By Staff Sgt. Jacob Barreiro
19th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
While “old folks,” as he calls them, are known to reminisce, there’s no tongue clicking or sighing when Parnell Fisher tells his stories.
People throughout Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., know him as a fixture at the Auto Hobby Shop on base. However, many of them may not know that they’re having their tires or oil changed by a war hero.
One morning he sits in a folding chair in his office, folded hands resting on top of a folding table, as he reminisces and shares the story of his life. The room, an “office” in title, is little more than a boiler room with a few cabinets, a sink and a coffee pot in the corner. Every 10 minutes a heating unit outside discharges its energy, but the noise doesn’t bother him, and he continues talking in the same steady, reflective manner. Occasionally he stops to collect his thoughts, but the interruptions are brief and he quickly resumes his narrative, recapping a history that spans eight decades. Even though he’s a decorated war veteran, he doesn’t boast about himself like someone with a life full of laudations and accomplishments.
After all, Fisher, a retired Air Force loadmaster, said he only recently started to get attention for the Silver Star he was awarded for gallant actions aboard an AC-47 on Dec. 18, 1966, in Vung Tau, Vietnam.
On that mission Fisher saved his life, the life of the crew and the aircraft he was working on by managing to toss out a prematurely exploded flare from the aircraft.
He was awarded the Silver Star in Japan shortly after the event, but Fisher said it was never noticed at any other base he went to.
“I never said anything after I got this award in Japan,” said Fisher. “I went to all these other bases, and I don’t think anybody ever looked at my records or noticed.”
The lack of attention was just as well for Fisher, who said he prefers not to brag about himself.
“If you come into a squadron and say ‘Look, I’m a Silver Star recipient,’ that won’t go over well,” he said.
It wasn’t until a loadmaster here noticed his name in the Professional Development Guide that Fisher’s story began to get attention on base.
“I was working (at the Auto Hobby Shop), and a loadmaster asked me what my name was… I told him, and he came back the next day, pulled out (the PDG) and asked me ‘Is this you?’” said Fisher. “Pretty soon my story started to filter out.”
Master Sgt. Joseph Stuart, now a C-130H/J evaluator loadmaster for Air Education and Training Command, said he’s probably the loadmaster Fisher is talking about. Stuart remembers thinking the name “Parnell Fisher” sounded familiar and looked him up in the PDG after he met him. Even though Stuart hasn’t been stationed here since October 2012, he still makes time to talk to Fisher every time he stops on base for a mission.
“Parnell is a great guy, and he is very humble,” said Stuart. “I always tell people about his story and take other people in to speak to him and listen to his stories.”
While he is described as humble, Fisher admits that Silver Stars aren’t just doled out like candy on Halloween and said, “There wouldn’t be any story for me to tell today if I didn’t get those lines (on the flare’s parachute) cut.”
Recalling the event, Fisher said it was “Fast and furious… There’s nothing in the book that covers a flare hanging up or getting knocked over inside an aircraft. You know what’ll happen if you don’t do something, and you do it. I credit my training and instinct… and some oversight from the good Lord.”
Visualizing his memories of the event, Fisher said he pictures a small and crowded aircraft, packed with an interpreter, two munitions men, a loadmaster and flight engineer in the back, along with a pilot and co-pilot in the front.
The crew was flying in “blackout” mode because of heavy anti-aircraft fire in the area, the only light on the entire aircraft was from a rotating beacon on a vertical stabilizer.
When the incident occurred, Fisher and the flight engineer were handling the 22-pound flares, set to go off on a timer, and launching them out of the plane.
“When it happened, (the engineer) picked the flare up and it went off,” said Fisher. “The cap came out, and the chute went out with it. It knocked him back and unconscious.”
Nobody else on the plane was aware of what was happening by the time Fisher, in darkness sans the small rotating beacon light, was scrambling on his hands and knees trying to grab the live flare, said Fisher.
“I’m pulling the chute, and I finally get the flare when I go to the doorway and throw the dang thing out,” he said.
Thinking he had averted disaster, Fisher was distressed to see the flare’s chute hanging onto the edge of the plane’s cargo door. Still, his Silver Star citation says he didn’t hesitate, but quickly reacted to the new problem.
“I had to get my knife out and started cutting those lines off,” he said. “All I kept thinking was ‘am I going to be quick enough?’”
Hanging halfway out of the plane’s cargo door, with survival vest, parachute on “dressed like the guys who went looking for the predator,” Fisher said he remembers feeling the cool wind swathing his body.
He feverishly cut at the attached cords, fighting to snip the tightly wound strings stubbornly clutching to the cargo door and threatening the lives of him and the crew, he said. He was able to cut the flare’s chute loose just in time, severing the lines and looking on as the flare mercifully exploded outside seconds later, sparing his life.
Afterwards, Fisher said he sat down, with shaking knees, when a crewmate put a cigarette in his mouth.
“I was sitting on a metal seat of the (aircraft), and the engineer brought a cigarette and put it in my mouth,” he said. “I’m trying to figure out how he recovered from the blow he took. I took a long drag off that cigarette, and it was the best drag of cigarette I ever had. I don’t smoke anymore, but I’ve never had another one like it.”
Even more than 46 years after the event, Fisher said he still remember how desperate he felt cutting at the parachute cords with his knife.
“That knife, I knew it was sharp, but it didn’t seem like it was sharp enough then.”
After 22 years of service, Fisher retired as a Master Sergeant in 1977. He first served 1950-1954, and after earning a Bachelor’s degree in the ensuing years, enlisted again in the Air Force from 1959-1977.
Stuart said he values the legacy of loadmasters like Fisher, and he never misses a chance to tell people about it.
“Parnell’s life story is amazing, and I tell as many people as I can,” he said. “Being a Loadmaster as well, I want his legacy and story to be told.”
Fisher himself said he’s sometimes amazed when looking back at his life’s story. He recently turned 80-years-old and just celebrated his 52nd wedding anniversary with his wife, Vermond.
“I’m proud of those 52 years,” he said with a broad smile. “Ain’t that cool? That’s a long time.”
Yet Fisher, who has two living children, two grandchildren and two great grandchildren, said what he is most proud about is having a chance to be a part of civil rights history during his life and Air Force career.
“When I came into the Air Force, President Truman had just integrated all of the forces in 1948,” he said. “Being black in an all white dominated society, it was a real adventure and an awakening for me.”
Growing up in Benton, Ark., Fisher said he experienced the effects of a segregated society first hand for all of his formative years.
“My Jr. High and High School were down in Little Rock, and I was bused there back and forth daily,” he said.
Having faced segregation and social prejudice because of his race his whole life, Fisher said coming into the Air Force was a revelation.
“When we were at the recruiting station, ready to take that trip by train down to Lackland, all of the white guys had their last meal out in the front of the restaurant,” he said. “While all of us black guys had to eat in a place prepared for us in the kitchen.”
Joking that eating in the kitchen had some advantages, like having access to the freshest food, Fisher said he remembers how it all changed once they entered the Air Force.
“When we got to the station down here, they had Pullman cars to take us to Lackland,” he said. “We went in just by alphabetical order then, whether black or white. That was kind of a new thing for everybody. From that point on we were just like one,” he said, noting that integration didn’t always go smoothly.
For instance, at his training school in Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, Fisher said his First Sergeant told him explicitly “I don’t like black folks, so don’t do anything stupid while you’re here.” Yet he said he never lost his composure and passed the course with superior grades.
“I kept my cool, went through the class, put my best foot forward and got selected for flight engineer school,” he said. “We’ve gone away from this segregation thing. We now see that these people, all people, have talent just like everybody else, given the training and opportunity.”
“Seeing some of these things, the end of segregation, that’s been the highlight of my career,” he said. “That’s been the highlight of my life.”
While current loadmasters like Stuart encourage people to stop by and hear Fisher’s stories, and Fisher himself said he enjoys chatting about the highlights of his life, he also recommends staying active and adventurous, something he credits his long and healthy life to.
“I’ve always told myself there has to be some better things out there for me,” he said. “I stay active, stay working. My advice is when you retire, don’t’ just sit around on your porch or deck. Stay active, get out there, have a purpose for almost every day.”
After he’s finished, Fisher unfolds his hands and briskly rises from his folding chair. Done reminiscing, he laments there’s not enough time to hear all the stories people have to tell … “How much time do you have left in your enlistment?” he asks. Going back to work he welcomes visitors to come back any time “Stop on over, maybe we’ll have a cup of coffee and talk,” he said.