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World War II radio operator found hometown paper on warplane bound for India

Robert J. Parks, 91

Hometown: Terre Haute, Ind.

Residences: Buffalo and later, Orchard Park

Branch: Army Air Forces

Rank: Corporal

War zone: World War II, China-Burma-India Theater

Years of service: 1943-1946

Most prominent honors: Army Air Medal, World War II Victory Medal

Specialty: Radio operator mechanic

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

Robert J. Parks received his draft notice in January 1943 halfway through his senior year at Seneca Vocational High School, where he was majoring in electrical power.

Parks says he was fully prepared to leave school and defend the United States in World War II, but his neighbor, head of the local draft board, interceded and secured a six-month deferment.

“I’d been on the honor roll all four years of high school and had worked part time at Sterns Electric rewinding sump pump motors,” the 91-year-old recalled. “When I graduated, I was given a medal with ‘Honor’ on it. We’d been through hard times in the Great Depression, and I wanted to show my mother I could accomplish something.”

She was not the only one impressed with his achievement.

Uncle Sam realized that Parks’ electrical know-how would make him ideal for operating a radio aboard a warplane that was bound for India.

“We didn’t know where we were going until we were up in the air in this brand new two-engine, C-46 Curtiss Commando. That’s when we opened up our orders, which were sealed,” he said.

As he prepared for the long flight, Parks said he lifted up the seat cushion in the radio operator station to stash his parachute and made an unexpected discovery.

“There was a copy of The Buffalo Evening News. I realized the plane had been built in Buffalo and one of the people who built it had put the newspaper there,” he said of the former Curtiss Wright aircraft factories in the region. “It gave me a good feeling that I was in a Buffalo-built plane. And, hey, it was great to have a recent newspaper from home as we flew halfway around the world.”

Arriving in India, Parks and three of his crew members were immediately put to work transporting 55-gallon drums of 100-octane aircraft fuel.

“We took it from India over Burma where the Japanese were fighting and we’d land in China and drop it off,” Parks said. “We’d have a little breakfast and then head back to India. It was an 800-mile trip one way that took about four hours depending on the head winds.”

The plane traveled at an altitude of about 17,000 feet, navigating through and above the Himalayan Mountains.

“Looking down at the mountains, you’d see ridges and ridges, they were all like razorback peaks. That’s when we could see them. Many times we were above the clouds, which were between us and the mountains.”

Fear of crashing into some of world’s highest peaks, he said, never entered his mind.

“We were all trained to do a job, and at my age I didn’t have fear or know the what-ifs. I was too busy trying to contact people on the ground to let them know we were coming. I was busy doing work,” Parks said.

But there was one flight he says he never forgot.

“We were about 30 seconds into the flight carrying a payload of fragmentation bombs … and suddenly there was this bang and I looked out the window and saw smoke coming from the right engine. The pilot kept the engine on and made a circle and we landed safely,” Parks said. “I still think what would we have looked like if the plane hit the ground with what we were carrying.”

Parks flew 20 round trips. Because of limited navigational equipment, “we were lost more than once,” he added.

But thanks to the pilot, he said, they always ended up at their destination.

Parks, who later served in a search-and-rescue group for missing plane crews, found his way home to civilian life in January 1946. And again his high school education proved valuable. He worked for Niagara Mohawk as an electric planner for 36 years and retired in 1984.

Parks and his wife, the former Marie Mecca, who have two grown daughters and two grandsons, recently celebrated their 68th wedding anniversary.

“From my perspective,” he said, “I have lived the American Dream. I’ve been fortunate.”