Alabama. He didn’t know exactly what the Army would have him doing once he got there but he couldn’t wait to start doing it.
Bright and early Friday morning, April 10th, my grandparents drove their son into the District of Columbia and delivered him to the Aviation Cadet Office at Bolling Field.
Knowing my grandmother, I am certain she subjected her only child to an uncomfortably prolonged, overly emotional, and thoroughly embarrassing goodbye.
Then, after a firm handshake from his proud father, Pvt. Parks joined 169 other new recruits as they began learning the intricacies of the military process universally known as, “Hurry up and wait“.
That morning, the prospective airmen and their parents obviously had no idea what the Army’s immediate plans were because, a few days later, in his first letter home from Maxwell, Pvt. Parks would tell his parents, “You should have stayed in town Fri(day)“.
According to his letter, after everyone was assembled, the recruits marched to the Washington D.C. Elks Club with a “…band and everything“. At the Elks Club they were treated to what my father described as a, “…swell dinner“.
Dad grew up in Georgia. “dinner” is what southerners call lunch. What everyone else in the country calls “dinner“, they call “supper“. No one knows exactly why they do this. I suspect it’s the heat and unbearably high humidity. The combination dulls the senses. It affects your thinking. I went to grade school in South Carolina and college in Florida. I can barely add.
So, after a swell “dinner” at the Elks Club, the recruits went outside, formed up, and in their civilian clothes, continued marching down Pennsylvania Avenue The parade ended at Union Station.
By 3 o’clock in the afternoon, my father and his fellow enlistees had been herded aboard their own “special Pullman train” and were headed south.
Twenty five hours later, they were in Montgomery, Alabama reporting for duty at Maxwell Field. It was April 11, 1942. America had been at war for three months.