His name is Bernard McKendree Parker. For most of his 92 years, folks have called him “Ace.”
It’s not because he was a highly decorated fighter pilot. He didn’t shoot German planes from the skies above Europe in World War II. He did his fighting on the ground.
He is not an “Ace,” like the hardware store. Ace has nothing to do with his one-shot prowess on the golf course or part of a royal flush in a poker game.
The nickname came way back from a college girl at Mercer, who told one of his buddies, “That friend of yours is a real ace.”
“I asked him, ‘How did she spell that?’ ” Parker said, laughing.
When he didn’t push back, the name stuck like tar paper.
“It was better than Bernard,” he said.
Or McKendree. (His middle name is for William McKendree, the first American-born bishop in the Methodist church.)
Ace was nowhere to be found on the envelope of the formal letter that arrived last spring at Parker’s home on the shores of Lake Sinclair.
It was addressed to Mr. Bernard M. Parker. The letterhead bore the emblem of the “Republique Francaise.” It was signed by Louis De Corail, the consul general of France in Atlanta, congratulating Parker on being named Knight in the National Order of the Legion of Honor.
“France expresses its gratitude for all you did for its liberation during WWII,” the letter stated. “We, the French, will never forget what you did to bring back freedom to our country and Europe.’
On Sept. 25, Parker was recognized in a ceremony at the Georgia State Capitol, along with five other Word War II veterans. (Another was honored posthumously.)
A humble Parker said, “the true heroes are the ones who are still there,” referring to the more than 407,000 American soldiers who died in the deadliest military conflict in history.
Nov. 11 is Veterans Day, a day when we recognize the men and women who have served our country in the armed forces. It has been said many times – but not nearly enough – we owe them our respect and gratitude.
Parker is one of 16 million Americans who served in the war. Only about 1 million WWII vets are still living. Members of what has been called “The Greatest Generation” are dying at a rate of more than 500 a day, according to statistics from the U.S. government and the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.
He was born in Rocky Ford, a small community in Screven County near Millen and Sylvania. His father was a banker. After the town’s bank closed during the Depression, the family moved to Macon.
In the first grade at Pearl Stephens Elementary, Parker caught pneumonia. He missed so much school his teacher recommended he repeat the first grade. His fourth-grade teacher later told his parents he “talked too much” and suggested he be held back again. That put him in the same grade as his younger brother, Gus.
“Gus was smarter than I was, so I sat behind him in every class,” Parker said, grinning.
He did not finish at Lanier High School because he was drafted into the Army when he turned 18. He was sent to Camp Harahan in New Orleans for basic training. Because of a shortage of non-commissioned officers, his experience in the ROTC program at Lanier was an advantage. He was put into a position as a platoon leader, placed in charge of men who were as much as 10 years older.
He was sent to Europe as part of the 94th Infantry Division, following the invasion of Normandy, on the heels of Gen. George Patton’s Third Army.
He saw combat in France for three months, but it seemed like an eternity on the front lines.
“You always had to worry,” he said. “You might take a town, and think you had cleared it, then go half a block down the street and get shot in the back.”
He left part of himself there, toward the end, as the Allied Forces were preparing to enter Luxemburg.
“The inspectors were supposed to go in the day before to clear the mines, but they must have missed the one with my name on it,” he said.
He stepped on what the Germans called a shoe mine. He lost his left leg below the knee in the blast. He received more than 200 stitches in his arm.
When he returned home, he spent 17 months in hospitals and in convalescent care. He took a correspondence class to earn his high school degree.
In 1946, he walked across the stage on his prosthetic leg and received his diploma from Lanier High School. He enrolled at Mercer, where he graduated in 1950. He spent most of his career as a property appraiser.
Parker served on Macon’s city council in the late 1950s, and was a commissioner in Baldwin County for eight years, including four as commissioner chairman.
He and his wife, Ceil, are retired and living at Lake Sinclair. He will be 93 in January and, although he said he’s in no hurry, he will be buried at Georgia Veterans Memorial Cemetery outside of Milledgeville.
He asked if I had ever seen the giant mural painted above the stage at the City Auditorium in Macon.
Many times, I told him. It’s a timeline of the city’s history.
“There’s a soldier from World War I standing there,” he said. “I’m indebted to him.”
Just as others are indebted to World War II veterans like yourself, I said.
They saved the world. We are here because they were there.
Ed Grisamore teaches journalism and creative writing at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.