Korean War veteran keeps the memory alive of those he served with

March 12, 2018 06:43 PM

Nearly six million Americans served during the Korean War. Less than half of them are still alive. So when one of those veterans, who's now 89, invites you to visit to share his memories, you accept.

That's how I came to visit with John "Red" Parkinson at the Stratton VA Medical Center. His mission is to make sure we don't forget those who served in the forgotten war.

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"They call it the forgotten war, which it was," pointed out John "Red" Parkinson.

He was 19 and the world was at peace when he enlisted in the Marines.

Six months later, the Korean War broke out. It shaped his life, giving him an enduring mission -- to make sure we never forget those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Even at 89, suffering kidney failure and bladder cancer, he's still in service.

Looking back on his time in the military, he says he thinks about "the whole thing," constantly.

WEB EXTRA: Full interview with John "Red" Parkinson -- not seen on TV

It was early November 1950 when Parkinson's unit landed in Korea -- part of the first Marine Division. Things were going so well General Douglas McArthur boasted fighting would be over by Thanksgiving. Truth is, only Parkinson and five others of the 96 men in his platoon would be alive by then.

Stopped at Chosin Reservoir, outnumbered by Chinese soldiers, combat and cold were killers. Forty-two degrees below zero with wind chill is what history says they suffered through.

When the order to retreat came, they walked 78 miles to the safety of ships waiting for them at the Port at Hungnam. It was a storied retreat showing the grit of the Marines.

"We fought every inch of the way, over one mountain into another one," he recalled.

Along the way, his buddy, Bob Devans was mortally wounded and died in Parkinson's arms. It was November 27, Parkinson's birthday.  

"We did the best we could. Tried to hold his head together. I had an extra T-shirt in my backpack and tried to stop the bleeding with it. It didn't work – and that has bothered me year after year after year," he admitted.

Expecting recovery teams to bring Devans home, they pressed on. However, it would be six years before Devas' body was found, still wrapped in the sleeping bag they'd left him in.

Years later, thanks to the internet, one of the men in Parkinson's platoon located Devans' family and where he was buried in Pennsylvania. By then, Parkinson, married with a family, was living in Stephentown. However, he knew what he had to do and called the other five survivors to join his solemn mission.

"I said, 'I know where Bobby's buried. I'm going to the cemetery tomorrow. If you guys can get out here…' They flew out, they drove out, they all came out and that gave us closure," he explained.

Parkinson was decorated twice. He got the Bronze Star for taking out a Korean tank bearing down on a buddy of his. The Silver Star was awarded for saving his unit. Pinned down, Parkinson spotted the mortar firing on them and told his lieutenant.

"First thing he says, 'You got a compass -- give me an address.' I said, 'I ain't got no compass, just fire where I tell you,'" he remembered.

Eventually, Parkinson was shipped home after being blown off a tank and suffering a severe facial injury.

It's said there are no atheists in foxholes and Parkinson, at the urging of another Marine, found religion during the war. He joined the Gideons and has testified in 44 states.

When asked what he wants us all to always remember about them, he replied, "The way we stuck together."

Parkinson is the only surviving member of his platoon. His health failing, he knows every conversation may be his last testimony.

"I ain't no hero. I'm just another Marine who was up there doing what he had to do," he noted.

Parkinson's story is intertwined with Navy pilots who played a critical role in the Chosin Reservoir Battle, including the first African-American fighter pilot.

It's all detailed in the book, "Devotion," by Adam Makos. Parkinson and all those who served with you, we thank you and salute you.


Benita Zahn

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