David Parham recalls Dust Bowl, Depression, 2 wars

May 26, 2012 • Local News

David Parham, USN

Memorial Day is a day of remembrance, a day to honor those who gave their lives for their country. David Parham, 85, is the veteran of not one, but two wars — World War II and Korea.

He has many things he remembers and some things that he would prefer to forget. “I must have suppressed some of it because I didn’t remember until I had a heart attack and my daughter started to ask about the war,” he said.

He grew up during the Great Depression and lived through the Oklahoma Dust Bowl. A native of Texas, Parham’s father was a ginner (cotton gin) and an elder in the Church of Christ. Parham recollects traveling throughout Texas in a Model-T truck his father had adapted with plywood on the runners and a mast set up for a tent — a sort of precursor to the recreational vehicle — in which the family lived as they followed the harvest.

Even as a child he worked. “I’d pick cotton from morning till night, until my hands bled. We had gloves, but they were made of cotton and they didn’t last long.”

One of the families he worked for was a former slave who inherited land from his one-time master. “His wife would feed us pork, vegetables fresh from the garden and homemade bread. She laid out a real good spread.”

He referred to the Dust Bowl as terrifying when the dirt reached high as the clouds. “I remember one time a storm blew in we [auth] found an abandoned farm house. We had nothing to eat, but we found a Rhode Island Red rooster. We ate fried chicken that night. A homeless guy, a hobo, came into the house and we fed him. That’s the way things were back then.”

Parham volunteered for the Navy when he was 18. He served in the Pacific Theater as a petty officer first class. He relayed the story of one battle where 15,000 men were killed retaking an island. “The reason why Iwo Jima is remembered is because there was a photographer there, but all the islands were like that.”

He spent most of his time in and around Palua. He described the heat and humidity. “We were told to cut the toes from our shoes to make sandals and cut off our pants to make shorts. We wore no shirts. It was just too hot.”

One of his first frightening experiences occurred when he got a chance to explore the island. He reached a place called Bloody-nose Ridge. He came upon a gunnery nest where he found two dead Japanese soldiers, still wearing their dog tags. When he looked closer he realized the corpses and the tags had been rigged with a fine filament that led to a land mine. “If I had gone up to get the dog tags, I would have been killed.”

Parham said the island was riddled with tunnels, a fact that nearly cost him his life as he and two friends walked down the beach. He felt a sting on the back of his head that he thought was a wasp. He felt two more. “They were bullets. They had just grazed me.” The hair still won’t grow there because of the scar tissue.

He learned to operate the search lights which helped guide pilots back to their aircraft carriers and spotlighted the enemy. He recalls watching helplessly during a squall as two pilots attempted to beat the storm. One pilot ejected; the other went down with his plane. The ship could not reach them. “He hung suspended in the sky and then drifted down to the water.”

Parham and his crew survived the Okinawa Hurricane of Okinawa. Three of their escort ships did not. “A complement of 2,000 men are now lying at the bottom of the sea.”

When the war ended, he was sent to China. “As we entered the Yangtze River, we heard a roaring sound. We went up to the deck and saw the peasants rising out of their rice paddies. They were standing there with little American flags in their hands, cheering their American liberators.” He shakes his head. “It’s amazing. I can still see that clear as day.”

Parham remained in China as communism took hold. He credits a rickshaw driver with saving his life. “There was a warehouse of people. Old Mao was speaking, inciting them to riot. We got out of the rickshaw, but the driver understood what was being said. He said, ‘no, no, no.’ The people came pouring out of the building and he ran, outrunning the mob. We showered him with money for saving our lives.”

He also has experienced military snafus. “We were getting discharged, but the military lost my paperwork. The captain is supposed to be the last man off the ship, but I was the last and I put her out of commission.”

Korea holds fewer painful memories. Parham was stationed on a flag ship, USS Estes. “We were at the beck and call of Admiral Joy and the 600 people who travel with them. I saw him once.“

He related a tale where the crew were called to general quarters. “We had 600 people milling about and we couldn’t get to our stations. … The gunner got to his just in time to get off one round.” Parham laughs. “You know what all the excitement was about? It was Putt-putt Charlie. He had a little Cessna single-engine plane. He couldn’t do any damage. He did it to harass us.”

When Parham finally made his way home, he found a job in sales and married his “sweetheart.” The two of them had three children. Parham went to college in Coffeyville, Kan.

He didn’t like civilian life, so he joined the reserves where he trained others in desalination techniques, which had been one of his duties during the war. He continued in sales, selling cars in Texas and later in New Mexico.

Sometime after Parham and his first wife split up, he met his second wife Mary Jo. She had two children and Parham had custody of his three children. “She was an angel. I could not have asked for a better wife. Everybody loved her. We had a combined family and couldn’t have gotten along better.”

He now celebrates his life and cherishes his late wife’s memory with his 15 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren.

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