Photo by Pfc. Donald R. Ornitz (166th SPC)
Sgt. John H. Parks
WWII HISTORY, October 2010
Download Full Article (PDF), 3.9 MB
The John Parks portrait first caught my attention in 1992 when a Battle of the Bulge veteran showed me an original print. I immediately wanted to know more about this soldier with the mud-splattered helmet and weary eyes. What was his story?
After digging further, I discovered that John served with Company B, 37th Tank Battalion and died during the Battle of the Bulge. The army never recovered or positively identified his remains. I endeavored to find his family but failed. My quest for information stalled in 1994.
My interest in John Parks never faded, and, after publishing The Dead of Winter in 2005, I resumed research. My travels took me to the National Archives, where I located documents relating to his unit and its participation in the Bulge. It was also there where I unearthed an aerial photo showing the place where he died—Flatzbourhof, Luxembourg. Combat was still underway when a reconnaissance pilot made the photo on December 23, 1944. Everything was in the picture, frozen in time. I saw buildings, shell craters, smoke plumes, individual tanks, and vehicle tracks in the snow. The photo became a Rosetta Stone for understanding the battle.
I visited Flatzbourhof (known today as Flatzbour) in 2008, carried the aerial photo as a guide, and spent several days walking the terrain and speaking with local residents. They helped me better understand the battle.
Back in the States, I still had not located John’s family. I requested help from a genealogist, and after ten months we finally found his relatives. In 2009, I traveled to meet John’s niece, Linda, who welcomed me into her home and allowed me to scan family photographs. She also showed me a Purple Heart engraved with his name, a treasured heirloom.
We later drove to meet John’s only surviving sibling, Florence, who lived in a ramshackle bungalow beside a swamp. The elderly widow stepped outside to receive us but ventured back indoors to grab a scrapbook that held photos and documents, some partially burned in a house fire. She also brought out John’s motorcycle helmet, a royal-blue cap made from twill cloth. We sat on a cinder-block stoop beside the kitchen door and perused her keepsakes. Florence explained that John had been eligible for a draft deferment, and, despite her urgings, he declined it. She recalled saying, “You crazy fool.” All three of her brothers served in the U.S. Army. She herself became a supply sergeant at the United States Military Academy, voluntarily enlisting after the war. Though lacking material wealth, the old woman on the stoop exuded military bearing, leaving no doubt that she too had been a soldier.
I returned to Flatzbour five months after meeting John’s family and walked the battlefield with his former company commander, Jimmie Leach, and Bulge researcher David Graham. The place still looked much as it had in December 1944 but with paved roads, a cellphone tower, and an Italian restaurant. It would be Jimmie’s last visit to Europe. He died from a heart attack three months later at age eighty-seven.
In total, my research spanned eighteen years and culminated with the publication of an article in WWII History magazine. The article included the aerial photo, as well as a digitally restored copy of the portrait that first grabbed my attention. The Army Historical Foundation later awarded me a Distinguished Writing Award for the piece.
I would like to thank the following persons (not mentioned above) who assisted with my research: Rich Childs, Doug Clanin, Herman Coffy, Joe DeMarco, Fern Eddy-Schultz, André Kettel, Leo Kettel, and Guy Ries.
Downloadable PDFs currently in the Archive:
4th Armd Div G-2 periodic rpt 118, 24-25 Dec 44
4th Armd Div, CCR after-action rpt, 15-31 Dec 44
4th Armd Div, CCR, G-3 journal, 23 Dec 44
37th Tank Bn Honor Roll
37th Tank Bn diary, Dec 44
37th Tank Bn crew roster, Jul 44
37th Tank Bn crew roster, 6 Dec 44
37th Tank Bn combat interview, Dec 44
53rd Armd Inf Bn after-action report, Dec 44
53rd Armd Inf Bn unit journal, 22-24 Dec 44
94th Armd FA Bn after-action rpt, Dec 44
Morning reports, John Parks, 1942-45
Draft registration card, John Parks
Individual deceased personnel file, John Parks