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64 years ago today

Posted Thursday, November 15, 2007, at 12:14 AM

Today is the 15th of November and on this week as we honor our military veterans and this year, the bicentennial of Bedford County; it is a date worth noting.

With World War II raging all over the world and the outcome still in doubt, it was on Nov. 15, 1943, the submarine USS Narwhal, with Cmdr Frank Latta skipper, was running submerged in an attempt to evade Japanese aircraft, warships and submarines and slip right under the noses of enemy garrisons located close by at Nasipit on the island of Mindanao in the Philippine islands.

The mission was to unload tons of supplies to guerrilla fighters at Nasipit harbor, take aboard some American and Filipino personnel for evacuation to Australia and slip back out to sea without being detected.

Aboard the Narwhal that day to oversee that phase of the mission was Lt. Cmdr. Charles (Chick) Parsons, U.S, Naval Reserve, working directly under Gen, Douglas MacArthur in the supplying of guerrilla forces, placing coastwatchers at specific locations and sometimes slipping shore for spying activities.

Maj. Austin Shofner, U.S. Marine Corps, was one of those to be evacuated to Australia and the morning of Nov. 15 found him frantically making his way to Nasipit, sometimes walking, briefly hitching a ride on an a truck powered by an alcohol-burning engine. He finally found an old bicycle and rode it into Nasipit harbor during the afternoon.

It had been a difficult route during the early part of World War II for Shofner, who retired from the Marine Corps as a brigadier general and returned to his hometown of Shelbyville in 1959.

He became a prisoner of the Japanese when Corregidor fell in May, 1942. Shofner was held as a POW at Old Bilibid Prison in Manila for a brief time, was moved to the infamous POW camp at Cabanatuan and then to Davao Penal Colony on Mindanao on Nov. 8, 1942.

He and nine other prisoners escaped from there on April 4, 1943. They fled into a swamp jungle, worked their way through wild native tribesmen and made contact with a local guerrilla group and 35 days later made contact with a more organized and active guerrilla group. He fought the Japanese with that group, serving as deputy chief of staff and operations officer, before being notified to meet the Narwhal at Nasipit harbor on Nov. 15.

The Narwhal surfaced late that afternoon and after becoming stuck in the mud in a shallow part of the harbor Cmdr. Latta maneuvered the submarine to a small dock. With a Japanese garrison nearby and planes or warships liable to pass the area at any moment, the submariners were surprised to be greeted by a Filipino band playing "Anchors Aweigh."

The sailors unloaded tons of supplies for the guerrillas, received some native fruits in return, took those they were evacuating aboard and headed out to sea bound for Australia as the band played "God Bless America."

Shofner made a notation later that day in the diary he kept, even while in prison, that he met Lt. Cmdr, Chick Parsons and that Parsons had told him he was born in Shelbyville. As they talked they realized they were actually kin.

Parsons was a successful businessman based in Manila when the war started. He was owner of Luzon Stevedoring Co., a firm involved in transporting sugar and other commodities to the various islands of the Philippines and also to Japan and China…and also in the U.S, Navy Reserve. His knowledge of the islands and the people made him a natural for the role assigned to him by MacArthur.

This was a brief interlude in the roles the two men were destined to play in the bloody days of World War II in the South Pacific.

Shofner returned to the United States, arriving home in Shelbyville on Christmas Eve, 1943. Five months later he returned to the Pacific. He was commander of an assault battalion on the invasion of Peleliu and was wounded in action on the first day of the bloody battle. Shofner was assigned to the Army as Marine Corps liaison officer and advisor on guerrilla affairs for the invasion of Luzon as MacArthur returned to the Philippines, in fact landing shortly before MacArthur came ashore.

On April 1, 1945, his battalion was one of the assault units landing on Okinawa, remained in the front lines for most of the operation and made a breakthrough on one of the final strongholds of Japanese forces.

Parsons continued his secret work throughout the Philippines, often going ashore right among the enemy forces and even ventured into Manila, dressed as a priest, while gathering information on Japanese troop placements before American forces returned.

There are many stories within the things mentioned here involving Shofner and Parsons.

This was only a brief interlude during the bloody fighting of World War II in the Pacific when two of our most decorated heroes of that war crossed paths far from Shelbyville.

Note -- Much information can be found on the internet about these two men. The local library has the DVD "Secret War in the Pacific," about Parsons. One good website telling much about Parsons is that of RFM. You must scroll all the way to the bottom to find Parsons. www.rfm.com.ph/founders.htm



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Bo Melson is a retired sports and police beat editor of the Times-Gazette.
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