World War II B-29 navigator talks about his role in the Pacific

Chris Koleno
November 07, 2019

This article is the second in a three-part series of stories profiling Penn State alumni who served in the military during World War II.

In 1945, Penn State alumnus Alexander “Lew” Parry Jr. found himself in the middle of World War II, spending much of his active-duty time that year as a navigator in a B-29, flying 31 missions and targeting some of Japan’s key military strongholds and other targets, while escaping near-death experiences a number of times.

“I have them all in my head.” (referring to the 31 missions he flew on during 1945)

-- Alexander “Lew” Parry, former B-29 Army Air Corps navigator during World War II

Parry, age 95, a 1948 Penn State graduate in industrial engineering, began his college career in the fall of 1942; he joined the Army enlisted reserve in December 1942, and he was called to active duty in the spring of 1943.

World War II navigator talks about his 31 missions

In 1945, Penn State alumnus Alexander “Lew” Parry Jr., age 95, found himself in the middle of World War II, spending much of his active-duty time that year as a navigator in a B-29, flying 31 missions and targeting some of Japan’s key military strongholds and other targets, while escaping near-death experiences a number of times.

Kaleb Cook, Penn State Office of Strategic Communications

Parry began his active duty in the same way as many soldiers, spending 13 weeks in infantry training. During each of those 13 weeks, a test was administered on Fridays to determine which of the soldiers had the intellectual ability to earn a position flying on a military plane. At the end of his training, Parry was pulled aside and told that he could hold any position of his choice on board a plane, including a pilot. Because airsickness was a problem for him and a pilot position would have required him to survey his surroundings while thousands of feet off the ground, he opted to enroll in navigator training.

As a navigator during World War II, Parry flew 31 missions -- each 16 to 18 hours, spanning from March 11, 1945, through Aug. 29, 1945. His last flight was a survey mission involving only his plane flying 500 feet above the USS Missouri -- a few days before the peace agreement with Japan was signed on board that same ship in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945.

Aside from his last flight, Parry’s missions involved formations of 24 to 667 planes, bombing urban areas, airfields, harbors, naval fuel sites, naval arsenals, air factories and oil refineries with various types of bombs, including incendiary, high explosives and mines.

When asked which of the 31 missions he remembers well, Parry was quick to answer.

“I have them all in my head,” he said.

While Parry remembers all of his missions, he did recount three times when he realized he had escaped near-death experiences.

Narrow escape No. 1

Parry’s first brush with death came on only his second mission. During the flight, the plane made three target runs, burning large amounts of fuel.

Knowing fuel consumption was an issue, Parry asked “Red,” the engineer, if the plane had enough fuel when they were eight hours away from their destination, four hours away from their destination, and the last time when they were two hours out. On the first two inquiries, Red had an affirmative response, but on the final ask, the engineer did not answer, and Parry looked to see him sobbing. The plane was out of fuel due to an incorrect calculation and the engineer, rather than answer Parry’s final query, went straight to the cockpit to report the plane’s dire straits. 

The pilot would make a quick landing at a closer destination, not their normal landing site.

“Finally, we got as far as Saipan, and we tried landing. When we went down all four fans (engines) went out and we got a fast landing,” said Parry. “The fans stopped when we hit the runway (indicating the plane had absolutely no gas left to operate).”

Luck of the draw and escape No. 2

World War II plane and flight crew

Penn State alumnus Alexander “Lew” Parry, second from the left in the back row, poses with the rest of his crew in front of the plane they flew in over Japan during World War II.

IMAGE: Supplied

After this narrow escape and only two missions complete, Parry was assigned to a different crew and aircraft. Unfortunately, his original crew and plane would leave for their third mission to Tokyo and never return.

Lucky to be alive, again

Mission No. 12 would involve Parry’s aircraft and 271 others flying in formation destined for Tokyo. During the mission, the crew observed a Japanese fighter pilot flying in the vicinity.

Plane and crew

The crew and plane, pictured above, were shot down during Alexander "Lew" Parry's 12th mission during World War II over Japan.

IMAGE: Supplied

“All of a sudden, he went right through our whole formation, shooting his guns,” said Parry. “The guy up here (pointing above) got hit and they hit the nose of that (plane). I was looking out my window and see the nose out. His engines are slowing and stopping, and now, all of a sudden, they decide to open the bomb bays and let (out) the bombs. One of those bombs came by us here on this side (indicates left) of us and the next one hit there (right side), just missing hitting us.”

The damaged plane would soon nosedive and crash, killing all of the crew members on board. Parry recalled how the plane’s bombardier had just found out that his wife had given birth to their child; a child he would never see.

Writing in navigator log

To this day, Alexander "Lew" Parry possesses all 31 original navigator logs from each of his missions  in 1945 during World War II. Each log shows in intricate detail the various readings, dates, times, number of planes, target, site to be attacked, type of bombs, altitude and flight time, along with remarks about the day’s events.

IMAGE: Chris Koleno, Penn State Office of Strategic Communications

To this day, Parry possesses all 31 original navigator logs from each of his missions during the war. Each log shows in intricate detail the various readings, dates, times, number of planes, target, site to be attacked, type of bombs, altitude and flight time, along with remarks about the day’s events. The remarks in these original navigator logs include many of the key moments from the war in the Pacific – Enola Gay dropped, flight 28, Aug. 7, 1945; Fat Man dropped, flight 29, Aug. 10, 1945; Japan surrendered, flight 30, Aug. 15, 1945; see Missouri going to surrender, flight 31, Aug. 29, 1945.

“I very, very, very much liked the Air Force.”

-- Alexander “Lew” Parry

“I very, very, very much liked the Air Force,” said Parry.

Parry was honorably discharged from the military with the rank of lieutenant colonel in 1945.

Parry returned to Penn State in the fall of 1945 and was married in 1946 to Betty, his wife of 73 years.

Campers in lines

After WWII and the enactment of the GI Bill, a massive influx of soldiers enrolled at the Pennsylvania State College. To house these veterans, trailers were brought to campus as living quarters. This area, located near present-day Redifer Commons, South Halls and the Breazeale Nuclear Reactor, became known as "Windcrest."

IMAGE: Penn State University Archives

The couple lived in Windcrest Park, a housing area which eventually held about 350 campers on the University Park campus designed to accommodate the influx of World War II veterans, while he attended the University.

“They had something like 250 trailers, and we had a trailer. It had a 5 amp fuse, no running water, kerosene stove in the middle, and if you put flowers in the two ends, they would freeze in the winter,” said Parry.

Parry said it was difficult to re-acclimate to attending college and concentrate on classes after his military time, but he appreciated how accommodating his instructors were.

“I think that people who were teaching us were very helpful to us,” said Parry. “They would want me to call them by their first name.” 

In his final semester, Parry found himself one credit shy of graduating. Because of his past experience as a navigator -- reading clouds and wind -- he was able to pass a meteorology test and earn that final credit.

Parry graduated in 1948 with a bachelor of industrial engineering degree from Penn State.

Parry would go on to work for Philadelphia Electric for 40 years and retired as vice president for purchasing and general services.

One of Lew and Betty Parry’s three children graduated from Penn State, as did two of their granddaughters.

The Parrys reside in The Village at Penn State in State College, Pennsylvania, and continue their affiliation with the University.

Additional World War II stories featuring Penn State alumni:

-- World War II pilot discusses his 69 missions flying C-54s over 'The Hump'

-- World War II paratrooper with a Purple Heart and Bronze Star talks about the war (published Nov. 14)

Penn State has a longstanding and proud tradition of serving the men and women of our military through education benefits, resources, support and more. This year's Military Appreciation Week from Nov. 8 to 16 will honor America's "Greatest Generation" with a weeklong series of campus events, including a football game, Veterans Day ceremony, speaker series and more. Visit militaryappreciation.psu.edu to learn more. 

 

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Last Updated November 11, 2019