Chick Parsons- Who is this Guy??
By Peter Parsons
It was probably just a question of time before it became my turn to write something about my father, Charles “Chick” Parsons. At one time, shortly after WWII, he was well known and popular both as a war hero and as a philanthropic businessman, He also got a lot of press for his efforts to bring baseball back to life in Manila and Asia. There were occasionally articles about him in magazines, and a couple of books featured some of his wartime activities, but nothing complete or thoroughly accurate has ever been produced about this genuine Philippine old-timer.
I began working on a video biography of him in 1997, thinking it would be over in time for the millennium, whichever of those beginnings you prefer. I felt it would be a matter of interviewing a few old guerrillas from WWII, some friends of his in Manila, several surviving business acquaintances in the Philippines and Japan–collect a few photographs and there it would be: a half hour video program ready for the History Channel.
But the man has been elusive. His closest aide during the war, Webb Jennings, said this when we tracked him down, alive and well, in Cleveland. “Chico was smart, elusive.” [I did not know this, but all during the war Chick was called Chico by nearly everyone he came into contact with. It was a name that did not survive the war, however!]
It was easier tracing Webb Jennings and many other people, than it has been my father.
His official US Navy biography states that he was born on April 22, 1902 in Shelbyville, Tennessee; that he was a resident in the Philippines for twenty years prior to entering active Naval service; that he held the following positions: secretary to then Governor General Leonard Wood (1921-23); superintendent of the Philippine Telegraph and Telephone Company (1923-26); manager of the Meyer Muzall Lumber Company, Zamboanga, (1926-29); Philippine manager of the North American Trading and Import Company (1929-31); and manager of the Luzon Stevedoring Company (1931-41).
He was commissioned Lieutenant (jg) in the U.S. Naval Reserve on Jan. 6, 1932, and subsequently advanced in rank attaining that of Commander, to date from Oct. 15. 1942. His actual rank at the start of the war was Lt. Commander. To finish out his naval career: Chick was relieved of active duty on July 21, 1946, and resigned from the Naval Service Oct. 25, 1948.
Some of this bio-data is true and some not.
Late in his life Chick told me one evening at his home on Park Avenue in Pasay, that he had been born in 1900, not 1902. And further, that he had come out to Manila as a 6-year old with his uncle, Oscar Searcy. He said he lived with mom’s brother in Intramuros and attended the Sta. Potenciana School, taking all classes in Spanish. This first, and hitherto unrevealed stay in the Philippines, came to an end when Uncle Oscar and family returned to the States on their first home leave in 1910.
I asked him why he had never told this to anyone before.
He replied, “Imagine how I felt?”
I can only imagine the personal pain he must have felt at being, from his point of view, thrown out of his home. His mom, Etta Searcy Parsons, probably felt she was doing him a service.
I am imagining this because in looking through the Chattanooga City Records I have found that Charles T. Parsons, Chick’s dad, had a new address nearly every year. My cousins in Chattanooga believe he was one step either ahead of or behind the landlord’s demand for rent. They also tell me that he was a man who loved his drink and high life and his baseball-player buddies.
Morton “Jock” Netzorg, in some correspondence with Dorothy Janson, occasionally mentioned Chick and remained amazed that Chick’s humble beginnings had been so well concealed from all his biographers and historians. He might have been even more amazed to find that these origins were hidden from his wife and sons too. I assume that Netzorg learned of these first hand from my father as they both worked in Luzon Stevedoring Co. before the war
On the other hand, it seems that Chick also had some trouble with the true identity of his own father. He says his dad was a baseball player for the Chattanooga Lookouts. I believe this to be true from the detailed accounts Chick has given me of his visits to the ballpark in the company of his father. The senior Parsons was known as Sox Parsons, and Chick was named Little Sox. This kind of detail is too rich to be false. It is further enriched by the following: Chick tells me of how his dad would take him along after the ball games to a tavern and deposit him on the front steps, while he, the dad, would enter for a few rounds of drinks. However, there is no sign of C.T. Parsons on any roster of the Lookouts over a 20 year period. The club’s historian, however, tells me that it was very common for the team to carry any number of non-roster players.
Chick was also confused as to the identity of one Harry Franks, apparently a supporter of the elder Parsons. Chick seems to have thought that Franks was the manager of the Lookouts, but he never showed up as such, and his obituary fails to mention any such connection. It is more likely that Franks was connected to the Fish and Game shop where Chick’s dad worked as a butcher when not playing outfield for the Lookouts.
Chick has told me that his own father ran away from home. He was caught on a train by a friendly conductor Daniel Searcy, who brought him into his own family, the Searcy home, where he ended up marrying his own “sister” [my father’s way of putting it], Etta Searcy, but it was “okay” since they were not blood-related. How I would like to know more about all this, but destroyed census reports and murky geography have so far blocked me.
This is how Chick went to the Philippines: his mother had his birth year changed to 1902 in order that he could go along with her brother on his adventurous start of a new life in the new colony. Seemingly four instead of six, young Chick was able to travel either free or at sharply reduced rates.
It seems that the only two documents on which Chick placed the correct date of his birth were his marriage contract to our mother, Katrushka Jurika (from Zamboanga), and the passenger statement he made for the Italian ship, Conte Verde, prior to boarding it in Shanghai to begin the leg of our repatriation journey that would take us to Portuguese East Africa where we would catch the Swedish ship, Gripsholm, for the final leg.
I don’t intend to tell the story of my father here. Some of the pieces of the story have come together for me and it is the story of the piecing together this mystery that I touch upon now. I have been misled by my father himself, but also by others who have written about him.
My father has told all four of us brothers at one time or another how he had hitchhiked a ride on a PT boat in Leyte shortly after he had been retrieved from the invasion beach by the Navy and handed over to MacArthur. Turns out he was picked up by the destroyer USS Hale on the southern end of the invasion beach and after a hearty Navy breakfast, he and his guerrilla friends, including Col. Ruperto Kangleon, plus a U.S. Army Colonel Frank Rawolle, were turned over to General Walter Krueger on the USS Wasatch.
We found out some of this from former Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, who told us in 1999 that he was on that destroyer and that he was among the crew in the ship’s boat that retrieved this motley group off the beach. He tells how the crew was wary of this tough looking bunch right up to the moment of pick-up.
How did we find Cyrus Vance? I was listening one night to a story being told by Ray Burghardt, who was second in command at the American Embassy in Manila, during the Negroponte years. We were sitting outdoors at my brother Mike’s mountain retreat in Agagat. Burghardt was telling how this man had told a story to a group of Asian hands. Someone asked him who was it they picked up off the beach, and he said it was Chick Parsons. Burghardt was instrumental in my being able to find and interview this man, who turned out to be Cyrus Vance.
I have also found the Ship’s daily log for the USS Wasatch for the Oct 20 date. It says, cryptically, for the ships boat to be ready to make an unusual pickup.
Now back to the PT boat. Chick’s story had always included that the boat was destroyed by Japanese naval gunfire during the night of the Battle of Surigao Straits, Oct. 24-25 of 1944. Sometimes he told the story that he was concussed, made deaf and blind, and that when he woke up he was floating in a life jacket. Sometimes he told the story that the whole boat was lost and all hands killed except for him and the skipper. We have found medical records of the Wasatch that show Chick to have had a high fever (102) and chills plus diarrhea and vomiting on that very day. What he never told us, or anyone else we know, is that on Oct. 23 and 24 he had been given command of an LCS gunboat with the mission to wipe out two Japanese garrisons, the only two remaining enemy outposts in southern Leyte: at Malitbog and Maasin. This was to be a test of the guerrillas Chick was so proud of.
What I am now surmising is that Chick, as soon as the last shot was fired in the early afternoon of Oct. 24th (mission accomplished–all Japanese troops eliminated with no loss of civilian or guerrilla lives), asked for a faster ride back to Tacloban to head for sickbay either there or aboard the USS Wasatch. He got onto a PT boat where his friend Captain Wes Pullen was Tactical Command Officer. ( Since Chick mentions the name of Wes Pullen in a letter he wrote to Adm. C.W. Lockwood several years after the war, I am guessing it was aboard the 152 boat that he hitched.)
Historian Carlos Quirino took the bait from Chick’s story (told to him personally, I gather, just as he had told us brothers), read the account written by U.S. Navy historian, Samuel Eliot Morrison, and voila, assumed that Chick had boarded the 492 boat, the only boat we lost in the Surigao battle. I had, independently, gone down the same path as Quirino and was delighted to see in Quirino’s book a corroboration of the fact that Chick had been aboard the Carole Baby (the 492 Boat, named after skipper Bill Brown’s daughter). My search was over!
Unfortunately, it wasn’t so. I interviewed skipper Brown in Florida and found out there had been no strangers aboard his boat that eventful night.
More likely is that Chick went aboard the 152, skippered by Joe Eddins (remember, Capt. Wes Pullen was the TCO on this boat), crawled into a forward bunk and went into a deep, nearly comatose sleep.
Joe Eddins is hazy on some aspects of that night, but he does think that there may have been a hitchhiker aboard, although he cannot swear to it. “Yeah, I think there was,” he told me, “but I don’t remember–there was so much going on!”
The 152 was the lead boat in a group of three, the first of 13 such groups to encounter the southern section of the Japanese fleet steaming up into the Leyte Gulf. The encounter was made eight miles southeast of Agio Pt. On Bohol Island. This PT was immediately hit by the very first salvos from the Japanese. A 4.7″ explosive shell knocked off the bow gun, killed the gunner, Charles Midget, and wounded the ammunition feeder. Wes Pullen (and Joe Eddins) did not break off the attack on enemy ships until it was apparent the 152 was in danger of sinking. [Charles Midget, by the way, appears in my father’s guerrilla notebooks that he wrote in an early Gregg Shorthand.]
If my guess is correct, Chick was asleep about two feet away from the explosion on the bow. The action report mentions that several crew members who had been below decks were concussed.
I believe Chick was aboard a PT Boat, I do believe he was concussed that night, and since he specifically mentions Wes Pullen, I am fairly confident in saying he must have been aboard his (rather, Joe Eddins’) boat. Not very many others took hits like this one.
Another factor here is that one of our Filipino guerrilla interviewees from Maasin says there was a PT boat in the area during the gunboat strike there. I have not been able to locate a PT crew member that remembers a skirmish at Maasin, but the people in Maasin, more than just the guerrillas, remember not only a PT boat presence but the fly-over of several P-38 fighters. My dad seems to have been rather well-connected!
Now, as to how Chick got onto Leyte about ten days before the invasion, one would think this would be a simple matter. Gen. Charles Willoughby, who was close to MacArthur and close to the operation of the Philippine Regional Section (PRS) within which Chick’s own group, Spyron, worked, would have had this right. Willoughby says, “Comdr. Parsons did precede the troops into Leyte in 1944, having parachuted in just before the invasion.” [page 174, The Guerrilla Resistance Movement in the Philippines: 1941-1945] Not so.
M. Hamlin Cannon [United States Army in World War II; The War In the Pacific; Leyte, the Return to the Philippines] puts it this way: “Just before the invasion an intelligence officer from Sixth Army and one from the Seventh Fleet went ashore from a submarine and gathered material on Japanese coastal fortifications and defenses in the beach area.” Not so.
Two books do have it right, however, Travis Ingham’s Rendezvous by Submarine and Guerrilla Submarines by Edward Dissette and H.G Adamson.
On the night of Oct 10, Chick and Rawolle were flown north, probably from Mios Woendi, to Leyte but had to return after encountering bad weather over the landing area. Their mission was to contact the local guerrillas and get them to move Filipino civilian population away from areas to be bombed in preparation for the big invasion. Chick, additionally had to inform GHQ of landing beach conditions. Rawolle was to radio out information of Japanese troop strength and location. [The name Mios Woendi also apperars in thos shorthand notebooks.]
The next day they went back and were successfully landed in the water between Cabugan Grande and Leyte’s east coast. There they were met by Jose I. Ilustre. The PBY remained just long enough to open one of its side bubbles, shove out the preinflated rubber boat and its two occupants and wish them well.
Among the letters in Chick’s scrapbook is one signed by this man who recalls having met Chick in the waters off Leyte the night the PBY landing.
Earlier I have mentioned the Jansons. Our family had always heard how the Japanese let us leave the Philippines in June of 1942. My father had claimed diplomatic privilege owing to the fact he was Panamanian Consul–or at least acting as such while head of Luzon Stevedoring Company. His partner, Pete Grimm, was actually the consul, normally, but Grimm was out of the country when the war began.
I learned later, by reading Chick’s oral history [my father had never told any of us he had made an oral history! I discovered this fact in a letter from my mom’s brother to the USNI.] on file with the US Naval Institute, that he had asked a friend of his, Helge Janson, the Swedish consul in Manila at the time, to forward his request through the Red Cross.
I found this reference and began immediately trying to locate Janson. The Swedish consulate in NYC was absolutely no help whatsoever although the Jansons were living a mere fifty or so miles from them.
My breakthrough came from Bill Breuer, writer of several books on WWII activity I the Philippines. I saw in one of them a mention of Helge Janson, and a reference to Dorothy Janson. From him I got a phone number that was no longer in service, and an address for Dorothy, since Helge had already died.
I wrote a letter to Dorothy and found out later from one of her sons, Peter, that she received my letter on her death bed and was very happy. In my letter I expressed belated thanks on behalf of my entire family for the Janson role in our escape from the Japanese. Ironically, the Jansons were not allowed to leave the Philippines and spent the entire war there.
Peggy Janson sent me some books from the family’s library and some interesting correspondence between Dorothy Janson and Jock Netzorg, who occasionally recommended and sold Dorothy books on the Philippines from his well-stocked Cellar Book Shop near Detroit.
Dorothy’s comment about Claude Buss, for instance was like a lightning bolt in my awareness of what went on during those critical months between December, 1941 and June of the next year. She said that Buss was not one of her favorite people since he had tried so hard to prevent Chick Parsons from leaving the Philippines.
Buss had been given the thankless job of handling the American relations with the invading Japanese. He was not a happy warrior, with the higher-level staff of the American Commissioner’s Office on Corregidor with General MacArthur, then later, in Australia.
He was less than thrilled to hear of Chick Parsons claiming diplomatic rights in an effort to get out of the islands. Buss apparently felt that Chick should get his rear end into Santo Tomas along with the rest of the American population.
I think that Buss was somewhat out of the intelligence loop at that point. MacArthur, Admiral Thomas Hart, Courtney Whitney, and others, knew Chick and knew that he would be of great value to them–but out of the Philippines. Courtney Whitney was a pre-war Manila attorney and good friend of both MacArthur and Parsons. Whitney later was to become the head of MacArthur’s own secret operations within GHQ in Australia–and thus became Parsons’ direct boss. However, Buss was not in this group and felt, as many inside Santo Tomas felt, that Chick was an opportunist trying to better his situation. Which, of course, he was!
So although Buss was not wrong in this assumption, he was probably not aware that Chick had been put into Naval Intelligence by Adm. Hart, and that during the first months of the Japanese Occupation he had already begun what later became the Manila Intelligence Group. Another irony here is the possibility that Buss’s official objection to Chick’s claim of diplomatic stature may actually have lent it more credibility with the Japanese. I wonder what Buss must have felt when he boarded the Japanese hospital ship, the Ural Maru, with the entire Parsons family on their way to Formosa, the first of several stages that would eventually bring them to New York in September of 1942 on the Gripsholm? Apparently Buss ended up in Japan before being repatriated.
Was Chick Parsons ever in Manila during the war, but AFTER his departure in June, 1942, that is to say, after his return by submarine in March 1943? He had never mentioned anything like this to his family. The only war stories he ever told me involved Mindanao and Mindoro adventures. One of my cousins expresses doubt that Chick had ever gotten to Manila itself, even though a couple of Japanese officers, Wachi and Jimbo, had made this claim for him in the re-publication of Rendezvous by Submarine in the Philippine edition paperback.
I found a letter from Jesuit Father John Hurley to Chick which speaks to this very matter. Hurley recalls the day one Mary Davies told him how she saw Chick from her window seat in the bus that was taking her from STIC to Philippine General Hospital. She was an internee at STIC. She tells of looking down and seeing Chick smiling up at her out of a priest’s cassock and saying in perfect English, Howdy Mary. “Complete with beard,” adds Hurley.
An interview with Mario Montalvan in Oroquieta in 1999 reveals that Chick told this young man in 1943 that he had been to Manila and “confessed” Roxas. Roxas went to the confessional booth to find “Father”Chick there ready to hear all the latest information from within the “puppet” politics, Roxas’s evaluation of who was loyal and who was pro-Japanese.
John Rocha told me in the year 2000, that he remembers seeing Chick, sometime in 1943 in the Malate area of Manila, riding a bike down Dakota Street (now Adriatico). Again Chick was dressed as a priest. As he rode past John and his father, Chick dropped a bundle at their feet. Turns out to have been a Life magazine. John’s father told young John that was Chick Parsons, but warned him not to mention this to anyone.
I am fairly convinced that Chick was in Manila during his first trip back to the islands between March and July of 1943. What I have never seen is any mention of this in any of the MacArthur material, nothing in GHQ reports, nothing in Chick’s own reports, which were extensive. Nor do I have any idea how he was able to travel to Manila from Mindanao. His travel notes of that period are in Greg Shorthand and have not yet been “translated.” They are however replete with names of guerrilla leaders, operatives and political types all over the islands, including Manila.
There is one further corroboration, however. In late 1944, Reginald Spear of the OSS, was assigned a mission to enter STIC and warn the internees of their impending doom. He went to Mios Woendi and was briefed by Chick Parsons. Spear says Chick had been to Santo Tomas once and told him how to get there and then out again. He further says Chick was not sent on this particular mission because he was too valuable. “He was not considered expendable. I was,” Spear told us.
When I asked Chick whether he had ever been in Santo Tomas, I was only about 12 years old. What I was trying to find out was where he had been for about three months when he was not at home in Manila with us. Because my mom had a one-year old baby (Patrick) at home and because her own mother was sick and living with us, we were put under house arrest at our large home between Dewey Boulevard and Roberts St. in Pasay. We had several Japanese soldiers camped out on our property and they took good care of us. I remember one day that there was a lot of screaming, a real hullaballoo, and found out later that the sentries had caught two Filipinos who had stolen laundry off our drying line.
My dad’s reply to my question was very quick, “No, never.”
I am sure now that he was replying to a different question. What he had heard me ask him was whether or not he had ever penetrated STIC during his secret missions, and he had to say No since all that information was still secret. Even 50 years later, Reginald Spear was more than hesitant to talk about any of this until we convinced him the material had been cleared!
It was only after my father’s death that we discovered his several letters home from his short stay in Santo Tomas. In these letters he told of the friends he was visiting, mostly old polo-playing friends, what kind of food he was eating, where he was sleeping, and how much he thought we kids would have enjoyed being in there with him. He also recommended to Katsy (our mom) that she run the air-conditioning because he figured we would never be able to pay the electric bill, whatever it was. Later we would also find a food coupon for STIC dated June, 1942–but the date of this coupon (unused) was the date we left Manila on that Japanese hospital ship.
I am constantly finding out new things about my father. Just recently an old schoolmate from The American School days just after the war, now a travel agent in California, put us in touch with an elderly woman who is the widow of the man Chick went out to the Philippines with. This refers to Chick’s “return” to Manila in 1921 which people have always referred to as his first discovery of the Islands. (When Chick tells his Naval Oral History interviewer that he went out to visit his uncles, he is deliberately misleading us all–one uncle had been dead a decade, and the other was already living in retirement in the States.) She tells us that Chick and Charles Strom worked their way over to Manila on a freighter. In Manila, Chick made a few inquiries, undoubtedly sniffing out his old habitat and perhaps finding a few of his uncles’ friends and partners, and decided to jump ship. Strom returned to California. Chick began to reinvent himself.
This was interesting to me because it was the first time this had been revealed to us. Doubly interesting because author Bill Wise wrote in his book for young adults, Secret Mission to the Philippines, that Chick had left a freighter in Manila in similar conditions. Wise told us he had made it all up because he needed a “hook” to get the story going. He was quite bowled over when I called him to tell him he had been writing fact not fiction in his novel!
I am about to interview a young man whose father assisted mine in “unfurling the Panamanian flag” in front of our house just prior to the Japanese arrival in January of 1942. I wonder if his story will match my memories or those of my father’s–which are quite different