Russell Parker lived for the ceremonies, the drills and the camaraderie of the military. He felt like he belonged, and it gave him a sense of purpose.
Through three wars and two decades, Parker wound his way up the ranks of the Army, then the Air Force. He followed orders and gave them, learned to shoot and then taught hundreds of others how. He went to the Pacific twice and learned Italian as an atomic weapons expert.
“I just felt comfortable there. Life was interesting. I got to travel and met new people.”
Parker didn’t join after Pearl Harbor like many in his generation. In 1938, just after he turned 18, he enlisted in the Army during a relative calm between the first and second world wars. It was the Great Depression. There weren’t jobs, and he didn’t have money for college.
The Army sent him to a hot air balloon base in Illinois, a leftover from the balloon corps during World War I. Hot air balloons were used for bombing and as observers in the first world war, but later couldn’t compete against fighter planes.
When the war broke out, he’d been an air traffic controller in Illinois for a year. During the week he guided military planes to the ground with radiograms, telegraph-style radio messages. On the weekends, he signaled them when to land or fly with red and green light guns.
The Army needed more officers and made him a first sergeant.
“First sergeants are tall, loud, mean, tough people. I made a great duplicate of Mickey Rooney, that’s the best I could do,” he said.
Sent to officer’s candidate school in Miami Beach a seasoned soldier, he went to the same school as actor Clark Gable and baseball player Hank Greenberg. Gable was a hard worker, he said. Greenberg, not so much. He was a nice guy, but Parker wasn’t impressed when he’d sneak out to party at night and not make it back for training.
As a second lieutenant, one move led to another, eventually landing him in Kansas, where he directed all of the vehicles on the base.
In 1944, a woman he worked with told him she knew a girl he needed to meet. If he’d bring a dozen quail to her house that night, her mom would make dinner and the girl would come over.
Happy to hunt and meet a new girl, Parker brought the quail and ate with Anita Roberts.
Less than a year later, they married.
The next day he received orders to go to aerial gunnery school in Texas, and by early 1945, he was in Saipan shooting guns from B-29s.
He flew 17 missions as a gunner on mainland Japan, the last months before the U.S. dropped the atomic bombs. He also served as a gunnery officer, organizing the other gunners in his squadron.
When World War II ended, he came back to the U.S., one of the last to leave Saipan. On U.S. soil he joined the ranks of men in line for their discharge papers. They called it the “Realm of the Ruptured Duck” because soldiers thought the honorable discharge patch looked more like a duck than the eagle it meant to represent.
Only Parker didn’t want to leave. He’d enjoyed his time so far. He had friends in the service, and both he and Anita liked to move around.
Parker spent three and a half years in Florida before he headed back to the Pacific.
The Air Force needed someone in Okinawa to be the administrative officer for the headquarters’ squadron. He handled paperwork and supervised daily activities in the squadron.
Within a year, the Korean War started.
His new job would be to unofficially direct and coordinate America’s B-29s, the few that were left after World War II. A relatively old plane, the B-29 did well at first against the enemy.
Then one day, twelve B-29s went on a mission to North Korea. Only three came home.
The North Koreans had M-15 fighter jets, a newer and faster plane, but one that could only fly during the day. From then on the B-29s flew exclusively at night, bombing anything they could.
After 28 months in the Pacific, Parker headed home again. Still, he wasn’t through with the military.
He went to Albuquerque, N.M., in 1951; he would become an atomic weapons expert. He imagined it would be glamorous, learning about nuclear weapons.
“I was bored to tears. I’ve never had such a boring job,” he said.
He looked for any job opening he could find, and the first one was teaching ROTC at the University of Wyoming. ROTC was mandatory for college men, and Parker passed on his passion for drills, discipline and loyalty. He also earned his bachelor’s degree in history.
In 1958, the Cold War raged and the Air Force needed officers to load and unload the Jupiter missile, an intermediate range, nuclear-armed missile. According to plans, the nuclear missile would be sent to Italy with its American crew. Parker and his wife started learning Italian.
The plans changed, and in 1960, the Jupiter missile went to Italy with an Italian crew.
Parker had an option then: Use his current Air Force warrant officer rank and work without his family in a missile instrument squadron on Kwajalein, a tiny piece of sand in the Pacific. Or, he could retire as a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserves.
After 22 years in the military, in the middle of his third war, he reluctantly retired.