In July 1918, The Indianapolis Star launched a series of articles about war mothers who kept the home fires burning while their sons were fighting overseas. The third installment ran on July 12 – exactly 96 years ago today — and featured Hessie Parry, the widow of prominent industrialist David M. Parry, along with their three soldier sons, Maxwell, David and Addison.
The bulk of the article focused on Max, a combat pilot who had made headlines a few days earlier when he shot down a German plane during a fierce aerial dogfight. The Star noted that upon receiving a word of her son’s feat, Mrs. Parry calmly remarked, “I’m glad he could do something for his country.”
Eight months later, Mrs. Parry would learn that by the time her comment appeared on the front page of the Star, Max was already dead, shot down by a German flyer.
A member of the 147th Aerial Squadron, Maxwell Parry was stationed in France with a group of elite air warriors that included Eddie Rickenbacker and Quentin Roosevelt, son of former President Theodore Roosevelt. On July 2, Parry and a half dozen other pilots embarked on what initially appeared to be a routine patrol mission across the German border.
“We wandered around Deutschland for about an hour among beautiful banks of white clouds,” Parry wrote his family the next day. “Everything we ran down turned out to be friendly.”
Just as the patrol planes were preparing to call it quits, they were suddenly surrounded by a dozen members of Baron Manfred von Richthofen’s famed Flying Circus. Parry then got what he described as “the shock of my life” when he glanced overhead and saw the distinctive red nose of a German plane directly above him. He tilted his plane and fired the guns, sending the enemy craft into a downward spiral. By the time the smoke cleared from the dogfight, the Red Baron had lost six of his men to the American pilots.
“After a month of hide and seek, we finally found ’em,” an elated Parry wrote his family. “Champagne for dinner. Major as tickled as a father over nifty sons. So if you’ll look at the papers for the day, you’ll probably note some mention of our show.”
In a postscript, Parry mentioned that a writer for The Indianapolis News had stopped by to hear the story of the battle and take a photograph of the pilots. It would be the last photograph ever taken of Max Parry.
Parry was forging a successful career as a playwright when the war broke out in Europe. After some initial difficulty enlisting because of his advanced age of 30, Parry reported for duty with the Aviation Service in August 1917. Subsequently, Parry and other fledgling flyers were attached as cadets to the Royal Flying Corps in Canada, where they were trained in combat fighting by experienced RFC pilots who had seen battle on the western front. By March 1918, Parry was commissioned as a second lieutenant and was stationed in France.
Aviation was in its infancy during WWI, and at first blush seemed an unlikely choice for Parry. While many of the nation’s earliest aviators were either engineers who were fascinated with machinery or daredevils who embraced risk, Parry was an accomplished artist, a gifted writer and a talented actor who held degrees from both Harvard and Yale. But perhaps it was his flair for the dramatic that drew him to aviation.
With his larger-than-life personality and spirited sense of humor, Parry was a natural performer. Even as a child growing up in the elegant Bates-McGowan house at 13th & Delaware, Parry staged elaborate theatricals for his siblings and friends. His acting talent was so great that he was offered a slot in Charles Frohman’s prestigious Broadway troupe upon his graduation from Yale in 1909. But Parry declined the offer and instead pursued a playwriting course at Harvard.
By the time Parry enlisted in the Army, he already had penned several plays that were staged to favorable reviews. He also helped establish the Little Theatre Society of Indiana, later renamed the Indianapolis Civic Theater. During those years, one of his great friends was the actress Maude Adams, who starred on Broadway as the first Peter Pan. Adams was the highest-paid actress in the country at the peak of her career, earning more than $1 million per year.
Maude Adams traveled to Indianapolis on several occasions to stay with Parry and his family at their Golden Hill estate. During one trip, she and Parry paid a surprise visit to his friend Booth Tarkington, who was amazed to see the famously reclusive actress show up unannounced on his doorstep with his young friend Parry. But then as Tarkington later recalled, Max Parry was “a man of a thousand surprises — all of them agreeable.”
Max Parry was the eldest son of David M. Parry, whose carriage company was the largest of its kind in the world. In 1909, he established the Parry Auto Company, which folded after a couple of years. The elder Parry remained prominent in business and political circles, however, leading the fight against organized labor as president of the National Association of Manufacturers. Even after her husband’s death in 1915, Hessie Parry continued to be one of the dominant figures in the cultural, social, and civic life of Indianapolis. She also kept busy working with Max to plat the land surrounding the Parry home and establish the Golden Hill neighborbood.
But Hessie Parry was first and foremost a mother. And during the early summer of 1918, two of her sons were preparing to depart for the war in Europe, and one was already there, engaged in the heat of the battle. Knowing his mother’s tendency to fret, Max sent her a letter in June, hoping to allay her fears. “I feel that it is a great privilege to be in the first flying unit of aviators,” he wrote. “Don’t worry. I don’t.” But Max’s assurance did not prevent Hessie from being concerned about his safety.
One afternoon in early July, Hessie was stretched out for a nap when the figure of Max seemed to appear right before her. “Well, Mom, I’m dead,” he said in his quick and bustling way. Then he ended the conversation the same way he ended his letters, by telling his mother not to worry.
On July 31, Hessie’s fears were realized when she learned that Max was missing in action.
Three weeks earlier, Max was on an offensive patrol mission when 13 German planes appeared. He and his colleagues chased the enemy planes about 10 miles into Germany until their aircraft was running low on fuel. As the other U.S. aviators were heading toward safety, they saw Max’s plane flying upward to the sun, as he prepared to dive into the nearest German plane. That was the last time anyone saw Max Parry.
The Parry family initially believed that Max’s plane had been forced down in Germany and that he was alive and in a prison camp. When an American flyer was killed over enemy territory, it was the custom of the German aviators to fly over a U.S. camp and drop a note with information about the pilot’s death. Word of the death of Quentin Roosevelt, who also perished in July 1918, was received in this manner. But no such note ever materialized about Max.
As the months dragged on, the Parrys continued to hope and pray that Max was a prisoner of war. But when Max failed to surface in the weeks following the armistice, they realized he was likely dead. In late March 1919, Max’s grave was found at a German military cemetery in France. He had been given a formal officer’s burial by the German soldiers.
Maxwell Parry was one of 338 Indianapolis residents who perished in what was supposed to be the War to End All Wars. According to the Gold Star Honor Roll published in 1921, two of the dead were women, serving as Army nurses. Seventeen were identified as “colored.” More than one-third died of pneumonia or Spanish flu, while another 30 were killed accidentally. The loss of life was staggering.
Over the past century, the stories behind the lives of the men and women who died in WWI have been largely lost to time. Letters have been discarded, photographs have faded, and the friends and family members who cherished first-hand memories of the heroic dead have long since died themselves.
Maxwell Oswald Parry’s remarkable life and death was at risk of becoming an historical footnote until an amateur historian stumbled upon Max’s story in the late 1980s while researching a completely different topic. A resident of the Golden Hill neighborhood, Dr. Richard Feldman was trying to track down the mystery behind the neighborhood’s totem pole, which had been a gift to David Parry in the early 1900s. Max’s name kept surfacing in Feldman’s research. The more he learned about Max, the more obsessed he became with finding Max’s story and telling it to the world.
After Max’s death, the Parry family had discovered a secret room on the 3rd floor of their Golden Hill mansion that contained many of Max’s artwork and writings. Although most of this material was later burned by one of Max’s grief-stricken sisters, Feldman was able to obtain transcripts of letters and a photocopy of Max’s diary. He also had the opportunity to meet three surviving relatives who knew Max, and later collaborated with Milton Rubincam, Max’s elderly nephew-in-law, to write “Max Parry: Indiana’s Forgotten Playwright,” an article that was published in Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History in the fall of 1998.
But Feldman’s greatest discovery during his research was Max’s military records. After Max’s death, Hessie Parry had been told that two medals were to be awarded posthumously to her son, the French Croix de Guerre and the American Distinguished Service Cross. The family never received the latter award, however. Feldman became determined to see Max receive the long-overdue military honor, but was getting little traction on his effort because Max’s military records were believed to be lost in a fire.
Just when Feldman had given up hope, a manila envelope with the missing records arrived at the State Department of Health, where Feldman was serving as commissioner. Armed with this new information, Feldman went to work. In June 1997 — more than 80 years after Max’s death — he joined then-Congresswoman Julia Carson in Washington, D.C. to present the U.S. military’s 3rd highest honor, the Silver Star, to Max’s 87-year-old niece Priscilla Rubincam.
While the rest of the Parry family is buried in Crown Hill cemetery, Max’s body still lies in France. Some years ago, Feldman visited Max’s grave, which had been moved from the German burial grounds to an American cemetery about an hour east of Paris. The simple inscription reads, “Maxwell Oswald Parry, 2 Lieut. 147 Aero Sqdn., Indiana, July 8, 1918, Fr. C. de G.”