The Jet-Age Gladiator

Dec. 1, 2013

Having just landed from a combat mission, four pilots from the 334th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron walked casually from the squadron’s sandbagged revetments at Kimpo AB, South Korea, toward the operations building for the usual intelligence debriefing. The deafening engine whine of another returning flight of F-86 Sabres went up. At the time, all fighter-interceptor pilots instinctively checked the gunports of returning flights for the dark gray soot indicating their guns had been fired. This would imply contact with MiGs. Sure enough, the .50-caliber blast shields of the No. 4 aircraft showed the unmistakable signs. But something else looked odd: The ship’s entire fuselage was badly scorched from nose to tail—as if it had been burned with a giant blowtorch.

It was June 7, 1953, and the fighter’s pilot was Capt. Ralph S. Parr, returning from his sixth combat sortie in the Sabre. His flight’s mission had been a “fighter sweep”—to intercept and destroy any enemy aircraft found over North Korea. The fouled gunports and scorched airplane

provided visual confirmation of what turned out to be the first two of Parr’s 10 aerial victories.

Born on July 1, 1924, in Portsmouth, Va., the son a Navy pilot, Parr began his military career on Nov. 4, 1942, when he enlisted at age 18 in the Army Reserve. On Feb. 2, 1943, he began flight training as an aviation cadet, earning his wings and commission as a second lieutenant on Feb. 8, 1944.

His first taste of combat was very late in World War II, as a P-38 pilot based in the Philippines. He had no significant engagements. He did, however, witness the smoke still rising from the aftermath of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

When the Korean War began, he immediately volunteered to fly combat. He was sent to the F-80-equipped 49th Fighter-Bomber Group. Following 165 interdiction missions, he returned to an F-86-equipped fighter wing at George AFB, Calif. The next year he spent perfecting tactics for use against the MiG-15.

With the war winding down, he wrangled an assignment to the F-86-equipped 4th Fighter-Interceptor Wing. In the remaining 11 weeks of hostilities he shot down 10 enemy aircraft in just 47 missions.

Through three wars, Parr received more than 60 decorations. The Distinguished Service Cross, predecessor medal to the Air Force Cross, is second only to the Medal of Honor for heroism in combat. Parr is the only airman ever to receive both a DSC and an AFC.

The day of his first two kills of the Korean War, Parr was flying as Shark Four, wingman to element leader 2nd Lt. Al B. Cox, Shark Three. Normally a wingman was forbidden to fire his guns without specific permission from his element leader. But Cox knew of Parr’s extensive jet fighter background. He said to Parr while walking to their jets, “You have more Sabre experience than I’ve got total flying time. If you should see something, call it out. If I can’t see it, I’ll clear you to take the bounce and cover you.”

As they cruised along “MiG Alley,” Parr recalled, the weather was beautiful, with unlimited visibility. “With the two elements almost line abreast, I was looking north into China. Suddenly I saw a flight of four MiGs perpendicular to our flight path with a dive angle of about 15 degrees and firing at us,” he said. Parr and Cox broke hard left into the attackers, but the lead element broke right, thus separating the flight. With the attack thwarted and because flight integrity was required, the two Sabres turned west, toward the confluence of the Yalu River and Yellow Sea, before having to turn south toward home base.

“After that encounter I was trying my best to look in 16 different directions at once, to keep us from getting bounced again. Then I looked down very low and saw something flicker across some light-colored sandbars along the Yalu River shoreline and called them out,” Parr remembered.

A Busy June

Cox said he didn’t have it and urged Parr to take on the enemy, so Parr rolled a split-S and went straight down, pulling nine Gs to level off at 300 feet going very fast.

Parr spotted two MiGs a ways ahead, but when he got closer, he realized there were more—first four, then eight in all. Parr looked to his left and saw eight more and immediately decided to put a “big notch” in the MiG leader directly ahead.

As Parr closed in on the leader, the eight in front went into a break. Parr stuck with the leader and fired as close to a “tracking shot” as he could get, but with a deflection angle of 70 degrees, he had to use 9.5Gs to do it. “There was no way I could stay with him without making a square corner,” Parr said of the encounter.

The MiG and Parr continued with an old-fashioned dogfight, after Parr’s gunsight malfunctioned, nearly rolling canopy to canopy 300 feet above the ground.

“What happened next I don’t know, but I detected a faint movement that put him just slightly ahead. I thought to myself, ‘Damn you. That’s going to cost you, friend.’ Then I got a little more spacing and slid in behind him,” Parr recalled. They were so close Parr was afraid the nose of his aircraft would take off the MiG’s stabilizer.

Parr’s wing entered the MiG’s jet wash, which pushed him back a few feet. He was now only 10 feet behind his foe. He leaned the guns against the MiG and pulled the trigger, not needing a gunsight.

“About the fourth or fifth time I hit him, it was like a bucket of water sloshed over my windshield,” Parr said. It was fuel from his enemy’s wing caps. Staying close, Parr worked back into firing position, firing again, and the MiG burst into flames. The gunfire caused Parr’s jet to stall and he dropped low, with flames from the other aircraft barely missing his intake and going over the canopy and the top half of his aircraft. The MiG hit the ground and exploded. Pulling up rapidly, recovering from the stall, Parr saw five MiGs lined up against him. The first opened fire, with tracers from the cannons arcing toward his jet. Parr worked to avoid the fire, and the MiGs overshot him one by one.

One MiG looked like it was about to break off from the attacking element, and Parr eased up on his turn a bit—encouraging him to come closer. Parr maneuvered when the MiG pulled close enough and rolled over on top and behind him, pulling the trigger. After two or three quick shots the MiG went down. Soon after, Parr headed back to base, the soot from his guns still apparent when he landed at Kimpo.

On June 10, three days later, Parr downed a third MiG.

On June 18, 1953, Parr achieved the magic five victories to become a jet ace, after earning another double kill. In the postflight debriefing, Parr said he was halfway home before he realized he was an ace. “You get pretty focused when in enemy territory, because in this game, losing can be permanent,” he said of the day.

On June 30, Parr was flying a mission with Cox as his wingman when 10 MiGs attacked. Parr shot down two and was maneuvering for a third kill when a distress call came from his wing commander, Col. James K, Johnson, whose F-86 had flamed out after ingesting debris from a MiG he had shot down. Johnson was now under attack himself. Low on fuel, Parr found Johnson, drove off the attackers, and gave Johnson time to restart his engine and get back to base. For his actions that day, Parr was awarded the DSC.

With the armistice only a little more than two weeks away, on July 12 Parr scored his ninth kill. He carved off a MiG from a four-ship formation cruising toward their home base at around 16,000 feet near the Chinese border.

As Parr dived to engage, the flight saw him and broke in all directions. He latched on to the No. 4 MiG, which turned hard right. Parr called to his wingman, Lt. Col. Robert J. Dixon, telling him he was locked on.

The MiG pulled up vertically and began rolling. Parr got astern and rolled in unison, firing three short bursts, each of which hit. The MiG steadily ran out of airspeed and exploded.

Double Ace

On the afternoon of July 27, 1953, just hours before the scheduled armistice, Parr downed a Soviet Il-12 transport. It would become one of the most politically contentious encounters of the Korean War.

On this mission Parr led one of three flights of F-86Fs, escorting a Marine Corps photoreconnaissance aircraft for a run over a dirt airfield in the bed of the Yalu River, the border between China and North Korea. But North Korea was covered by an undercast that stopped abruptly at the river.

“I looked down and saw an aircraft flying close to the river on the Manchurian side,” Parr recalled. Meanwhile US radars had reported enemy aircraft just slightly west of the flight.

Parr had been observing the aircraft for a while when it slowly crossed the Yalu River into North Korea.

As Parr’s flight approached the target area, he asked the marine pilot if he could get his photographs of the target. The answer was no, the target was socked in with cloud cover.

The mission commander gave permission to check out the “bogey,” and Parr and his wingman descended to about 500 feet above the aircraft to check it out.

“It had the same markings as the MiGs, a big red star, but no civilian markings,” Parr said. This was verified by his wingman, 1st Lt. Edwin J. Scarff.

Parr made two more passes to confirm the identity of the transport, checked his map to make sure he was south of the Yalu, then opened fire and shot the aircraft down.

The Soviets were outraged and immediately claimed the transport was a civilian airliner with the negotiation team aboard—and that it was 200 miles north in Manchuria. An investigation showed a straight line from the aircraft’s departure point of Port Arthur, China, to its destination, Vladivostok, Siberia, took it across the Yalu River exactly where Parr saw it enter North Korea.

The shootdown would turn out to be the final aerial action of the Korean War, as the armistice went into effect at 10:01 p.m. that day.

Heroism Over Khe Sanh

Parr remained in the Air Force and went on to fly combat missions in Vietnam—his third war. He earned the Air Force Cross for actions during the deadly siege of the US garrison at Khe Sanh, South Vietnam.

On March 16, 1968, the determined North Vietnamese Tet Offensive was beginning to bog down. The North Vietnamese were attempting to repeat the success-via-siege used in the 1954 victory against the French at Dien Bien Phu, but the communists failed to take American airpower into account.

With the base under mortar attack, an F-4C dived into the battle. The Marine Corps forward air controller (FAC), Fingerprint 54, shouted at it: “Sharkbait Two, you’re receiving unbelievably heavy fire. Pull out! Pull out!” The man behind the F-4’s controls was then-Colonel Parr.

Capt. Thomas McManus was the weapon systems officer in the back of Parr’s Phantom. “We flew down into the low, hazy visibility of the ravines—below the hilltops on both sides,” McManus recalled. He was looking for mortars that were hitting the marines at Khe Sanh, when suddenly a mass of enemy troops appeared on top of the hill to the left of the Phantom—and they were shooting at it.

McManus and Parr had flown into an entrenchment of heavy anti-aircraft and machine guns. Enemy troops had set up at the dead center approach to Khe Sanh’s only runway, to ambush approaching transports.

The USMC commander came on the radio to tell Parr and McManus their F-4 was hit, then canceled the mission saying they couldn’t survive any more passes. McManus asked Parr if he could feel the aircraft get hit, to which Parr reportedly said, “Don’t know. I’ve never been hit.”

One of the mortars below had been taken out with a well-placed delivery of napalm, but Parr told his WSO they had to do something about the guns below; transports would be sitting ducks, and they had been looking for the gun emplacements for too long to give up and go back.

Parr radioed the FAC, refusing cancelation, telling him to alert the Marine Corps commander to keep the troops under cover when he was cleared to go back in.

Unless they destroyed the guns, the supply aircraft would fall like flies, he told the FAC. Reluctant approval came back, and on the second pass the F-4 did another “sloppy maneuver”—and McManus said he knew the jet was hit yet again—but all gauges were still checking out. The FAC told them not to come back, but Parr persisted, returning to attack, destroying more guns with every pass.

Ammunition depleted and napalm expended, dangerously low on fuel, Parr stayed close by the site of the guns to direct his wingman against targets in the area, attempting to take out as many guns as possible, to assure fewer threats against incoming C-130s. The FAC was finally able to fly down the landing approach to Khe Sanh without drawing fire. He radioed back his estimate of more than 100 enemy killed from the air.

The official tally from the Marines was two mortars destroyed, five heavy anti-aircraft guns destroyed and one disabled, with 96 enemy troops killed.

Parr and McManus’ Phantom survived 27 hits. Parr was honored with the Air Force Cross for his actions on that day.

In large part thanks to airpower’s aid, and efforts by Parr and many other airmen, the Joint Chiefs of Staff estimated the enemy sustained 10,000 casualties while attacking Khe Sanh. North Vietnam’s participating divisions were decimated.


In 1970, Parr returned to Vietnam for another tour, this time as commander of the 12th Tactical Fighter Wing. By the time his Vietnam engagement was over, Parr had flown 641 combat missions over three wars.

Parr was compelled to retire from the Air Force for medical reasons in 1976. Assigned to Eglin AFB, Fla., at the time, he seriously injured his back while inspecting hurricane damage to the roof of his home. “You’d think I could have picked a more graceful way to depart the military,” he later told Air Force Magazine.

Following a long illness, Parr died peacefully on Dec. 7, 2012, in New Braunfels, Tex. He was 88. His commitment to his fellow troops and uncommon fierceness under fire classify him as a true jet-age gladiator.