When I received word that Pristine Senior Living Acute Care Center of Beavercreek had a hero in their facility, I was excited to speak to the Pearl Harbor survivor and hero. In the wake of 9/11, what better way to remind ourselves the struggles and sacrifices made in order for freedom?
Preston Ashford Parham always knew he was going to join the Navy, but what he didn’t know was what was going to happen with his life after becoming a hero. At the beginning of adulthood, his world changed in one second the morning of December 7, 1941 after the first shots at Pearl Harbor. This historical event would shape his future.
Parham was born December 15, 1921 in Darvills, Virginia. When he decided to join the military, he was yet legal age. One of his parents had to sign a waiver. But, which one? His mother refused – she didn’t want her baby to be in jeopardy of danger. “So, I went to my dad. He signed it,” Parham said. On February 26, 1940, he rode the bus to Richmond, Virginia to enlist. Shortly thereafter, he was shipped off to Norfolk for six weeks basic training.
After basic training, he was stationed on USS St. Louis- later commonly known as “Lucky Lou.” It was one of the few ships in the harbor that didn’t sustain any damage during the Pearl Harbor attack. No one on his ship was injured during the attack, unlike the other two ships that were anchored next to his ship.
“The ship took more than two hours to build up enough steam to be able to leave port,” he said. “So, we just kept shooting at anything and everything. Most of the ammo was locked up so anything we could find, we fired, especially automatics.”
Parham’s duty station starting out on the USS St. Louis as Seaman 2nd Class, was the powder room of gun turret #4. On the morning of the historical event, “I just woke up and was still in bed reading a magazine when the alarm went off,” Parham said. “Alarms alerted us to go to our battle stations. I knew something happened the minute I got there. I didn’t hear or see anything because I was on the lower deck of the ship. The officers explained the situation through the radio,” Parham said. He stayed in the powder room loading ammo for the guns for hours later until their ship was out of the harbor and out of the canal. “I didn’t get to come out until about lunchtime.”
His duty station consisted of loading ammo, which weighed over 100 lbs., and sending it up to be shot off. The attack by Japanese at Pearl Harbor was a big surprise to the Navy because ships were shut down for holiday and the ammo was locked up. The majority of the Pacific Naval ships were docked in this United States Naval base. In later years, this practice was terminated. This attack, of course, solidified the American’s involvement in WWII.
“After the ship steamed up, we started moving out of the bay. About two to three hours later, I was given a break. By the time I was able to get out of the powder room and could go up to deck, I couldn’t see any of the damage or the battle area because we were out of the general area and we didn’t go back,” he said. Besides having breaks, he spent the next three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor in the powder room- his general quarters. After that, they formed a task force and started tracking the Japs.
After Pearl Harbor, Parham continued serving on the USS St. Louis and he fought battles including Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, Kula Gulf and Kolombagara. In 1944, he left the USS St. Louis and boarded USS Pasadena then USS Indiana in 1945 until his discharge in 1946.
“Aboard the USS Pasadena, part of a fast carrier task force, I was engaged in battles in Luzon, Formosa, China Coast, Nansei, Shoto, and Honshu,” he said. He was also on duty and present on the Pasadena in Tokyo Bay with the Third Fleet during the signing of surrender on September 2, 1945.
Parham’s Naval career lead to him being awarded the American Defense Service Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Service Medal, eight bronze-silver battle stars, the Good Conduct Medal and World War II Victory Medal. “I survived because I was on the “Lucky Lou,” he said.
After being discharged from the Navy, he went back home to stay with his parents. When he got home, he found that his mother had taken in a young woman boarder. Her name was Hazel Irene Whitehead. She worked at the Naval Hospital and needed a place to stay that was close to work. She was a secretary for the orthopedic wing. She was young and dating a man named Joe.
Parham’s daughter, Karen Parham-Foster said that her dad’s little sister told Ms. Whitehead, “when you see my brother, you’ll forget all about your boyfriend, Joe.” And that’s exactly what happened. That’s when their story began. They married in 1948, after Parham graduated from Embry Riddle School of Aviation in Daytona Beach, Florida as an aircraft engine mechanic. He worked and retired from the Naval air station in Virginia.
Together, he and Hazel had two daughters, five grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
They lived in Virginia. His wife passed away on year ago on 9/11. He remained in Virginia until August 2012, after his 90th birthday. He then moved to Beavercreek to be closer to his daughter.
In December, Parham’s family is taking him back to Pearl Harbor. He hasn’t been back since that historical day.