The following article was written for the Fall 2015 issue of the Williams Park Memo, the Newsletter of the Williams Park Neighbors.
Max Parnell in aviator gear circa 1944
Some months ago I was asked by Smyrna Mayor Max Bacon to organize a cache of papers and correspondence (close to 600 items) documenting the life and career of the mayor’s godfather and namesake, Max Parnell, a WWII fighter pilot and Japanese prisoner-of-war.
Not only does this collection document the career of a notable local war hero, it also offers valuable insights into the daily life of Smyrna in the period 1922 to 1947.
These documents were organized chronologically, analyzed, and were recently turned back to the city to be deposited in the city archive.
In sorting through and organizing this massive collection of letters and memorabilia, I was struck by the fact that Parnell grew up in Williams Park, on Highland Avenue, the neighborhood in which I now live, and It occurred to me that an account of Parnell’s early life and military career might be of interest to my neighbors.
The house in which Max Parnell grew up no longer stands. It was the sixth house on the west side of Highland Avenue, just above the Roswell Street intersection. A modern two-story dwelling now occupies the site.
Max, his parents, Chesney and Sarah Lewis Parnell, and a younger sister, Madge, lived here throughout Max’s youth. This was the home of his maternal grandparents, the Lewises. While small by modern standards, it was apparently big enough to accommodate an extended family. Max’s father operated a laundry delivery service. His maternal grandfather, Marcus Dudley Lewis, the family patriarch, was a dairy farmer. The Lewis dairy occupied acreage in and around the present Russell Elementary School near South Hurt Road.
A description of the Lewis family appears in the late Pete Woods richly detailed book, “The Paper Boy.” It notes that in addition to operating a dairy farm, the Lewis family cultivated a large garden behind the home of Max’s uncle, Sam Lewis, who lived in the eighth house on Highland Avenue. The neighborhood back then was of course much more rural than it is today. Highland Ave., in common with almost all of Smyrna’s streets of that period, was at that point an unlit dirt road.
Max Parnell was born on April 28, 1922 in the Lewis house. He and his family belonged to Smyrna’s First Baptist Church. The oldest document in the Parnell collection is, in fact, a “Cradle Roll Certificate” issued to the infant by that church.
As a boy Max was apparently quite active at the First Baptist Church, as evidenced by the following letter of appreciation that he received at age ten from G. C. Green, Superintendent of the First Baptist Sunday School:
I am laying aside business for a few minutes to write you this brief letter of appreciation. You were a wonderful help to me while I was Superintendent of the Sunday School and I want to thank you sincerely. You always responded willingly and cheerfully when I called on you and you would do things just like I wanted them done. You were a real joy to my heart. You were a fine boy and if you will just keep right on some of these days you will be a great man. May God ever bless and keep you.
Max Parnell at age 15 in 1937
Max attended the Smyrna Elementary School on King Street, where he occasionally appeared in musical productions, performing on a ukulele, an instrument that now forms part of the Parnell Collection. At age 14, however, he transferred to the more academically demanding Marietta High School where he proved himself adept both as student and athlete—a runner, basketball, and football player. The Parnell collection contains a number of medals and merit badges that attest to his athletic skills. His closest friend at this stage and later in life was Arthur Bacon, father of Mayor Max Bacon, who was Marietta High School’s star athlete and the captain of its football team.
Graduating from Marietta High in 1939, Max Parnell was named the handsomest boy in his graduating class. Surprisingly, he did not enter college at this point, though he was actively recruited by the Athletic Coach at Atlanta’s Oglethorpe University. His interests clearly lay in other directions.
Max’s romantic interests from age 15 focused on his future wife, Virginia Duckett, a pretty and shapely blonde from Vinings, who was almost three years his senior. He frequently walked the three miles to visit “Jenny” at her home in what is now downtown Vinings. The Parnell papers contain no less than 70 letters that the young couple exchanged during their years of courtship.
Max had shown an interest in aviation from a young age. He received his first flight instruction at Fort Barrancas in Pensacola, Florida, before enlisting. He finally joined up at Marietta Air Field on November 25, 1940, a full year before the U.S. entered the war having just turned 18, doing so in company with his pal Arthur Bacon.
Newlyweds Max and Virginia Parnell outside his boyhood home on Highland Avenue
Max and Virginia’s were finally married on December 21 1941, in a ceremony at Smyrna’s First Baptist Church held just two weeks after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. He was 19; she was 22. This marriage would last 52 years, until Max’s death in 2001.
Over the next two years the young couple were often separated as Max underwent additional training at various state-side air fields. During these periods of separation Jenny worked at the massive Bell Bomber plant in Marietta. For a time she served as secretary to Director Jimmy Carmichael’s Administrative Assistant.
Their longest period of state-side wartime co-habitation came in the period from mid-1943 to September 1944 when Max was stationed at Hillsboro Air Field near Tampa, Florida, serving as a flight instructor. Here they formed a number of close relationships with other airmen and their wives, as reflected in the large number of letters in the collection that they later exchanged with these air force couples.
On September 12, 1944, Max, then still only 22 years of age, was thrust into the thick of the war when the ATC (Air Training Command) transported him, and his close friend Carlton Covey, to China (via North Africa, the Middle East, and India—passing over the so-called “Hump” of the Himalayas)—where they joined the celebrated 14th Air Force, formerly known “The Flying Tigers,” under General Claire Chennault. Eager to see action, Max had requested assignment to Chennault’s command.
Max Parnell in the cockpit of a P-51C Mustang a few weeks before he was shot down
The young man from Smyrna, Georgia was soon in the thick of it, as reflected in the following letter written to Jenny on November 24, 1944:
Well, darling, I’ll tell you this in case you might hear it through some other source—I had my first real aerial fight the other day and what a time we had. We were slightly outnumbered—3 to 1—which I didn’t know when the fireworks started and because of that, it caused me a little surprise a short time afterwards. Just as I shot hell out of my first zero all hell broke loose on me. But don’t get excited. I got back to the field without a scratch on me. Only had 42 holes in my airplane and very little controls left. What fun! Would write more details but censorship prevents. So don’t worry. I’ve had my close call and luck is with me. “Ding How” (thumbs up) for China. Ha! (underlining in the original)
News of these raids, primarily directed against Japanese shipping in Hong Kong Harbor, soon found their way into the Atlanta press. One such article noted that the young man from Smyrna had helped destroy three enemy planes on the ground and two more were shot down from the air…The pilots, members of the so-called “Black Lightning” squadron, have hit the jackpot on raids to Hong Kong Harbor. On earlier raids they were credited with sinking a 500-foot transport and bombing five freighters, as well as destroying a number of enemy planes.
However, Max’s participation in these punishing raids ended abruptly on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1944, when his plane was shot down over Hong Kong Harbor. Parnell spent the last eight months of the war as a prisoner of the Japanese at the notorious Okuna Prison Camp on the Japanese mainland. His wife and family had no idea if he were alive or dead during these many months of imprisonment. Max’s treatment by the Japanese was so severe and traumatizing that for years he refused to discuss these experiences.
Fortunately, for the historical record, Max was eventually persuaded to write an account of his prisoner of war experiences under the suggestive title The Hell of Okuna, which appeared in a 50th anniversary history of Chennault’s Flying Tigers, published in 1996.
In this article Max wrote that after being fished out of Hong Kong Harbor he was tortured in every conceivable manner by his captors as they tried in vain to pry useful information out of him. He was beaten unconscious time after time with clubs and bamboo sticks and was whipped with wet ropes. He carried the scars on his body for the rest of his life.
Ofuna Prisoner-of-War Camp, Japan
Not only was Max beaten, he was starved. The Japanese would go for days without giving him anything to eat or drink, and then would only give him a tiny bowl of rice or barley.
After a week he was sent on a three Week voyage to Japan, and was kept blind folded and handcuffed for the entire trip. Then came a train ride in an open baggage car that left him with frostbitten feet. Parnell wound up wearing the same pants and shirt for the entire eight months of his captivity.
By the time he was liberated in August 1945, just after the dropping of the A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he weighed less than 90 pounds and was suffering from beriberi and other diseases. His weight at the time of his capture had been 170 pounds.
An hour-long power point presentation on the life and career of Max Parnell is available for interested audiences. If interested in viewing this material, please contact me for more details at: firstname.lastname@example.org