thomas dunne books.

An imprint of St. Martin’s Press.
autopsy of war: a personal history. Copyright © 2012 by John A. Parrish, M.D. All
rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. For information, address
St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
Copyright © Piet Hein Grooks: THE NOBLE ART, page xv. Reprinted with kind
permission from Piet Hein a/s, DK-5500 Middelfart, Denmark.
Map design by Paul J. Pugliese
Cover design by Steve Snider
Cover photograph by Sami Sarkis/Getty Images
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Parrish, John A. ( John Albert), 1939–
Autopsy of war : a personal history / John A. Parrish.—1st ed.
p. cm.
ISBN 978-0-312-65496-2 (hardback)
ISBN 978-1-4299-4104-4 (e-book)
1. Vietnam War, 1961–1975—Personal narratives, American. 2. United
States. Marine Corps. Division, 3rd. Medical Battalion, 3rd—Biography.
3. Physicians—United States—Biography. 4. Vietnam War, 1961–1975—Medical
care. 5. Vietnam War, 1961–1975—Psychological aspects. 6. Vietnam War,
1961–1975—Veterans—United States—Biography. 7. Post-traumatic stress
disorder—Patients—Biography. 8. Combat. I. Title.
DS559.5.44.P35 2012
First Edition: June 2012










Chapter 


y first memory of my father is seeing him in a white dress military uniform, standing at the pulpit in his church, parishioners fanned
out before him and looking up in adoration, as he spoke of sin, Jesus,
and love. I was four, perhaps five years old.
War frames my earliest memories, and war was a major force that
lifted my extended family from the poverty and ignorance of the Deep
South in the years surrounding the Great Depression. By the time I
began school all the men in my extended family had “gone to war.” I
would follow them. Service in the military was the single event we all
shared that determined the future course of our lives.
My mother’s father was an itinerant farmer in Tennessee, and although he never served, during World War I he left the farm to work
at a munitions plant in Spring Hill, just south of Nashville. There he
learned a trade, becoming a brick mason, and earned a steady wage for
the first time in his life. Soon after the war ended, so did his job. In 1923,
during the Florida building boom, he hitchhiked to West Palm Beach
to look for work. A year later, he sent for his wife and four children:
the identical twins, Jack and Earl, age ten; Claude, age six; and my
mother, Lucile, who was still an infant.
They took the train to Florida and arrived with no possessions except the clothes they wore and moved in with my grandfather in one

AUTOPSY OF WAR: a personal history

room of a boardinghouse. The three boys slept in the attic, and my
mother slept with her parents. My mother’s strong-willed mother, my
grandmother Mama Blair, worked as laundress, secretary, bookkeeper,
or housekeeper, raised four children, and saw that they went to church.
Staying just ahead of bill collectors, the family moved a dozen times
over the next five or six years. The day after they fled one apartment
to avoid overdue rent payments, the building was destroyed by the 1928
hurricane. My mother’s father did not often have steady work. When
he did, he usually left most of his paycheck in a bar.
The twins never enrolled in school in Florida. Instead, they worked
various odd jobs to help the family. Handsome, charismatic, and athletic, they became motorcycle policemen in the winter and in the summer played semipro baseball. In 1942, when the twins were in their late
twenties, both boys and their younger brother, Claude, were drafted.
Soon afterward my grandfather got drunk and left home for good.
Claude was the good boy. He joined the Boy Scouts, helped rescue
victims of the 1928 hurricane, got involved in the church, and stayed
in school. He graduated from high school as president of the student
body and valedictorian and lettered in four sports despite working
twenty hours a week with AT&T, first as a lineman and then in an office job. Even though he had no military experience, AT&T arranged
for him to be an officer in the Army Signal Corps. He thrived in the
military, eventually becoming an intelligence officer. In between military stints he returned to AT&T and simultaneously earned a law degree. Recalled to the service during the Korean War, he left active duty
in 1953 as a major and rejoined AT&T. In rapid sequence he became vice
president in charge of the Telstar Satellite Program, then president of
Ohio Bell, president of Pacific Northwest Bell, and fi nally president
and chairman of the National City Bank Corporation. He died at age
ninety-seven. The headline of his obituary in the Palm Beach Daily News
referred to him as “bank chairman and veteran.”
The twins, Jack and Earl, received formal training as military policemen and, although both had stateside assignments, were separated
for the first time in their lives. After the war, they returned to the Palm

the good boy

Beach police force and reunited, their reputations enhanced and burnished by their ser vice for their country. They always worked together
and provided security for the growing number of extremely wealthy
and powerful residents with winter homes in Palm Beach, families
like the Woolworths, Rockefellers, Astors, and Kennedys. The Blair
twins were very close to the Kennedys, especially Joe Sr. and, before
he was killed in World War II, Joe Jr. On more than one occasion they
acted as “watch-out” or helped provide cover for a Kennedy when he
cavorted with a married woman.
To show real class, one could display the twins as “security” for very
small dinner parties, and the rich and famous often planned social
events around the availability of the Blair brothers. Standing next
to  their shiny giant motorcycles on either side of a mansion’s front
entrance, they were treated more like guests than workers. Increasingly, however, they acted as private detectives and personal secret
agents, cultivating contacts to arrange anything legal or illegal for a
growing list of clients.
Eventually they bought a large hotel and started a rental car business as a legitimate front for one of Palm Beach’s largest gambling
and prostitution rings. For decades the twins were powerful enough
to keep major rental car companies and organized crime out of Palm
Beach. A small band of men without last names was always around
when needed, and Mama Blair was hired as a bookkeeper for a gas
station they operated on the rental car lot. Executives from all over the
United States and Europe could place discreet phone calls to one of the
twins and by the time they arrived at the West Palm Beach airport
whatever they wanted would be waiting: a car, a driver, women, hotel
rooms, drugs, other entertainment, and gambling options. When
clients were returned to the airport, their bill would be scrubbed to
simulate a business trip, or there would be no paperwork at all showing that the client had ever been in Palm Beach.
My father, James Parrish, grew up in the poverty, ignorance, and
bigotry of the Deep South in Sylvester, Georgia. His mother bled to
death when she delivered her third child. As was the custom in his clan,

AUTOPSY OF WAR: a personal history

his father, also named James, an alcoholic who occasionally worked as
a fireman, actor, salesman, or barber, married the sister of his deceased
wife. As the oldest (age five) child, my father assumed responsibility
for the care and feeding of his family and tried to protect his two
younger siblings from their genuinely evil stepmother. Doing odd jobs
and stealing, my father provided the only steady source of food. He
worshipped his father, who was most generous, attentive, and loving
when he was sober and working and was dramatic, entertaining, and
demonstrably affectionate when he was drinking. His frequent binges
lasted days or weeks.
Crawling under porches and going through trash to fi nd cigarette
butts, my father began smoking at age six. He also joined his father,
and further bonded with him, in binge drinking by the time he was
ten years old. Because Prohibition started when my father was six
years old, the liquor he made or stole was not only illegal but sometimes downright poisonous. During binges he would sometimes be
deathly ill.
He went to school just enough to keep the truant officers at bay
but forced his siblings to attend regularly and do their schoolwork. He
swept streets or cleaned buildings before school, stocked groceries
after school, and worked in a drugstore in the evenings. Although he
was tough and easily provoked, his strong work ethic endeared him
to his growing list of employers.
His father died when he was thirteen, and he became the official
head of the household.
After school one day, to defend his brother from harassment, my
father took on the school bully, who was two or three years his senior
and considerably bigger. He beat him so severely that classmates pulled
him away. For money or any reason, he could fight anyone anytime
and most often won by sheer will. At 130 pounds, five feet nine inches,
he was the starting offensive center and defensive nose guard on
the  high school football team. His teammates called him “pissant.”
After his siblings’ needs were met, my father spent his time drinking,


the good boy

smoking, moving with a tough gang, and chasing girls. Secretly he was
sleeping with at least one older married woman.
The summer after he finally graduated from high school, he had his
first serious depression and suicidal thoughts. He was awarded a football scholarship to a small college but was too drunk to matriculate.
To get closer to one particular girl, he attended a Southern Baptist
church and was soon “adopted” by a deacon who took particular interest and, by overpaying him for odd jobs, provided enough money
for my father’s siblings and stepmother. My father had long talks with
this man, began to attend church regularly, and became close to the
fire-and-brimstone preacher. After a powerful conversion experience,
my father was “saved from sin” by the grace of Jesus Christ and committed his life to God’s will. He stopped drinking completely, stopped
volunteering for fistfights, and left his gang to be in the church community. His church mentors and hard work made it possible for my
father to become the first of his generation to go to college, attending
Stetson University, a Baptist school in DeLand, Florida. He was elected
president of the student body, not because of his athletic prowess or
classroom performance but because he was an effective orator, giving
speeches at school events, civic organizations, churches, and anywhere
else he was invited. He met and fell in love with my mother, a gentle,
quiet, attractive classmate who had a part-time job playing saxophone
in a local dance band. She gave up her music because my father associated it with sin— dancing and alcohol.
They married, and after graduation he earned a doctor of divinity
degree at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville,
studying and practicing oratory by preaching at local churches. My
older brother, James, was born while my father was in college; I was
born during his years in the seminary; and my sister, Mary Blair, was
born while he was the minister of a small church in Florida. He claimed
to be in ecstasy when he was preaching. He was loved by his flock,
who provided housing, a small salary, and a black maid to do housework and child care. The local car dealer gave him a car, and all the


AUTOPSY OF WAR: a personal history

storekeepers gave him special deals on groceries, clothing, appliances,
haircuts, and baseball tickets.
An American dream was launched. Every two or three years my
father was “called” by bigger churches and Jesus to move us to different cities in the Deep South. He began to travel all over the South to
conduct revivals—a week of daily evening services designed for the
already saved to celebrate with singing, testimonials, and a powerful,
emotional fire-and-brimstone sermon designed to bring new converts
into the church. My father was apparently very good at creating the
emotion and energy required to bring people to accept Jesus as their
personal savior. When Jesus concurred, in 1940 my father accepted
the invitation to become pastor at a small church in Plant City, Florida.
He proudly never helped with household chores or family care—
we were there to care for him and serve as decoration, brought out for
“show and tell” before my father’s friends and acquaintances from
church, but otherwise left alone. If I happened to be around, to demonstrate what a great parent he was he would pull me close to him
and pinch my cheek and say, “This is my little Bubba, this is my little
John Albert.” Prefaced by “Gimme some sugar,” my father was always
kissing the preschool children of his congregation, signs of affection
that were withheld from the rest of us.
Except for my older brother, James W. Parrish Jr., the firstborn
child, called “Little Jimmie.” Even when it seemed inappropriate, my
father took Little Jimmie with him to civic meetings and adult gatherings, publicly smothered him with kisses, and wore him as a badge of
family and fatherly love.
In 1942, when I was three years old, with great drama and patriotic virtue, my father announced to his congregation that when a
certain number of church members joined the war effort, he, too,
would go. He did. My mother was stunned. My father had never discussed this with her, but in our household, all decisions were his
alone to make.
After attending chaplain school at William and Mary in Virginia,
my father became a navy officer on active duty from early 1942 until

the good boy

Jimmie and Lucile Parrish, 1943.

V-J Day in 1945. As chaplain, he served aboard the USS Hampton troop
transport ship, was temporarily assigned to the Seabees in Iwo Jima,
and was stationed at bases in Hawaii and the Great Lakes Naval Base.
He was once assigned as the chaplain to a black military unit stationed
at Norfolk, Virginia, and founded a black Southern Baptist church in
the community. His love of preaching was stronger than his strong
While my father was caring for “our boys overseas,” his home billet frequently changed. Although my father was never with us, my
mother faithfully moved us by car to five different military bases in five
different states. California, New England, Michigan, and other places I
cannot remember.
I loved being in the crowded car with my mother, my younger
sister, my older brother, and all of our possessions. We had an old car,
and my mother drove very slowly. If it was a long trip, we would sleep
together in one room in a cheap motel. Usually, when the manager

AUTOPSY OF WAR: a personal history

discovered my father was in the military he lowered the rate or gave
us the night for free.
On these trips we had a tire malfunction almost every day—a
gradual flat, a large blister, or a blowout. My mother would pull over,
stand passively next to the car, and wait for someone to stop. She was
stately, almost regal—tall and thin, very beautiful, with dark hair that
was always perfectly in place. Inevitably some nice man would stop
and change the tire, and then we would fi nd a gas station and wait
again while the torn tire was resealed or replaced.
One day while she was driving, a cow walking alongside the highway suddenly decided to cross the road. We struck the cow broadside,
and I was thrown against the back of the front seat and cut my lip. I
liked the salty taste of my blood.
Although I always thought of my mother as fragile, on this occasion she took total charge. She told us to stay in the car while she talked
to people who had stopped in the road. Apart from my split lip no one
was hurt, although the car was badly damaged. She finally let us out of
the car to see what was going on. The cow made terrible groaning
moos as it lay injured on the road, unable to stand. When a policeman
arrived, my mother ushered us back into the car so we could not see
what happened next.
The policeman stood next to the cow, took out his gun, and fired
it. The blast hurt my ears, and I could feel a shudder in my chest. Sudden death dealt by the gun of a uniformed man branded me. I had never
known such violence before, and it made a strong impression. Men in
uniform had the authority to kill.
A farmer attached heavy chains to our car and towed us with his
truck. My mother had to steer and brake to keep the car from rolling
into the back of the truck, but she couldn’t quite get the timing right.
The ride was very jerky; if the truck went too fast our heads would jerk
back, and if my mother got too close to the truck she would put on the
brakes and we would bolt forward. She started laughing, and I can still
hear her laugh punctuated by our high-pitched squeals. I wanted the
ride to last forever.

the good boy

After several cross-country moves, my father returned briefly and
moved us to Albany, Georgia to be near his brother and sister. Then
he left my mother with three small children living through two winters in a tiny old house heated only by a single potbellied furnace. My
dad’s brother was a soldier stationed nearby, and he came home most
nights and weekends to be with his wife and two infant boys. My father’s sister had a small child, and her socially challenged husband repaired tires. He was the only male member of my family who did not
join the military. My father never considered allowing my mother to
live in West Palm Beach, Florida, where her mother and three brothers
could provide support and comfortable living conditions.
In our one-room house my mother cooked on an electric hot plate
and maintained a coal-burning fire in the stove. One day my little sister was severely burned when she sat on the hot plate thinking it was
a potty. For days, she lay on her stomach with her butt uncovered.
When my mother let me apply the ointment, it was the only time my
sister didn’t cry. I had the job from that point on.
When the adults were together, my mother was very quiet as the
others spoke nonstop about food, the past and all its people, or the
weaknesses and sins of others. At these times, children were ignored,
and we learned about the world by listening. Even the often repeated
jokes contained lessons. I learned that blacks were stupid, dirty, and
smelly and would eat anything and that the “white-only” water fountains and bathrooms were to keep us safe from social and biological
contamination. By nature, women were inferior to men and boys, and
their purpose was to raise children and serve men. Divorce was a major sin that ruined all members of a family forever. The men constantly
made references to my aunt’s enormous breasts. The comments made
them laugh and caused me to feel a forbidden pleasure when she
hugged me.
We were taught that Jews had a highly unfounded sense of entitlement, a relentless work ethic, and a selfish and manipulative gift for
making money at the expense of others—it was no wonder the Germans were killing most of them. Otherwise, Germans and the “Japs”

AUTOPSY OF WAR: a personal history

were the embodiment of evil and found great pleasure in torturing
and killing Americans. Catholics were to be distantly tolerated even
though they were pagan worshippers of Jesus’s mother. Africans and
Asians, if they did really exist, were pitiful, weird, ignorant people who
were doomed to hell. Missionaries tried to save a few by telling them
about Jesus, but it was a pretty hopeless task. Even though we were
poor, our white, Christian privileged status was obvious to all, and only
we had the comfort of being in God’s grace.
I learned that God knew everything and was all-powerful and that
America was history’s most impressive combination of might and
right. America sometimes had to go to war to protect innocents, free
the oppressed, and defeat evil. In death and in life, American soldiers
were heroic and honorable, even though they sometimes drank or
cursed or touched girls in private places. Touching one’s own private
parts was evil, and God knew when one did it— one was physically
and mentally compromised for the remainder of the day after playing
with genitals. Romantic love with only one predetermined special
person could lead to fulfillment on this earth, and death, through temporary and dramatic grief, transitioned into an everlasting life of peace
and joy in heaven.
Some truths were not taught directly but had to be figured out
through observation and trial and error. For instance, parental approval
and love was earned by being quiet, good, industrious, and reliable and
rubbing adults’ feet whenever asked to do so. One way to manipulate
others and to take a break from the boring routines and monotonous
conversations was to act wounded by some phrase uttered by a family
member. Dramatic pouting and poorly disguised anger could last for


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