The army band guitarist had spent the previous two nights playing songs from the big band and jazz music stars of the day – Jimmy Dorsey, Buddy Rogers, Duke Ellington – at the local Oahu YMCA and at Ft. Shafter with visiting musicians from the USS Arizona. With the night behind them and payday just a few hours away, the soldiers were feeling good.
Parsons, then 19 years old, and the other men had been asleep for only a few hours when they were awakened by the sound of bullets flying through the barracks; a phone on one of the walls was shot to the floor.
"We didn’t know what in the world was going on," he recalled. "They had thought at first it was some sort of exercise when we heard a lot of planes."
Emerging from their quarters, Parsons and his friends craned their necks up to the sky at the planes overhead. His buddy Earl Lippert was well versed in military aircraft and recognized the silhouettes flying above – they were Japanese Mitsubishis.
“It was pandemonium,” Parsons recalled.
The men scrambled to take cover as the incoming planes rained down bullets and bombs, slipping under an outhouse that was built up off the ground.
"Now why they build it that way, I don’t know, ‘cause they’re usually on the ground," Parsons said. "This was up, so you could crawl under it, so under it we went."
Between blasts, Parsons could hear two of his friends, brothers Charlie and Toby Hamel, call out to each other to ensure they were both still alive.
When the attack seemed to have stopped, the men went out to study the damage. Parsons and a friend, known as Chubby, walked to the beach. It wasn’t long before they were pinned down by another Japanese aircraft, taking cover inside a large pit formed by coral.
"Chubby stood up and was going to shoot with his pistol," Parsons recalled. "I slapped him down and said, 'Don’t, Chubby.' We could see (the pilot), just see him right there. I remember to this day, he had goggles on. I could just look right in the (cockpit) and see him."
When it was over, more than a dozen ships were damaged, and the USS Arizona was completely destroyed. Nearly 2,000 men were killed in the explosion. The attack by the Japanese would be the catalyst that launched the United States into World War II.
The bombing of Pearl Harbor, which happened six weeks after he arrived in Hawaii, is seared into the 90-year-old 's memory. Sitting in his living room in Mission, the silver-haired and hazel-eyed Parsons is separated by thousands of miles and 71 years from the attack. Yet, as he recalls what President Franklin D. Roosevelt called “a date that will live in infamy,” the images in his mind as are as clear as if they had happened yesterday.
After the attack, Parsons was among those who volunteered to go down to the submarine base and stand guard against possible sabotage.
Men who had leapt from burning ships had jumped into water only to be surrounded by more flames. The beach and its waters were littered with bodies – and parts of bodies – of fellow soldiers and friends, some charred beyond recognition. As Parsons played back the memory in his head, his face at one point twisted in pain, a small window into the horror he witnessed.
"When they'd come up for air, they hadn't been trained to splash the flames away, and they'd suck in those hot flames," he said. "There was body parts starting to float in, dogs had 'em in their mouths, it was terrible, we didn't know what to do but just stay numb. It was that way for the next day, and then we started to get organized."
The weeks leading up to the attack had contained various oddities. Small Japanese fishing boats that usually went far out to sea remained docked or close to shore. Soldiers had been ordered to carry their gas masks and pistols at all times.
"Nobody suspected anything else at all," Parsons recalled.
Pearl Harbor was the second time Parsons had avoided death during World War II.
Before enlisting in the army, he had grown tired of his routine in his hometown of Gerard, Ill., where he worked on a farm for two gallons of skim milk per day.
"I wanted a little adventure, so I had my guitar on my arm, and a buddy of mine said, 'Let's go see my uncle in Texas,'" he recollected.
Parsons worked quarrying rock on a sheep farm, knowing in the back of his mind that he would eventually be drafted.
"This might sound corny to you, but I was sittin' way out there on a ranch about 7 miles west of Wimberly, Texas, and I said to myself, 'Well, you only got one life, and your history is what you've done. I don't ever want it to be said that I had to be drafted to fight for my country,'” he said.
Parsons also knew that volunteering would give him the chance to pick an assignment, which he decided would be as a communications specialist in the Philippines.
“I think I got a good noodle, and I can climb up the ladder pretty quick,” he remembers thinking.
After signing up for the army in Corpus Christi, Parsons and his guitar, which had been by his side most of his life, were soon on a ship from San Francisco to the Philippines. While he strummed out some tunes one evening, the ship's officers overheard him playing.
They were thoroughly impressed by the young Parsons' musical abilities, so he accepted an invitation to stay at Pearl Harbor when the ship stopped there, joining the 254 Coast Artillery Band and Orchestra.
The men in his original regiment were later killed in the Bataan Death March, during which American and Filipino prisoners of war captured by the Japanese military died while being brutally herded from the Battle of Bataan to Camp O’Donnell in the Philippines.
“(My guitar) saved my life because otherwise I would have been in the Philippines, and they really hit them,” Parsons said.
Parsons was eventually deployed to the Pacific when his regiment left Hawaii six months after the Dec. 7 attack to help build a military base in Fiji. It was in those dangerous jungles that his guitar helped him secure the occasional creature comfort, and audiences with higher ups. When the USS Colorado visited the island, Parsons was called up by his colonel.
“He sent a guy over to me and said, ‘Get that guitar player in his best khakis. There's a guy coming over pretty soon to take him over to the admiral,’” Parsons recalled.
The Colorado’s top commander greeted Parsons warmly and offered him a Coca Cola, something the young soldier hadn’t tasted in months. He spent the day strumming tunes for the admiral.
“He says, ‘Don’t treat me like an admiral. You came to see me as a friend,’” Parsons said. “That guitar – had it tucked in my arm for many years. It got me in and out a lot of places, saved my life, made my living.”
After The War
Life didn’t slow down for Parsons even after he was medically discharged from the army in 1945.
He joined the Dink Welch Quartet when the band’s leader heard him playing in Illinois, traveling the country as a musician. He found himself in famous company one night in Louisiana when he met music legends Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.
“Ella Fitzgerald, oh. She was the queen of bebop,” Parsons said. “I never will forget her singing. I tell you, she'd just stir you to your bones, and so friendly, like Louis. He's just as nice and friendly as a guy could be, and he liked the way I played guitar.”
Parsons would meet Armstrong again 1948 at a theater in San Francisco.
“He knew me right away, and I was so surprised,” Parsons said.
A Jack-of-all-trades, Parsons later turned in his career as a professional musician to work construction on the Aleutian Islands near Alaska, was a cook in the Merchant Marines, sold construction supplies, and operated a tug boat in New Jersey. The wandering life was losing its appeal, and he began to yearn for something meaningful.
While driving down to Mexico, where he figured he could make a living playing his guitar in clubs, Parsons found himself in despair. He pulled his car over, set aside the drink in his hand, and asked for guidance.
“I started talking out loud to God,” he said. “I said, ‘I know you want me, so here I am.’ I’ve been an absolutely different man ever since.”
He felt his calling was to be a missionary, a chapter in his life that would bring about a whole new set of adventures.
While attending Bible school in Chattanooga, Tenn., Parsons heard about a wealthy man in Chicago who was putting missionaries through dental school so that they could provide care to people in developing parts of the world. It was there that he met his second wife, Dorothy. She sat in the chair next to him, and he often helped her pull patients’ teeth.
“She was real pretty; she had blue eyes, dimples,” Parsons said dotingly of his wife of 42 years.
The couple moved to Guadalajara, Mexico, during their first missionary trip before being invited to go to the eastern highlands of Papua New Guinea, north of Australia.
Parsons would strap his supplies to the back of a motorbike and travel to see clients, whom he never charged. Many of them were members of the Bena Bena tribe, and some were known to practice cannibalism. Parsons said they ate “long pig,” or human flesh, as part of rituals for their dead or to gain the strength of defeated enemies.
When word got out that Parsons' dental work didn’t hurt, people in the region allowed him to care for them. He eventually earned the favor of two leaders, Chief Nora and Chief Kenibega.
“They said, ‘We want you to be our doctor,’” Parsons recalled.
Parsons’ good relationship with the people and authorities eventually lead to him helping in the establishment of a dentistry school for young men. The Bena Bena chiefs even gave him a tribal name – Bealifa, which means “warrior singer.”
Today, the warrior singer tries to do a lot less thinking about his fighting days and more about missionary work. Parsons returned to the United States after 12 years in Papua New Guinea and moved his free dentistry services to Mexico. Today, he and his wife spend every weekend south of the border – organizing meals for up to 500 children, leading Bible school and adult Bible study – and he still cuts up on his guitar.
“I've been zip, zip, zip, zip, zip. They say, ‘Ain’t nobody got energy like Hap Parsons.’ The doctor says I'm the healthiest 91-year-old they've ever seen, and I ain’t too healthy,” he said with a hearty laugh.