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Its easy to miss the heroes around us

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First mates for 66 years, Kathleen and Tom Parker hold a photograph of the submarine the USS Tennessee that normally hangs on the wall in their den. A submariner in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Thomas and his wife went to New London, Conn., to view the sub’s launching in December 1986.

KEN BECK / The Wilson Post 

Tom and Kathleen Parker recollect World War II years 

By KEN BECKSpecial to The Wilson Post

Though their numbers are rapidly dwindling, the survivors of “the Greatest Generation” walk among us.

In their 80s or older, they live peaceful lives, but they realize far more than most that the peace Americans enjoy at home came at a fearful and costly price. Many of them went to war and were eyewitnesses to the horror of battle. Some continue to wear the scars that may be hidden by clothing or carry even deeper wounds invisible that pain heart and mind.

Others kept the home fires burning, doing their part in a hundred different ways to support the men and women on the World War II battlefronts.    

Their stories are countless. Some choose to forget, some choose to remember. And others elect to remember only the parts they want to remember.

DeKalb County natives and long-time Watertown residents Kathleen and Dr. Tom Parker were high school sweethearts. They’re 85 years young, but time is catching up on the husband and wife of 66 years.

There was a day when they were enthusiastic about square dancing and could clear the lodge floor at Cedars of Lebanon State Park of other dancers as they cut the rug on Saturday nights.

Their happy feet haven’t danced in years. In fact, neither drives anymore. Kathleen scoots about the house with the aid of a walker much of the time. Tom suffered a stroke two months ago.  

The couple worships on Sunday mornings at the First Methodist Church in Lebanon, and they enjoy visiting with peers at the senior citizens center and going out to eat.

They can recall the misty memories of the way they were and what it is was like during the World War II years. They would never claim to be heroes, just ordinary Americans who simply did what they had to do.

“I was in submarine service. This was during World War II in the Pacific, way down under,” said Tom, as he swooped his hand up and then down to replicate a submarine making a dive.

Born to a carpenter in Smithville, Dr. Parker was Watertown’s dentist from 1954 to 1984. He married Kathleen Hayes married when they were 18 on Jan. 23, 1943. Five weeks later, he was drafted.

“At the time of being drafted, they asked me which way I wanted to go. I said Navy. I looked over to see a couple of guys in their uniforms that looked bright and colorful,” said the 5-foot-3-inch Tom, who went to the United States Naval Training Center in Bainbridge, Md.

“I had never seen a submarine. I thought that would be a good thing to be in. You had to volunteer to be on a submarine.”

From Maryland, he left for submarine school in New London, Conn., where he studied diesel engines.

“They taught you what made the submarine go up and down,” said the former fireman first class who served on the 311-feet-9-inch-long diesel-electric USS Greenling 233 with 77 other submariners.

When Tom went to Connecticut, his young bride followed and quickly found a job doing, of all things, helping build submarines for General Dynamics/Electric Boat Company, the primary submarine builder for the U.S. Navy for more than 100 years. (Known as “Electric Boat,” “EB” or “The Boat Company” by its employees, the company built 74 subs during World War II.) 

“I carried the orders from one station to another,” Kathleen said. “It was real interesting to watch them make the submarines. They were great big vessels.”

The Greatest Generation

During World War II, more than 16 million Americans served in the United States armed forces. There were 291,557 battle deaths, 113,842 other deaths in service (non-theater) and 671,846 non-mortal woundings. As of November 2008, there were approximately 2,306,000 American veterans still living. Approximately 900 American World War II veterans die every day. Source: Wikipedia 

On Jan. 1, 1944, Tom left for San Francisco.

“I knew he was in the Pacific. That was that,” Kathleen said. “I said goodbye in New London, Conn., and hello in Nashville (when he returned 22 months later).”

She wrote him two to three letters a week and he responded to each.

Stationed at the submarine base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Tom could see foundered ships that were casualties of the Japanese bombing on Dec. 7, 1941.

“I was a lookout. I stood up on the bridge and looked out,” he defined his job succinctly. “They had three lookouts: one on port, one on starboard and one who looked up. We looked for other ships, kept the harbor safe. They had come in there once and we didn’t want the Japanese coming in there again.

“We took a deep-sea dive every day. We dived down to 700 feet,” he said.

However, it wasn’t the diving that bothered him. Tom suffered from seasickness. “I never did get used to it. On top of a submarine the water is choppy. Down below it’s calm.”

About six months after Tom left for overseas duty, Kathleen went to Detroit.

From helping build submarines, she went into airplane construction.

“From June of 1944 until February or March of 1945, I drilled holes in airplane wings. I used a big drill. It was exhausting, eight hours a day,” she said of her stint at Briggs Manufacturing where about half of the hundreds of workers were women.

While war in Europe halted on May 8, 1945, peace in the Pacific did not come until three months and one week later on Aug. 16.

“At 12 o’clock at night the news came. I heard it on the radio,” Tom said. “The Japanese surrendered. We got up and walked around the barracks. Some of the guys fired torpedoes. I knew where I was going: back home.”

Released from the Navy in November 1945, he returned home after a four-day, cross-country trip on a troop train and kissed his wife again in Nashville’s Union Station.

In the building that currently houses Depot Junction Restaurant, the reunited couple operated Watertown Furniture from 1946 to 1947 and became good friends with the town dentist, Dr. Thomas Armstrong. Through Armstrong’s influence, Tom made a life-changing decision.

Kathleen noted, “He told me, ‘I know now what I want to do.’ “What’s that?” ‘Be a dentist.’ “OK, let’s go,” she responded.

“The war was over. I had to do something,” said the tooth doctor, who attended Middle Tennessee State University from 1947-1949 before the couple lit out for the University of Tennessee in Memphis for four more years of study, taking 9-month old son Joe Thomas with them. (Their son, his wife Cindy and two granddaughters, Emily and Rachel, reside in Lebanon.)

Tom opened his practice in Watertown on Jan. 1, 1954, starting from scratch as his mentor Dr. Armstrong earlier had moved his business to Lebanon.

“I enjoyed the whole thing about being a dentist. There’s a lot of people in Wilson County that came over there. I made lots of sets of teeth,” said Tom, who, after serving as Watertown’s dentist for more than 30 years, sold his practice to Dr. Terry Jackson in 1984.

In 1980, Tom and Kathleen moved closer to Lebanon, just a couple of miles outside the city limits off the highway to Watertown. They are still missed by the small southeastern Wilson County town.

“The Parkers were very active in local clubs and community affairs and backed everything that came along that was good for the community,” said Edsel Floyd, one of Watertown’s civic leaders for many years. “They were a very important part of our history. His character is first rate and above reproach. His personality is outstanding.”

Occasionally, when the Parkers walk outside, they hold on to one another’s arms for support. But in ways invisible to most, they have supported each other for a lifetime.

There is nothing heroic about their lives. Just two people who have grown old together, loved together, loved family and friends and loved their country in a time when the clouds were darkest. Like millions of others citizens they served beside, they are real American heroes. And every day, they walk among us.

Editor’s Note: Ken Beck may be contacted at kbtag2@gmail.com.

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