When the Parkhurst family made the decision to move from Chicago to Florida, they had to consider a home for more than just themselves.
A World War II trunk was one of the last relics of their late father, Brig. Gen. Don A. Parkhurst, which also needed a new home prior to their move. The best place they could think was his namesake, the Parkhurst Army Reserve Center and home of the 416th Theater Engineer Command headquartered in Darien, Illinois.
If the trunk could talk, there would certainly be war stories. The worn leather straps, brass hinges and olive drab green sideboards are holding up nicely against time. Don Parkhurst’s name and address are stenciled on the outside, presumably by the old man himself.
His son and daughter-in-law, Todd and Beverly Parkhurst think he would have wanted it this way — at the unit he commanded for eight years. As they prepare for their departure, it’s hard not to be faced with a lifetime of memories.
Todd, 81, and his wife Beverly, 78, have been married for 46 years, five years before the elder Parkhurst passed away in 1981.
Parkhurst was the commanding general of what was then-known as the U. S. Army Reserve’s 416th Engineer Brigade from Oct. 1, 1952, to Dec. 19, 1960. In all, he served for nearly 30 years and fought in the battles and campaigns of northern France, Normandy, Rhineland, and central Europe. He earned the French “Croix de Guerre,” as well as a Bronze Star and Legion of Merit.
He was known as the general who built airfields in wartime and ice-skating rinks in peacetime.
Todd, who still dons his father’s World War II bomber jacket, adorned with the 416th TEC unit patch and castle emblem pin, has some of his own war stories to tell.
The first are from what he remembers of his father as a young boy, living with his grandparents in St. Louis and receiving V-Mail, short for “Victory Mail,” a system put in place to shrink down letters to photographs to save room for other important items needed to be shipped.
The second are stories of his own during his time in service during the Vietnam War.
During World War II, Parkhurst would pen letters to 5-year-old Todd who he nicknamed “Buster,” relaying what he could from the warfront. One story stuck with Buster of his father making his way to the beaches of Normandy on a landing craft known as a Higgins boat.
“It was D-plus-three-Day,” Todd said from his condo just off Lake Shore Drive in Streeterville, Chicago. “Everybody just piled out of the boat, my father included. Then right in front of them a Nazi bomb splashed down. The only thing he could save was his watch.”
Todd still has that watch and even took it to a jeweler for repair.
“They were not able to fix it,” he said. “It’s 100 years old and filled with salt water.”
Fast forward to the younger Parkhurst’s military service — which took a stark turn from his father’s service.
As he completed Army engineer school and awaited orders, leadership realized he had a unique skillset as he also was a graduate of law school.
“They didn’t have all that many engineer lawyers,” Todd said, as he explained that he never served during the conflict in Vietnam through a series of command requests that kept him stateside.
He recounted tales of specific officers ordering the new lieutenant to support their stateside tasks.
“‘Y’all play golf?’ said this southern voice,” Todd recalled from one request as he journeyed to his first assignment in New Jersey.
Then later another call from a Maj. Gen. W. B. Latta, “which stood for ‘Wild Bill’ as far as I’m concerned,” said Todd. “We were in some old-World War II barracks, and he said ‘we gotta fix this place up!’ We had to build this special door. Luckily one of the other guys was an architect — between the two of us, we built a door.”
All in all, he remained stabilized stateside, serving two years active duty, two years in the Army Reserve, and two years in the inactive ready reserve.
“Oh, for years he wasn’t happy about that,” chirped Beverly, remembering how her father-in-law wanted his son to serve in combat as well.
Todd reminded her that despite his father’s wishes, Parkhurst had suffered a stroke by then and could no longer say more than a “yes” or “no” to any conversation.
“We didn’t know if no meant yes or yes meant no, but it was all he could say. Though, he was pretty perturbed about me staying stateside as an engineer,” Todd admitted.
Later in life, Beverly, a retired federal judge, would come to understand her father-in-law despite the stroke, having saved her Sundays to play Gin Rummy with him. Regardless of his symptoms, he would still beat her in the card game every time, she said.
Beverly expressed her admiration of Parkhurst from his time as a commander, explaining “he must have really been quite the leader,” as she said he was known to never ask his men to do something he himself would not do.
“We just want to point out that we really appreciate all you guys and gals do for us,” Beverly said prior to handing off the trunk one last time to the 416th TEC.
Now that the general’s trunk has made its homecoming, the Parkhursts ready themselves for their new home as well. Bon voyage!