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William Parkes, 106; WWI Member of Welch Fusiliers

October 22, 2002|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Sgt. William Parkes, the last surviving member of Britain's Royal Welch Fusiliers who saw battle during World War I, has died in California. He was 106.

Parkes died Oct. 7 in Napa, where he had lived for 70 years.

In 2000, Parkes joined other World War I veterans in receiving the Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur, which had been authorized by the French government two years earlier to honor Allies and to mark the 80th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice, which ended the Great War on Nov. 11, 1918.

Gerard Coste, the French consul general in San Francisco, pinned the green and white medal on Parkes as he sat in his wheelchair in Napa on Dec. 14, 2000. A representative of the Fusiliers also presented Parkes with a Royal Welch Fusiliers Millennium Plate for his historic service to the military unit.

Born in Newport, Monmouthshire, England, on Jan. 18, 1896, Parkes was the fifth of 11 children and outlived all the rest.

He enlisted at age 19 with the 12th Battalion of the 24th Regiment of the South Wales Borderers, a unit of the Fusiliers, and was trained as a machine gunner and combat infantryman. He fought in the trenches in Belgium and France, and was wounded, his leg shredded by shrapnel.

"Wrap it up, wrap it up tight, I gotta get back in there," he recalled more than 80 years later that he had told a medical corpsman. The leg, however, collapsed when Parkes tried to stand.

The slightly built soldier -- 5-foot-5, 140 pounds -- specialized in what he called "reconnoitering."

"Us little guys could hide much better than the tall guys," he told the San Francisco Chronicle two years ago.

In 1920, Parkes immigrated to the United States, and stayed briefly with relatives in Pennsylvania. But a year later, he visited the San Francisco Bay Area and decided never to leave.

Dubbed "the speedy little Welshman," he was a member of the San Francisco Barbarians soccer team, which won the state championship in 1922-23.

Parkes moved to Napa in 1932 and worked for 29 years as an occupational therapist at Napa. He built his own house and in 1938 married Florence "Dolly" Nelson, who died in 1979.

Although "Papa Will" had no children, he sponsored many relatives who emigrated from England and Wales and was close to his nieces and nephews and their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He also enjoyed visiting schools to share his century of memories with children.

Memorial contributions can be made to St. Jude Cancer Research in Memphis.

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