Photo illustration by Kenna Milaski/Coffee or Die.
Col. Ralph Parr retired from the US Air Force in 1976 with 10 Distinguished Flying Cross medals and 41 air medals — each an indication of bravery from flying in 641 combat missions during three wars. The double ace who downed 10 enemy aircraft in “MiG Alley” in the last seven weeks of the Korean War was fearless in the face of overwhelming odds.
“You wind up either wanting to fight or not wanting to fight,” said Parr before his death from cancer in 2012. “I made the decision I was going to fight to begin with. I didn’t think I could see anything up there that I thought would be able to take me.”
The former combat aviator spent his final years as a mentor for aspiring aviation cadets and newly commissioned pilots, sharing stories of how it all began at the Randolph Officers’ Club on an Air Force base in Texas.
His boyhood fascination with aviation first materialized on his fifth birthday when his father, a former Navy squadron commander, took him into the air. “I was hooked,” he later said, as it led to his joining the US Army Air Forces in 1942. Parr flew the P-38 Lightning over the Pacific during World War II. It wasn’t until nearly a decade later when he became a combat ace intercepting enemy aircraft during the Korean War.
On June 7, 1953, Parr’s F-86 Sabre jet flew in a four-aircraft flight formation over the Yalu River on the border of North Korea and China, in an area famously known as MiG Alley. Two MiG 15 airplanes came into his view, and his aircraft was the only one in the formation with a tactical advantage. He dove through the clouds, firing a burst from the guns on the nose of his aircraft and destroying one of the MiGs despite the failure of his gun sight.
He tilted his head to look outside the cockpit toward the ground and, flying at 300 feet, saw a flash of light from the shoreline.
“As I closed rapidly to about 4,000 feet, I noticed there weren’t two, there were four, no, there were eight,” Parr recalled. “Then, off to my left, I saw eight more. Immediately, I decided to put a big notch in the MiG leader directly ahead.”
The pair of MiGs he had initially attacked now numbered 16. He downed another and executed evasive flying maneuvers that forced one of the enemy pilots to eject upon losing control.
A few weeks later, Parr earned the Distinguished Service Cross for a mission during which he was attacked by 10 MiGs. He counterattacked the numerically superior force and went head-to-head in an aerial dogfight, downing two MiGs using his speed and finesse. As he rolled to surprise a third MiG, he heard a distress call from his wing commander and pulled off to answer. Lights were flashing on his console, indicating that he was dangerously low on fuel, yet he still came to the aid of his fellow pilot.
His final confirmed kill in his second war was his most controversial. Hours before the July 27th armistice that would bring the Korean War to an end, Parr was on an escort mission supporting a Marine photo reconnaissance over a dirt airfield near the Yalu River. An airplane with red markings on its side — in similar fashion to the MiGs he battled — approached their patrol. It was too close for comfort in Parr’s mind, and he was sent to investigate, making several passes for identification.
Parr leveled his guns and fired, then watched the plane burst into flames and crash into the ground. “I knew where it was and what it was,” Parr said. “The only thing I didn’t know was why it was there. I called our formation leader, and he said to take it, so I did. It almost hit the front page when it happened. Word got loose really fast that I’d shot down a truce team. Their side was serious, but so was ours.”
The action quickly became an international incident when the Soviet Union declared the plane a civilian airliner with a team aboard carrying orders to call a truce. Parr’s name was on a Soviet lawsuit in the International Court of Justice. The lawsuit was later pulled, and the Soviets countered with shooting down an RB-50 Superfortress. The crew was never found.
During the Vietnam War, Parr flew his F-4C Phantom for two tours and 427 combat missions. One of the missions was to fly in support of cargo aircraft as they approached to land at an airfield in Khe Sahn, in March 1968. A Marine forward air controller informed Parr the airfield was under heavy enemy mortar fire from a nearby ridgeline. Through severe weather and smoke, and without a clear view of the target, Parr swooped in to silence the mortar position at danger-close range.
With each and every pass, the Marines braced the onslaught happening only 200 yards away.
Six camouflaged heavy automatic weapon positions were firing at Parr’s aircraft. But with precision, Parr delivered devastating blows in eight consecutive passes against all six fortified positions. When he returned to base, his plane was riddled with 27 bullet holes. Parr made history for this action, as he was awarded the Air Force Cross, becoming the only person ever to receive the medal in addition to the Distinguished Service Cross.
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.