We’ll start today’s story in April 1942, in the Philippines. Charles Thomas Parsons Jr. had been stranded with his family after the Japanese invasion.
But, so far they’d been relatively lucky.
Born in poverty in Tennessee, known to his friends as “Chick,” Parsons had spent his childhood going back and forth between the U.S. and Manila. He lived there with an uncle who had a more stable job than his family back home.
Now he was a grown man. He’d built a very profitable career buying and running companies in the port of Manila, and along the way, he’d also picked up two credentials that would greatly affect his life:
First, a commission as a lieutenant (j.g.) in the U.S. Naval Reserve, and
Second, an appointment as a diplomat representing the government of Panama in the Philippines. (His qualifications: He’d done business with Panama for years, he spoke fluent Spanish, and there was nobody else available to fill the role.)
The first credential meant that as an American officer, Parsons was in danger of being held as a prisoner, and his family interned. But, he realized that the second credential could save them.
His real-life connection to Panama was tenuous, but the Japanese didn’t know that.
So, he’d burned his Navy uniforms when the Japanese marched into Manila, flew a large Panamanian flag at his home, and held himself out as a diplomat from a neutral country. That meant that while the Japanese rounded up all civilians from Allied nations, the Parsons family stayed comparatively free.
It had worked until the Doolittle Raid, when the Japanese secret police rounded up all non-Asian men, “including Parsons, diplomatic immunity be damned,” according to an account in Smithsonian Magazine.
And so he spent his 40th birthday—79 years ago today—being interrogated “in a stone dungeon at Fort Santiago, the 350-year-old fortress within Intramuros, the colonial walled city where Chick had lived and played as a child.”
His only choice was to hold up under torture and admit nothing, Parsons later said. “I had done so many things. If I’d admitted to one, they might have taken me out and hung me.”
The Japanese never discovered the ruse, and he and his family were eventually deported, as part of a swap for Japanese diplomats who had been detained overseas.
Back in the United States by late summer, Parsons went through another interrogation session with FBI agents who could hardly believe he’d been able to con his way out of the country.
When the FBI released him, he reported for active military duty. And when General MacArthur realized there was an American naval reserve officer who had spent six months behind enemy lines but escaped, he ordered Parsons to Australia.
From there, he was assigned daring spy missions, which meant going right back to the Philippines.
At first Parsons’s job was to make contact with guerrilla groups that had been sending radio messages to the Americans in Australia.
He traveled by Navy submarine, slipped into the country, and spent months traveling all over, using his huge network of prewar contacts. He found guerrilla leaders and delivered two strict rules:
No offensives against the Japanese for now, since they’d be ineffective, and the reprisals would be brutal.
No calling yourselves “generals.” You already have a general, Parsons told them: MacArthur. You report to him.
Parsons made it back to Australia, then returned to the Philippines by submarine twice more, bringing tons of food, medicine and weapons. He also advised MacArthur on a related operation in which more than 40 other submarines smuggled war materiel into the country.
Toward the end of the war, he made two more clandestine missions into the country, just ahead of U.S. invasion forces.
If you know the famous picture of MacArthur wading ashore, Parsons had been there for a few days already.
Afterward, Parsons and his family returned to Manila, where he rebuilt his businesses. He was awarded some of the top U.S. medals for bravery in combat, but his most prized reward was that the Philippines made him a citizen.
Years afterward, he was said to have “cooperated on a memoir,” which is kind of an interesting way of phrasing it. The book was called Rendezvous by Submarine, but Parsons wrote to his coauthor:
“I am not a colorful figure, and I wish to be kept out of the story of the guerrilla movement as much as possible.”
I don’t know about that. After what I’ve been able to piece together about his story after reading about him for the first time not long ago, it’s all pretty colorful.
Happy Birthday Chick Parsons. I’m glad for the chance to share your story.
By the way, if you liked this, look out for Monday’s newsletter. I’m pretty sure it’s going to start out with a World War II theme, too, but then change gears quickly.
7 other things worth your time
The law enforcement arm of the U.S. Postal Service has been quietly running a program that tracks and collects Americans’ social media posts … [K]nown as iCOP, or Internet Covert Operations Program … [t]he work involves having analysts trawl through social media sites to look for … “inflammatory” postings and then sharing that information across government agencies. (Yahoo News)
The Manhattan district attorney in New York City appeared virtually in court Wednesday to dismiss 914 pending prostitution and unlicensed massage cases pending in the city, while announcing his office just won’t prosecute those charges anymore. “Criminally prosecuting prostitution does not make us safer, and too often, achieves the opposite result by further marginalizing vulnerable New Yorkers,” said District Attorney Cyrus Vance. (Manhattan DA)
The Justice Department is opening a sweeping investigation into policing practices in Minneapolis. “Yesterday’s verdict in the state criminal trial does not address potentially systemic policing issues in Minneapolis,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said. (AP)
Amazon says it’s rolling out biometric technology at Whole Foods in Seattle that lets customers associate a credit card with their palm print. (Reuters)
“Risky uses of artificial intelligence … such as live facial scanning should be banned or tightly controlled, European Union officials said Wednesday. Their draft regulations include rules for AI systems to filter out school, job or loan applicants, or government “social scoring” systems that judge people based on their behavior.” (AP)
If you thought American TV could sometimes be horrible, a “reality show” in Iraq is sparking outrage, because it involves staging fake attacks to trick Iraqi celebrities into believing that they’ve been captured by ISIS and are about to be executed. (Daily Mail)
And we’ll end with something a little funnier: A woman who celebrated getting her Covid vaccinations with a trip to Sedona, and then marked the trip by (trying to) get a tattoo of Sedona’s geographic coordinates on her shoulder, went viral after realizing that she’d given the artist [34° 52’ 12” S 111° 45’ 36” W], instead of [34° 52’ 12” N 111° 45’ 36” W] (see the S instead of the N?). It turned out to be the difference between the coordinates of Sedona, and a random spot in the Pacific Ocean. “I might just keep it because it’s just as funny this way,” she said. (The Independent)
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