He saw villages and towns laid waste. He saw friends die. He saw the unspeakable horror of a Nazi concentration camp. He saw war.
A few days ago, Parnell, at a remarkably spry 94 years old, told an audience of about 50 mesmerized listeners crammed into the West Davidson Public Library of his experience in World War II.
Parnell was a corporal in the 36th Armored Infantry Regiment, which was a unit in the famed 3rd Armored "Spearhead" Division.
Drafted late in 1943 — his two older brothers were already serving in the Pacific theater — Parnell finished his basic training and then embarked for Europe on Christmas Eve in 1944. He was deployed two weeks later with the 36th in early January of 1945, just in time for the final stages of the Battle of the Bulge — to this day the largest battle ever fought by the U.S. Army.
|Doug Parnell points out where his unit served during World War II.*|
As a corporal, Parnell was essentially a squad leader and spent much of his duty on night patrols.
"I guess I was tenderhearted," said Parnell. "Instead of sending these young kids out, I took it on myself when on patrol to go myself as much as I could.
"I knew they were kids and knew more about it than they did," said Parnell. "I knew I'd taken my chances getting myself killed. I was 22 years old and they were calling me "Dad."
He came close to death a few times.
Parnell relates one story when he came under fire, perhaps from a sniper, while climbing an embankment. He hit the dirt, as trained, and lay there. For three-and-a-half hours. Without moving.
"One of the hardest things to do is to lay still for hours and hours," said Parnell. "It finally got dark and I was able to crawl out of there and get back to my outfit."
He also recalls coming under artillery fire and finding relative safety in a foxhole. When the barrage stopped, he found his uniform was bloodstained with body parts. It wasn't his blood. Another soldier beside him had perished as they ran for cover.
One day, while on patrol, Parnell and his squad came across the edge of a town that had been bombed a couple days previously.
"We came up to an electrified fence," said Parnell. There were six or seven people, almost naked, standing behind the fence. I opened the gate, went in and checked for Germans. I went in and jumped over dead bodies. Some (living) people were laying in the mud, begging me to help them, but I couldn't. I didn't know if they were Jews, or Germans, or just prisoners, or what.
"Later, MPs came up and they were able to help them," said Parnell. "But I don't know whatever happened to those people. We were never schooled what to do with them, so I just turned them out until the MPs came up."
What Parnell and his squad came upon was likely a subcamp of the Dora-Mittlebau concentration complex (a part of Buchenwald) outside of Nordhausen. The camp housed slave labor that was forced primarily to work on the Nazis' V-1 and V-2 rocket programs. The 3rd Armored Division liberated the camp on April 11, 1945, a full month before Germany ultimately surrendered.
Parnell, who now stays busy caning chairs with an artful eye in his garage, said the war changed him. How could it not? Death was everywhere.
"I'll tell you how shocking it was," said Parnell. "The first week after I was home, my daddy died. And it didn't mean any more to me than if a dog was laying there because I'd seen so much killing, so many dead people.
"Me and my daddy was as good of friends as a man and son could be," said Parnell. "He was such a good father.
"(After the war) It took a long time for me to get the feeling that I could help somebody," said Parnell, who "confiscated" a tattered Nazi window banner as a war souvenir. "You felt shy to everybody because you couldn't trust them. You couldn't trust the Germans and you sort of got stuck on it.
"But it finally wore off and I feel like I'm the same old man I used to be. Thank the Lord."
And thank you, Doug Parnell, for your service. Thank you for being there, to see things no man should see.
* Dispatch photo by Donnie Roberts