FREDERICKSBURG FREE-LANCE STAR, CATHY DYSON
If only Michael Parkyn had paid attention as a kid to the stories his father told about a cousin in New Jersey who went off to Canada to fight in World War II, long before the United States entered the fray.
But as a child, Parkyn and his siblings rolled their eyes every time their dad mentioned the pilot who flew big bombers. It made no sense to them that an American was part of the Royal Canadian Air Force, and the tale seemed too incredible to believe.
“I never listened to the story. Never,” said Parkyn who lives in North Stafford. “All I remember him saying was his cousin flew and he never came home. My dad seemed a little bit sad at that moment, but I just never connected to it.”
Decades later, Parkyn, a retired Marine Corps officer who flew 75 combat missions over the Middle East, has taken up his father’s mantle to bring attention to the service of Alfred J. Parkyn, his dad’s first cousin.
“He, his crew, and thousands of others like them risked their citizenship for the chance to defend America with their lives (as they) volunteered to fly and fight Hitler before America was ready,” Parkyn said. “These men were the first of the Greatest Generation but they are virtually unrecognized in America today.”
Parkyn, 59, is working with Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D–7th District, to correct that oversight. Along with Rep. Trent Kelly of Mississippi, Spanberger proposed legislation last month that would award the Congressional gold medal to an estimated 12,000 Americans like the late Alfred Parkyn.
“When Great Britain and Canada took up arms against Nazi terror and fascist aggression, thousands of brave Americans volunteered,” Spanberger said. “Motivated by their love of democracy and their belief in protecting our allies across the Atlantic, they ran to the sound of the guns.”
The flying bug
Many members of the Parkyn family had the flying bug, including Michael Parkyn’s parents, who both flew private planes before World War II. As kids, he and his five older brothers “used to consume all things aviation,” including visiting airports and museums to look over old aircraft.
They watched old war movies, particularly ones featuring actor Clark Gable because he had flown B17s during World War II. Four of the six boys in the Parkyn family ended up as pilots, with one in the military, two in commercial planes and one flying privately.
But it wasn’t until a dark night over Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom that Parkyn began to think about things that people don’t normally contemplate when they fly.
“I just allowed myself to ponder the emotion of being down there in the dark where no one was going to find me, ever, and disappearing,” he said.
After that campaign, he was sent to Marine Corps University and was researching various topics when something told him to ask about Alfred Parkyn. One thing led to another and Parkyn realized not only that his father had been right all along, but also that his dad’s cousin had “literally suffered the fate that I feared.”
Getting the story back
That began a quest, in 2004, to find out everything he could about his relative’s wartime service.
The search has put him in touch with people on two continents. He started with the Royal Canadian Air Force, where Alfred Parkyn was trained before he was sent overseas to fly Avro Lancaster bombers with Great Britain’s Royal Air Force.
Parkyn wasn’t satisfied with the official report that simply stated his relative, part of the 207th Squadron with a call sign of “C for Charlie,” had gone off on a bombing mission and never returned.
His name was engraved on a memorial with 20,000 others. But his remains were never found, he had no known grave, and his widowed mother and sisters knew few details about his final hours.
By the time Parkyn discovered that information, his father and many in his generation had died. No one knew the stories anymore. An American Legion post in the New Jersey town where the Parkyns lived no longer existed.
“It was like time had just washed the story away and I wanted to get it back,” Parkyn said.
After he received the official files about his relative’s death, Parkyn contacted the 207th Squadron’s historical association. He got in touch with authorities in the Netherlands, where his cousin’s plane was shot down, visited the United Kingdom’s national archives twice and hired a researcher to pore over records at the Bundesarchiv, the German Federal Archives.
Parkyn also used his military background as a safety officer and crash investigator — as well as the emotional experience of serving, once, as a casualty officer and informing a local family that their child had been killed in duty — to guide him.
He believes his relative’s plane was the third of five sent out on a late afternoon mission, in bad weather, to fly over the Dutch coast and penetrate enemy territory in German cities. The commanding officer believed the action would set off air raids, and if this happened once a day, every day, production of war materials in those cities would be disrupted.
Parkyn believes “a lot of bad decisions” and flawed analysis went into the orders his cousin received and that “the deck was sort of stacked against Alfred and his crew.”
But the information gathered also has made the story of his cousin “Allie” incredible, but in a different way than he viewed it as a child. He learned about raids that his pilot–relative made along the Baltic Coast of Germany, at night, under cloud cover and during a thunderstorm. Cities under him were blacked out so there was no light, anywhere, and he was flying about 650 feet above church steeples when the search lights found him “and every gun in the city swung over and shot at him.”
“He got his right wingtip shot off and ended up living to tell the tale,” Parkyn said. “This was two weeks after he became an aircraft commander, that’s the kind of stuff he was doing.”
Parkyn often thought about the maneuvers his cousin performed in a Lancaster, a clunky bomber with a 102-foot wing span that’s a far cry from the Hornet, a versatile fighter and attack aircraft with a 37-foot wing span, that Parkyn flew over the desert.
“He did things with a bomber that I would not do in my computer-controlled Hornet,” Parkyn said. “He had four piston engines that might power a race car today to get that giant airplane out of trouble where I had a pair of after-burners. Just the comparisons in what I had to work with and what I did based on the risks as I knew them and what he worked with and what he did, it’s stunning, just absolutely stunning.”