As Chickasaw veteran Louis Parker recalls 88 years from his home in Chico, California, what unfolds is an underdog tale full of peaks and valleys, seemingly insurmountable odds, and the will to push forward and do well.
He overcame numerous obstacles on a journey from Oklahoma to Kansas, California, then Japan and Korea; ultimately making his home in California. Despite family hardships, school bullies, homelessness, enemy combatants in foreign lands, loss, and the trials and tribulations of his generation, nothing stopped him.
• Early life
His story begins in spring 1931.
“I was born and (reared) in Sulphur, Oklahoma, on a ‘dirt farm’ during the depression,” Parker remembered. “When I was 7 years old, my mother and father got a divorce. We didn’t have anything left so it kind of split up the family. Everybody thought I’d be better off at the Indian school, so they sent me off on a bus to Jones Academy.”
He was there for six years. Jones Academy served as a boarding school for children up to eighth grade, so Parker said there was always someone physically larger than him. Scuffles with older classmates led him to join the boxing team – a skill set Parker would develop over the years.
After Jones Academy, Parker attended Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas, but only for one year.
“I got hurt playing football; got behind in my classes while at the hospital, then I never caught up,” Parker said. “I got angry, started acting out, so they asked me not to come back.”
He was kicked out in ninth grade, labeled a “problem kid” and “incorrigible.” So he joined his father who had moved to California and was working hard labor gigs harvesting fruit and vegetables.
Parker said he worked around 12 different jobs in southern California alongside his father. But, when they were paid, his dad would drink heavily. They parted ways.
“The last thing my dad said to me was, ‘Remember, fast women and slow racehorses will sure get your money.’ I thought, ‘What a dumb thing to say to a 15-year-old,’ but I found out later he knew what he was talking about,” Parker said, adding his father drank heavily as part of the rodeo lifestyle.
“When we split, he went back to Oklahoma, ended up passed out in the snow and died of pneumonia. I was homeless when I was 15, until I joined the Army when I was 16.”
• In the Army now
His cousin, John Tyler, more like a brother to Parker, asked him to join the Army at his side.
“I didn’t have much else to do, and my cousin talked me into it,” Parker said. “I thought I’d fit in with the Army after being in Indian boarding school, institutionalized. It was kind of an easy go for me because I was looking forward to it. Of course, at 16, I was 6-foot-2-inches and weighed about 200 pounds. I was also a boxer, so I got by quite well.”
He finished basic training in 1947. Then it was off to Korea and Japan for occupation duty, where Parker served in the military police.
“It was a whole new experience. Your military service lets you know who you are; changes your life. For most of us, it made us a lot better, because we experienced relationships with people from all over. You got to know them, where they were from, what they were like. We became buddies,” he said.
A standout as a military police officer, Parker was selected for service as a member of the honor guard for Gen. Douglas MacArthur in Tokyo. He also served in the 7th Infantry Division in northern Japan.
While there, he married a Japanese woman, Kyoko Matsukawa. He continued as a boxer and gained some notoriety.
“I had boxed six years in Indian boarding school, then off and on for six years in the Army. I was the heavyweight boxing champion in northern Japan.”
• Landing in Korea
“The Korean War broke out just as I reenlisted,” Parker remembered. “They sent all of us to Korea real fast because they were so short of men. They even took cooks and headquarters people. We landed in Incheon in 1950.”
During the early movements of the war, North Korea took a large portion of South Korea. The South Koreans and U.N. forces were backed further and further south, eventually put into a defensive position in the southeastern city of Pusan, now known as Busan. But the tide was about to turn.
Parker was one of the 75,000 troops on the ground during the surprise amphibious operation backed by the U.N. which reclaimed the South Korean port city known today as Incheon. It was a pivotal moment in the Korean War, which set in motion the eventual retreat of the North Koreans out of South Korea.
“We landed in Incheon and cut the North Koreans in two. That’s when the war changed. North Koreans started retreating back to North Korea and eventually to the Chinese border,” Parker said.
From there, Parker was part of the military movement into North Korea. He crossed the 38th parallel. His destination was Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea.
“I showed up ready to do battle. I was in my prime with my training, my knowledge of weapons. I was all prepared, and then there wasn’t anybody. A million people had disappeared. Kind of a weird experience,” Parker said. “Come to find out, they were hiding up in the mountains. They had no protection because the North Korean Army had retreated on their way to the Chinese border.”
“I remember going through those North Korean towns. A lot of people would disappear. I remember walking down the streets looking for snipers and tripwires, waiting for a bullet to enter your body from the top of a building or something,” he said.
Things changed when China intervened. The march north was halted. Rather than abandoned towns, U.S. forces found themselves in harsh terrain overwhelmed by the enemy.
“I remember sitting on the frozen turf of a North Korean battlefield holding this soldier in my arms – he had been shot in the stomach, his blood and guts running through my fingers – until he died,” Parker said. “People who knew me thought I would immediately want to go out and kill as many of the enemy as I could. All that happened was I felt this real sad feeling.
“I did my duty after that, but that changed me. The war changed me. I never had the same feeling about it,” he said.
Parker and his brothers-in-arms found themselves surrounded by Chinese combatants and cut off by roadblocks.
“One morning, the captain came out and told us to say our prayers and get our affairs in order because we were probably all going to die that day,” Parker said. “It was 58 degrees below zero at night. Guys were freezing. The Chinese Army was within marching distance. They went around and set up roadblocks in the mountains so we couldn’t get out. They were going to overwhelm us, and we knew that.”
American tanks knocked out the roadblocks. Parker and crew made it to the coast and retreated to South Korea. It was from there, Parker said, he was sent back to the U.S. and was stationed in Los Angeles, California.
He would later be honored with the Ambassador for Peace Award of the Republic of South Korea.
Before leaving Korea, he suffered a loss. It was Christmas Day 1950 when he found out his wife had committed suicide.
“She got lonely and couldn’t get in touch with me. In North Korea, we were so here and there, it was hard to keep in touch with anybody. She had a miscarriage. She started drinking. It was just too much for her,” he said.
He had planned on returning to the states with his wife and making a life of the military. Instead, he would need to forge a new path.
• Beginning anew
After finishing out his scheduled enlistment, Parker joined the reserves. He sought domestic work, which would make use of the skills he had developed.
He also met and married Natalie Parker and the couple had five children. After losing her 20 years later, he married once more to Dorothy Parker, a human rights activist.
He earned a degree in police science and served as a police officer for the Pomona and Fullerton Police Departments, then transitioned into working as a private investigator specializing in missing persons. He maintains this role, semi-retired, to this day.
“I’ve been up and down, shot, stabbed, beat up. As a private detective, it’s an adventurous occupation. It was overwhelming at times, but that’s the part I liked. I guess you could say, the excitement, the danger, I was kind of addicted to it,” he said.
Though an addiction to action and danger served him well professionally, other addictions did not.
Over the years, he has overcome addictions to drinking, gambling and eating, and has made it a personal goal to help others, which has fueled his work tracking down missing persons.
“It always gives you a good feeling knowing you did your part,” Parker said.