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Stories Beneath The Stones
This first story ends with a sudden ball of flame in the night sky over North Vietnam and the pilot’s utter disappearance for the next 25 years. The second story is about the search for Woody Parker.
Parker entered The Citadel in 1961 after having actively and happily served in the Air Force ROTC in high school. Interestingly, his father was a career infantry officer in the U.S. Army. Parker did okay in academics, even managing to make Dean’s List in his senior year. His overriding passion was flying.
Shortly after graduating from The Citadel in 1965, Parker enlisted in the Air Force and began training as a fighter pilot in Laredo, Texas. He would always claim to anyone who listened that his military and aviation training at The Citadel gave him a decided edge over his fellow student pilots. In 1967, Parker engaged in escape and evasion training in Washington State. Then it was on to electronic systems training in Arizona. While stationed there, he elected to fly the two-seater fighter plane, the F4. He became truly a back seat driver, as pilots rode in the rear seat while the weapons specialist sat in the front. Finally, in February 1968 Parker was shipped overseas and assigned to Da Nang Air Force base in South Vietnam. It was the height of the war.
After graduating in 1965, Parker pursued his passion for flying by becoming a fighter pilot. He was killed in Vietnam in 1968.
On the night of April 24, 1968, Parker’s crew and another crew were given an important night mission: Locate and destroy a truck re-supply convoy snaking through the jungle under the cover of darkness. The accompanying plane was to drop flares over the suspected route while Parker’s was to smash the column with bombs and rockets. Each plane dove three times, each time closer to the ground—and to enemy fire—trying to spot enemy movements. Only seconds after the third pass, the pilot of the flares plane reported seeing Parker’s jet erupt into a massive ball of flame. Was Parker killed instantly? Or did he manage to eject from the plane? Finding the answers to those questions took 25 years and the combined efforts of the United States and North Vietnamese governments, two DNA labs, the testimony of Vietnamese peasants and the constant goading of Parker’s father, retired Army Col. Woodrow Parker of Augusta, Ga.
In the mid-1980’s, the Vietnam government, in an effort to reconcile with the United States, turned over vital information it had about America’s missing in action. The search for Parker was part of an overall effort spearheaded by Sens. John McCain and John Kerry, among others. An anti-aircraft battery log containing coordinates, date and time and a description of the downed plane matched almost perfectly what the Air Force already knew about Parker’s mission. Vietnam then opened up its territory to outside investigators and in 1989 a two-man search team, helped by local villagers, discovered the probable crash site and listed it for later possible excavation.
According to Parker’s father, a well-equipped excavation team arrived at the site in 1990 or 1991. Because it was the rainy season, their efforts were defeated by the relentless rain and mudslides. The team returned during the 1993 dry season. They dug an enormous crater 10 feet deep. An aged villager living nearby offered to sell team members bones he had surreptitiously carted off from the crash site 20 years earlier. People pilfering from crash sites were often put to death. Two femur bones were purchased and rushed to the Armed Forces DNA lab in Rockville, Md.
DNA matches were possible only because most mothers of MIA’s freely gave samples of their blood to the government in hope of discovering the fate of their missing sons. Parker’s mother gave a blood sample at a meeting of the National Organization of Families of MIA’s in the 1970s. Initial DNA tests confirmed that the femur bones belonged to Parker and his weapons officer. However, trace findings in the wreckage hinted at a possibility that Parker had ejected from the plane after the explosion and before the crash. DNA tests could therefore be wrong. Parker’s father persisted for two years. Finally, the elder Parker was able to hire an independent firm to do a second DNA test. The second test was completed in July 1998 by one of the country’s top forensic experts, Dr. Mark Stoneking of Pennsylvania State University. It concluded that Parker’s bones had been those in the downed F4.
Woodrow Wilson Parker II was laid to rest on Sept. 23, 1998 in Arlington National Cemetery nearly 30 after the first chapter of his life story ended and the second one began. A holly tree and the memorial stone placed near Summerall Chapel bears the following inscription:
|Inscription on memorial stone near Summerall Chapel|
to acknowledge the invaluable contributions of Parker’s Citadel classmates,
Citadel Chaplain Dave Golden and particularly Parker’s father, Army Col.
(Ret.) Woodrow Parker of Augusta, GA.
- Roy Freedman
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