Dunbar Township vet recalls meeting with Tuskegee Airman
Teddy Davis of Trotter was only a little kid when he met Sylvester Parrish but the memory has lasted a lifetime.
Davis grew up and went on to a distinguished military career during the Korean War, but the humble Dunbar Township man would rather discuss Parrish's World War II accomplishments.
Parrish, who died in 2004 at age 87, served with the Tuskegee Airmen, the all-black U.S. Army Air Corps fighting squadron that trained in Alabama and served as escort to B-17 bomber planes in Europe.
The airmen are nicknamed the Redtails because they painted the tails of their B-51 Mustang fighter planes scarlet red.
About 1,000 of the squadron flew planes; more than 19,000 others remained on ground to provide support that ranged from custodian to mechanic to cook to nurse.
A Trotter Redtail
Davis isn't certain that Parrish was a Redtails pilot, only that Parrish was part of the Tuskegee project, which was authorized by the War Department in 1941.
A web search yield no pilot information about Parrish; however, Davis has two photos of Parrish — and in one he is wearing a flight jacket.
Davis knew Parrish all of his life; they both lived in the village of Trotter. Parrish's sister, Augustine, was married to Davis' uncle, Collester Davis.
“I remember Sylvester (Parrish's) photo hanging on a wall in my uncle's house,” Davis said.
Davis provided the Tuskegee Airman's information after the Daily Courier ran a brief early this year seeking local men who had served with the Redtails. The brief appeared in the newspaper shortly after the release of George Lucas' blockbuster film “Redtails.”
“I knew that Parrish's wife, Janetta ‘Jan' (Cyrus) was still living, but I also knew that she was sick,” Davis explained. He tried to get in touch with Mrs. Parrish to talk about Sylvester's military service but she died in February before he could reach her. She was 74.
Parrish's only child, Helen Ivy, lived in Laurel, Maryland, but she, too, is deceased.
That left only Davis' memories of Sylvester Parrish, for whom he has great respect.
“He was a very distinguished man,” Davis said. “I know that he had gunnery training at Tuskegee, Alabama.”
After World War II, Parrish worked as a Pennsylvania field tax auditor for 30 years. “I think he was the first black state auditor in Pennsylvania,” said Davis. “He also had a private accounting firm and served as a trustee at Payne A.M.E. Church in Connellsville.”
While the details of Parrish's military experience remain murky, Davis' are crystal clear.
Davis served with the Army artillery during the Korean War. (That may be part of the reason why today, at age 82, Davis wears a hearing aid.) The guns he manned with the 80th Artillery could lob projectiles as far as 10 miles.
“One shell weighed 200 pounds. Two of us would lift up the shell and load it into the cannon,” Davis said. “Thank God we were young and strong.”
He was 22 years old when he was drafted. After basic and leadership training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, his unit reported to Pittsburgh and was sent to California. There, they boarded a ship to Japan; 36 hours after they reached Japan, it was on to Korea. “It happened really fast.”
Davis served in Korea from January 1952 to November 1953 and has ever since carried the burden of the things he saw there. “I had a hard time at first when I got home. I would jump when I heard a loud noise,” Davis admitted, noting that two men in his unit were killed. “It sticks with you. I still shy away from talking about it. I don't like to be reminded.”
“They say, ‘You're going home.' I can't explain the feeling (of happiness and relief). Then you worry that you'll get hit before you can get the chance to go home,” Davis said. He finally saw the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor on Nov. 11, 1953 — Veterans Day.
Returning home to Connellsville, “that little bitty town never looked so good,” he added. “Like they say on TV, you really do want to kiss the ground.”
Davis worked more than 30 years as a steelworker, mostly at U.S. Steel's Homestead plant. When it closed in the 1980s, he retired — from his job, not life.
Since 1985, Davis has been active with American Legion Post 762 of Trotter and VFW Post 3514 in Uniontown. He's involved with the Fayette County Senior Action Council and its senior center events.
Laura Szepesi is a freelance writer.