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Widow of WWII plane crash survivor will fulfill last wish

Mugs that commemorate crew will be sent to former airfield in England
By: Michelle Carl Press Tribune Editor
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Tom Parker was the last one of his kind. He was the keeper of a story about eight men who survived their plane being shot down during World War II. The last living member of a group of friends bonded by a traumatic experience. But Tom Parker died March 6, just weeks shy of his 90th birthday and the anniversary of the event that forever changed his life. And now his widow will complete the story and fulfill one last wish. In her home off Cirby Way near the Placer County line, Joan Parker displays eight silver mugs — one for each of Lady Luck crew. The Lady Luck was a B-17 bomber that flew in the 401st Bombardment Group. “The only thing that would have even brought them together for what has been such an ever-lasting friendship is the war,” Joan Parker said. A pilot who worked for Lockheed during the war, George Thomas Parker went into the Air Force in 1943. By the beginning of 1944, he was stationed in Deenethorpe, England, running air raids over Germany. On March 28, 1945, the Lady Luck was bombing Berlin when the plane was struck, killing two of its engines. “Tommy said there wasn’t any place one foot wide on that plane that didn’t have holes in it,” Joan Parker said. The crew jumped from the plane before it burst into flames. The Lady Luck is still classified as a “misplaced” aircraft, Joan Parker said — no wreckage remains. Although instructed to wait to pull his parachute until out of the clouds, Tom Parker figured it would be safe to open the chute behind cloud cover, so he couldn’t be seen and shot down. “No sooner did (Tom) pull the chute than he hit a rock,” said his daughter, Joy Burnham. “It was just luck — luck that they were all able to jump out in time.” Tom Parker made it safely to the ground, but he was separated from his crew behind enemy lines. Joan Parker said her husband was lost for days without food, using a shirt-button compass to find his way. Tom Parker and his crew eventually found their way to France. “The first person Tommy saw was a solider who was swinging his lunch kit,” Joan Parker said. “(The soldier) pulled out a gun and said, ‘Prepare to die!’ Tommy swore at that man in every language he knew how.” Concerned he was the enemy, allied forces interrogated Parker to prove he wasn’t a spy. It wasn’t long before Parker and his crewmates were back at Deenethorpe Air Field. But Parker’s belongings were gone — he was presumed dead. The Lady Luck crew all went on with their lives. Some stayed in the military, others went on to become attorneys or farmers. Joan and Tom met on a blind date when both living in the Bay Area. The couple were married on Nov. 20, 1971. Tom Parker worked for San Francisco construction company Bechtel Corporation. The job took him and his wife all over the world, including a stint in Saudi Arabia where he helped build the Royal Air Terminal. During the first post-war reunion of the Lady Luck crew in 1972, the men started a tradition. Each man was given a glass-bottomed silver mug etched with his name. The rules were this: They could only drink out of the mugs when two or more crewmembers were together or on the anniversary of their plane crash on March 28. As each Lady Luck crew passed away, the widows sent the mugs to other survivors, who would smash the glass bottoms out. Eventually Tom Parker had all eight mugs. Now his widow will complete one last rite — returning the mugs to Deenethorpe. A group of English boys who grew up watching the bombers leave Deenethorpe went on to found The 401st Bomb Group Historical Society. Graham Bratley was one of them. Bratley befriended the Lady Luck survivors and said he feels honored to help complete their request. “I have known for some time that the crew wanted their mugs buried on the old airfield at Deenethorpe England,” Bratley said via e-mail. “And I was only too pleased to agree to carry out their wishes, but at the same time did not want the time to come as I would know that the crew had ‘Gone Forever Aloft.’” The mugs will be buried at the end of the former runway, which is now a field. With no other crewmembers left to break the mug, Bratley will be the one to shatter Tom Parker’s glass. Bratley said many locals feel gratitude for the 401st bomb group, which has a memorial near the former airfield. “As the survivors pass on I feel that it has become a focal point to remember all members of that generation who kept the world free,” Bratley said. “So it will be with a sense of pride that I will carry out this duty and I will reflect back over the many wonderful times that I have spent with Tom, Joan, Frank McCue and their families over the many years and I somehow feel they will be looking down from above, although I wish they were standing with me.” This year on March 28, the anniversary of the Lady Luck’s demise, the crew will be united again in death. And someday soon, in an inconspicuous field in Deenethrope, England, their mugs will lie in the earth. Michelle Carl can be reached at michellec@goldcountrymedia.com. ---------- The Lady Luck Crew The 401st Bombardment Group was stationed in Deenethorpe, England. Pilot – Robert W. Kamper Co-pilot – Ted Kibiuk Navigator – Robert W. Clark Flight engineer – Chuck Condit Radio operator – Walter Kenter Ball turret gunner – John Rein II Togalier – Frank McCue Tail gunner – G. Thomas Parker Parker kept jumping out of planes; beat cancer twice during lifetime Tom Parker didn’t only survive jumping out of a shot-down plane during World War II. He was a survivor in other ways as well. Parker beat cancer twice — he was diagnosed with melanoma in 1986 and a brain tumor in 1990. But it was esophageal cancer discovered in 2006 that would eventually claim his life. “He’s beaten the odds over and over again,” said his daughter, Joy Burnham. His family said his best attribute was a sense of humor. When he had to have his collarbone taken out, he taped a comic strip featuring health care workers to his chest, and wrote “This side” to remind his doctors which one to take out. “His sense of humor carried him through,” Burnham said. Parker jumped out of a plane again at age 75 on the anniversary of the Lady Luck’s demise — and every fifth birthday after that. “He would have done it again on the 18th if he had been here,” said his widow, Joan Parker. Parker also enjoyed golf, water skiing, dancing and fishing. Parker was a Mason and member of the Roseville SIRS No. 40. Parker is survived by his wife, Joan Parker; his daughters, Diana Parker Anderly and husband Ron Anderly, Jan Burnham and Joy Philips; sons David Parker and Jack Raichart and wife Martha Raichart; as well as 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. A full military service will be held this summer in Dixon at Sacramento Valley National Cemetery, where his ashes will be laid to rest. ~ Michelle Carl