Roy Exum: The Spy From City High

Tuesday, September 5, 2017 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

The Chattanooga High School Hall of Fame is quite a glitter list. There is a college president (Georgia’s Mike Adams), a nuclear submarine captain (Skip Bowman,) a U.S. Senator (Bob Corker), an Olympic coach (Ray Bussard), a State Supreme Court Justice (Mickey Barker), a Medal of Honor recipient (Charles Coolidge) and a plethora of other famous people.

But now the Dynamos of yesterday must add another seat at the table. Not many will remember Charles Thomas "Chick" Parsons, Jr., who graduated back in 1918, but the United States will never forget him. According to a story in the current issue of Smithsonian magazine, he became a heavily-decorated hero during World War II as General Douglas MacArthur’s “Most Valuable Player.”

The reason for obscurity up until almost 100 year later?  Parsons was MacArthur’s top spy in the Pacific. The Medal of Honor is America’s top military honor. The Navy Cross is the second-highest award for valor in combat and of the 9,000 that have been awarded to sailors and Marines since 1919, Lt. Commander Chick Parsons of City High School earned two.

It’s hard to find out much about Chick’s early life, the theory that some “cleaners” came along during World War II and covered his tracks. We know he was born in Shelbyville and that after two of his uncles went to the Philippines and started raking in “grande pesos” in the export business, he visited Manila as a kid and was bug-eyed over the islands ever since.

He was so enamored that when he attended City High on East Third Street, he also took correspondence courses in Spanish and shorthand. This allowed him to work as a court reporter for a couple of years to build up his stake. He thumbed rides to the West Coast and hired on as a deck hand on a freighter that got him to Manila.

Ruggedly handsome and ever an entrepreneur, Parsons’ shorthand ability landed him a job with U.S. Governor-General Leonard Wood and he was off to the races. Within six years he was “boss stevedore” of Luzon Importing, president of a rum factory, the largest cigar/cigarette company in the Philippines, and a huge timber operation.

Better yet, he was the toast of Manilla society, this despite a gigantic tattoo of an American eagle on his chest. He was an avid polo player and out-did James Bond with the ladies until at age 30, he fell madly in love with a renowned beauty, the lovely Katrushka, age 15. He called her “Katsy.” But wait! The marriage was solid and she quickly gave him three sons.

In the early 30s, Chick‘s companies were surviving the American Depression as best they could and into his social circle came two lovely couples. Chick became close friends with the guys – Doug and Dwight – and soon Katsy befriended the wives, Jean and Mamie. Jean’s husband Doug was the commandant of the Philippine Commonwealth Army at the time and Dwight was a Lt. Colonel in the US Army, ostensibly in the Philippines as some sort of an observer. This is how Chick endeared himself and became bosom buddies with the MacArthurs and, yes, the Eisenhowers.

Obviously, I have no idea how it went down but as the three men would take their cigars and whiskeys after dinner on the back porch, Parsons was strongly advised to quietly join the US Navy, where the first day he was sworn in as a First lieutenant. MacArthur and Eisenhower learned Parson’s businesses had taught him more about the mountains, the coast line and the jungles than any Filipino could ever know. In 1939 Chick was on the verge of retirement – his wealth immense – but economic tensions between Japan and the U.S. in 1940 and 1941 were such he instead devoted his time to keeping his business empire afloat.

In the pre-dawn hours of Dec. 8, 1941, the Commander of the Pacific Fleet, Adm. Thomas Hart, sent for Parson, told him Pearl Harbor had just been attacked, and swore him in as an active duty officer with naval intelligence in Manila. You could have made a movie of his life from that point on.

Dozens of submarine rescues and deliveries, running with Filipino guerrillas constantly, often dressing himself as a Spanish priest, a beggar on a bicycle. He was captured, severely beaten by the Japanese and convinced his captors he was a diplomat from Panama. Goodness knows how he got released but he was hospitalized shortly with a kidney problem. (Doctors believe he ingested too much water during torture/water-boarding.)

Suddenly he went “missing in action,” surfacing several months later in New York. Assigned by Navy intelligence to Washington, he was a wealth of factual information until word reached MacArthur, who famously sent a cryptic message: “Send Parsons immediately!”

The two were reunited in Brisbane, the site of the U.S. Southwest Pacific Command. As MacArthur accompanied Chick to the submarine that would sneak him back into the Philippines, MacArthur gave him this direct order: “I don’t want you to do anything silly that might jeopardize your life or – God help us all – get you into the hands of the enemy.”

Coded messages from Chick Parsons staged the invasion of Leyte Gulf – U.S. loses 3,000 casualties and six ships; Japanese loses 12,000 casualties and 26 ships. MacArthur wired Adm. Chester Nimitz, “All of your elements – ground, naval, and air – have alike covered themselves in glory.”

Parsons suffered a bout of malaria fever, having to recover in Asheville, N.C., before returning for the month-long battle on Chick’s beloved Manila. Deaths include over 100,000 Filipinos – many civilians, 16,000 stubborn Japanese and about 1,000 American soldiers. Again, the guerrilla intelligence superb.

At the end of the war Chick Parsons was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, A Bronze Star, the Philippine Medal of Valor, the Philippine Legion of Honor, The Order of St. Sylvester and had attained the rank of Lt. Commander, this in addition to the two Navy Crosses.

He gained further fame in the Philippines – through an-ever grateful MacArthur -- when he arranged for food, shelter, and medical help for the thousands who had been savagely interred at the Santo Tomas Prison Camp. Parsons was then a key figure in the rebuilding of Manila. His business ventures once again thrived, employing hundreds after the war, and he was considered one of the greatest human beings in the history of the Philippines when, at age 86, he was accorded a hero's burial in Manilla on May 12, 1988.

Today Chick Parsons would have been 115 years old. Finally his story can be told. What a City High Dynamo.

Chick Parsons
Chick Parsons

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