Retired Air Force Col. Ralph S. Parr, a double ace pilot who flew 641 combat missions during three wars and was credited with downing the last enemy aircraft of the Korean conflict, died Dec. 7 in New Braunfels, Tex. He was 88.
His wife, Margaret Parr, said her husband had complications from lung cancer.
Col. Parr was one of the most highly decorated pilots in Air Force history. In the last seven weeks of the Korean War, he shot down 10 aircraft during 30 missions — earning him the designation of double ace. In Vietnam, he made eight low-level passes against heavy enemy firepower in poor weather during the battle of Khe Sanh.
The son of a Navy squadron commander, Col. Parr developed a consuming passion for aviation at age 5 when his father took him flying as a birthday present. “I was hooked,” he later said.
Entering the Army Air Forces, he became a P-38 pilot in the Pacific at the end of World War II. He made the transition to jet fighters during the Korean War, flying the agile F-86 Sabrejet in the final seven weeks of the war.
One of his most daunting missions began June 7, 1953, when he descended from 41,000 feet over the Yalu River that separated North Korea from China and saw four Soviet MiG-15s. He pursued them, firing his guns and then leveling off at 300 feet.
As he ascended to 4,000 feet, he realized he vastly underestimated the enemy strength. There were 16 MiGs. In the subsequent dogfight, he downed two and damaged another before withdrawing to safety.
He received the Distinguished Service Cross — the highest military award for valor after the Medal of Honor — for a mission on June 30 when he was attacked by 10 MiGs. He silenced two enemy planes and then, despite low fuel levels, helped drive off several other MiGs threatening his wing commander.
He accompanied the wing commander, whose plane was badly scarred, back to safety at an air base near Seoul.
Col. Parr’s 10th and final kill of the war came hours before the armistice on July 27, 1953. While flying over restricted airspace in North Korea, he downed a Soviet Ilyushin-12 cargo airplane that he said bore the same red star as a MiG.
Last month, he told the San Antonio Express-News that the downing almost provoked an international incident because the Soviets claimed it was a civilian aircraft carrying VIPs.
“They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, doing the wrong thing,” Col. Parr told the newspaper.
Air Force Capt. Joseph McConnell had the highest total of “kills” in Korea with 16, said air power historian Mark Clodfelter. Col. Parr tied for sixth place for total number of kills in Korea, along with five other pilots.
“You wind up either wanting to fight or not wanting to fight,” Col. Parr told an Air Force publication this year, reflecting on his Korean War record. “I made the decision I was going to fight to begin with. I didn’t think I could see anything up there that I thought would be able to take me.”
Ralph Sherman Parr Jr. was born in Portsmouth, Va., on July 1, 1924. He entered the military after graduating in 1942 from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School.
After the Korean War, Col. Parr became a leading flight instructor and an F-4 squadron commander. He served two combat tours in Vietnam and received the Air Force Cross, a successor to the Distinguished Service Cross, while serving as deputy commander for operations of the 12th Tactical Fighter Wing during the siege of Khe Sanh in 1968.
The battle lasted from January to April 1968 in an area near the North Vietnamese border. Tens of thousands of North Vietnamese tried to overrun an isolated Marine bastion of about 5,000. Col. Parr participated in extremely dangerous low-level flights to destroy North Vietnamese mortar and gun positions that were threatening the American supply line.
His accuracy and aggressive attack, despite severe damage to his plane, “not only impaired the hostile force’s capability to impede the resupply of Khe Sanh, but also reduced further losses to friendly cargo aircraft and crews,” the Air Force Cross citation read.
Ultimately, the North Vietnamese gave up their attempt to overrun the base, but the victory coincided with the Tet Offensive, in which tens of thousands of North Vietnamese troops attacked South Vietnamese cities and further elongated the war.
After his Vietnam service, Col. Parr served as chief of staff in the Military Assistance Advisory Group in Iran. A few years later, while serving at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, he injured his back while inspecting damage to his home roof after a hurricane. The pain and recuperation forced him into retirement.
“You’d think I could have picked a more graceful way to depart the military,” he quipped to Air Force Magazine in 1987.
According to Air Force records, Col. Parr flew more than 6,000 hours in fighter aircraft and earned more than 60 decorations, including the Silver Star, Bronze Star, 10 Distinguished Flying Crosses and 41 Air Medals.
“That’s honestly astounding,” said Clodfelter, a professor of military strategy at the National War College in Washington. “I have been writing about airpower for 30 years, and I’ve never heard of a fighter pilot who’s had 10 Distinguished Flying Crosses.”
“To accomplish so many flying exploits over such a wide range of aircraft, that’s remarkable,” said Clodfelter. “And he mastered air-to-air and air-to-ground combat, where the Air Force now has trained pilots to handle those two very different skill sets. He excelled in both, and that’s remarkable as well.”
Col. Parr moved to New Braunfels after his military retirement. He remained active by conducting seminars and lectures at military bases, and he was often feted by his peers in military associations.
Col. Parr’s first marriage, to Barbara Barnes, ended in divorce. Two children from that marriage predeceased him. Survivors include his wife of 43 years, Margaret Bernstein Parr of New Braunfels; and three stepchildren.
Margaret Parr said her husband liked to say, “I’ve been shot up but not down.”