Robert Parker couldn’t be certain when he enlisted in the Army in November of 1941 that the war that had raged around the world for more than two years would touch the United States. But he knew what he wanted to be doing if it did.
The allure of joining the air corps was enough to persuade him to leave the business administration program at Michigan State College (now University) after two years and get ahead of the draft board. He and three friends from Lansing all set their sights on pilot training, and a month after Pearl Harbor they were doing exactly that.
Parker, Bruce Boylan, H.H. Holloway and Clarice Randall found themselves at Kelly Field, near San Antonio, as the Army Air Forces rushed to get as many new pilots into the air as it could in the months following the December 7 attack. After five weeks of basic military training at Kelly, the newly minted aviation cadets of Class 42-F moved on to flight training. Parker was sent to Corsicana, Texas, the week before Christmas and finally got his chance to take to the air.
Pilot training wasn’t all that occupied the 22-year-old Parker’s mind in the early months of 1942. That February, as noted in the Lansing State Journal, he played host in Corsicana to Miss Margaret Ellen Davies, a former classmate at Central High School who now worked as a typist at the Reo Motor Car Company office in Lansing. By the following summer, the pair would announce their engagement.
Her departure allowed Parker to return to the task at hand, and by July he had earned his wings, finishing pilot training alongside Boylan at Foster Field in Victoria, Texas. Holloway and Randall also graduated with their class and all were commissioned into the Army Air Forces.
Parker was able to return home to Lansing in August 1942 before moving to his first duty station in North Carolina. After stops on the west coast and in Australia, Parker eventually joined the 8th Fighter Group’s 35th Fighter Squadron in New Guinea in 1943.
The island just off Australia’s northeast coast was a hotly contested battleground in the Southwest Pacific. The Japanese and the Allies each had bases on the island, with Japan controlling the northern coast and the Australians and Americans keeping a foothold in the east and southeast.
The initial base for the 35th was in Port Moresby, and the squadron switched from P-39 fighters to the newer P-40N-5 Warhawks not long after 1st Lt. Parker arrived. He quickly demonstrated his worth, earning the air medal in late spring and adding an oak leaf cluster by early October for participating in at least 50 operational flight missions. He also earned a Distinguished Flying Cross.
That fall, the 35th spent much of its time patrolling the Ramu Valley from the airstrip at Nadzab, about 200 miles north of Port Moresby. Lt. Dick West of the 35th described the valley as “a flat, wide, and hot place,” and tree-covered foothills ran along either side.
On the morning of November 15, 1943, West, Parker and six other pilots from the 35th were assigned to patrol to the northwest along the valley, covering the area around the villages of Kaiapit and Lae. The sun was moving up in the sky around 10 a.m. when West spotted a formation of Japanese planes headed in the opposite direction, presumably headed to bomb the Allied base at Nadzab. West counted 24 Mitsubishi Ki-21 “Sally” bombers and 30 to 35 Mitsubishi A6M fighters – better known as Zeroes, or “Zekes” in the official Army jargon.
Despite the Japanese group’s vast numerical superiority, the Americans swung into the attack. West recounted climbing at a Sally from underneath and raking it with the P-40’s six .50-caliber machine guns. It wasn’t until that bomber fell out of formation that the Americans got the Zeroes’ full attention.
“The Zekes arrived from above us as my first Sally started down,” West recounted to author Eric Hammel in an interview for his book “Aces Against Japan,” published in 2007. “Our formation was broken up, and understandably so. It was a hell of a fight …”
Chaos reigned as fighters from both sides worked for angles above the Ramu Valley. Parker and West were working as a two-man team, watching each other’s backs. In a report filed days after the encounter, West said he shot a Zero off Parker’s tail, and Parker then made a diving turn and returned the favor, shooting down a Zero that was pursuing West.
Parker then pulled into another turn, but he was too close to a Zero roaring by. He tried to break away, but the planes’ right wings collided and neither could withstand the impact. “A wing was sheared from each plane,” West wrote. “Both planes went into spins; neither plane burned on the way down. I followed Lieutenant Parker to within 500 feet of the ground. Enemy aircraft was in the vicinity at this time and I could not follow Lieutenant Parker any longer. However, it is my belief that neither pilot bailed out.”
When the P-40s returned to base and compared notes they determined that the eight pilots had confirmed kills of two Japanese bombers and eight fighters – including the Zero that collided with Parker’s plane and spiraled to the ground along with him.
Around 2 p.m. that day, West climbed back into his P-40 and took off from Nadzab alongside Maj. Emmett “Cyclone” Davis, the commanding officer of the 35th. The pair flew back to the scene of the morning’s engagement but could not find any trace of Parker. Two reconnaissance planes later retraced their path, with the same result.
“The area where Lieutenant Parker was last seen was thoroughly searched with nil findings or sightings,” Davis wrote in a report. “The terrain over which Lieutenant Parker was last seen is very rough and completely covered with tropical jungle. Because of the low altitude of Lieutenant Parker and the terrain over which he was flying, it is my belief that he would have been unable to parachute to safety.”
It took about a month for the news to make it back to Michigan. Robert Parker was missing in action, the Lansing State Journal reported in its December 17 edition. His final letter home had been posted November 10, five days before the fateful mission, and arrived at his parents’ home at 720 North Walnut street on November 21. A separate letter arrived from a 35th Squadron officer saying a “thorough search” was ongoing.
That sliver of light allowed the Parkers to maintain some optimism, but the war would soon grind it away. On December 23, Parker’s fiancée Margaret learned that her younger brother Abner had been killed in action. Assigned to the 2nd Division of the U.S. Marine Corps, Davies had died on November 20 in the early hours of the bloody Battle of Tarawa. On January 5, the parents of Parker’s friend Bruce Boylan received word that their son had been killed in action while serving with Claire Chennault’s legendary “Flying Tigers” in the China-Burma-India theater.
Lt. Robert Parker officially remained “missing in action,” and it wasn’t until after the war had ended that the occasional local news account mentioning him said he was “lost” or “presumed” killed, earning a Silver Star in his final action. There was never any closure on that front for the family. Parker was memorialized on the Tablets of the Missing at the Manila American Cemetery, and he remains missing in action more than 70 years later.