Ralph Parker was a sharp dresser, what his family called a ladies’ man.

He was the son of a Navy veteran of the Spanish-American War, who marched in Annapolis parades to remember that 19th-century conflict.

Parker wanted to serve as his father did. In March 1941, months before the United States entered World War II, he traveled to Baltimore to enlist in the Army. The 24-year-old eventually was stationed in Hawaii.

He never made it back.

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The story of Pvt. Ralph P. Parker is unlike any other you’ll hear as we approach Memorial Day. It is about secrets and secret families, and a man who otherwise would almost be forgotten on Monday.

“My grandfather had a letter. He sent it to my grandfather,” Jacqueline Parker Evans, the soldier’s niece, said while going over family memorabilia in her Glen Burnie home. “He was talking about when he came home he wanted to have a block party for him on Clay Street. They would have food and different things for the whole block.”

Parker is one of 6,454 names on the Maryland World War II Memorial just across the Severn River from Annapolis.

The Parker brothers, from left, Philip, Ralph and Drendel all enlisted in World War II. Ralph died on May 21, 1944 in the West Loch disaster.
The Parker brothers, from left, Phillip, Ralph and Drendel all enlisted in World War II. Ralph died on May 21, 1944 in the West Loch disaster. (Rick Hutzell)

The American military barred Black soldiers from combat roles at the start of World War II, believing them less capable than their white counterparts. Parker joined the 29th Chemical Decontamination Company, the first all-Black unit of its kind and tasked with responding to a feared chemical weapons attack in Hawaii.

It never came, so the men did other jobs, the hard manual labor that soldiers of color were given during the war. Parker and his unit sprayed for mosquitos in the bush of Hawaii and Pearl Harbor, and they also loaded high-explosive chemical mortar shells onto ships bound for the invasion of Saipan in 1944.

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Eighty years ago on May 21, something happened aboard one of those landing ship transports when they were moored in the West Loch, a sort of storage, maintenance and loading harbor across a narrow peninsula from the big Navy docks at Pearl Harbor.

There was welding on the deck that day. Someone was spotted taking a smoke break. Or maybe someone dropped one of the 18-pound mortar shells intended for the invading forces.

“There was a terrific explosion,” Paul E. Cooper, a Marine on board a neighboring transport ship, said in an oral history.

Ripped metal and body parts flew out in all directions, and burning wreckage fell on gasoline tanks. The explosion was the first of three, throwing men off their feet and into the sea. Gasoline that didn’t explode spilled into the water and ignited, turning the West Loch into an inferno.

“I thought my head had blown off,” William L. C. Johnson, a pharmacist’s mate on the tank deck of a nearby transport, wrote in Naval History.

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Somewhere in that carnage was Ralph Parker.

The explosion and fires killed an estimated 163 soldiers, sailors and Marines, although the number remains in dispute, and injured another 396. Among the dead were dozens of members of the 29th Company.

Members of the 29th Chemical Decontamination Company, an all-Black unit in World War II, spay insecticide in Hawaii.
Members of the 29th Chemical Decontamination Company, an all-Black unit in World War II, spray insecticide in Hawaii. (Courtesy of Army History Center)

In Annapolis, the Parkers were waiting for another letter. Ralph dropped out of school and worked as a laborer before enlisting. Maybe writing wasn’t a priority. Or maybe he was busy.

Months after the accident, Army officials came to James and Bessie Parker’s home and told them their son was missing, presumed dead. They had no details.

“But that gave them hope that he would show up for years,” Evans said. “They kept saying they were looking forward to coming home, and that maybe they had made a mistake about it.”

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For another 16 years, the Army remained silent on what happened.

“My grandmother, it really took a toll on her,” Evans said. “She was 80 pounds, 4-foot-11. It mentally, you know, did her in.”

At the time, keeping the secret made sense. The Japanese would have picked up on news stories about an ammunition and gasoline fire.

But the disaster hardly impacted the invasion of Saipan, delaying the first battle of the Northern Marianas by one day. Many of the witnesses were dispersed forever. All reports from the official inquiry were marked top secret until Jan. 1, 1960.

Evans was in elementary school when the Army finally came back to say Pvt. Parker was dead, killed in an explosion at Pearl Harbor. His remains were not recovered.

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“My father was the youngest. He really looked up to him, taking care of him as a child,” Evans said.

Jacqueline Parker Evans goes over family mementos at her home in Glen Burnie, including pictures of her father and his brothers.
Jacqueline Parker Evans goes over family mementos at her home in Glen Burnie, including pictures of her father and his brothers. (Rick Hutzell)

That would be the end of the story if it weren’t for the fact that Annapolis is a very small town.

At her father’s funeral, Evans and her sisters were surprised to learn that they had a half-sister they’d never known, LaTawana Parker Watts.

“My dad, when I was 16, he told me his brother had died in World War II. It was three of them who went. My dad also went as a Marine,” Watts said.

And that was how she learned about West Loch.

“I found out years later. I found out from my sister, Jackie.”

The emergence of a second family might be tough at a funeral. But Bessie Parker welcomed another child, Evans said, making sure she got Social Security death benefits.

Then two years ago, a third family emerged. James Parker, Pvt. Parker’s father, had children with a woman in Eastport.

“I learned about him in flushing out my great-great grandmother’s history,” said Briayna Cuffie of Eastport. “My direct ancestor comes from the first set of children from their dad and Ralph Parker comes from the second set of children.”

Briayna Cuffie is a distant cousin of Private Ralph Parker, who discovered the connection while researching her family tree.
Briayna Cuffie is a distant cousin of Pvt. Ralph Parker, who discovered the connection while researching her family tree. (Rick Hutzell)

She’s writing a book about Eastport, something that started with an interest in exploring her family history. Once she found out about the connection to the Parkers, she reached out to the family.

Parker’s brother, Phillip Parker, was involved in the Peerless Rens, a Black social club in Eastport. There are ballfields named for him. She found next to nothing about the brother who didn’t come home from World War II.

“He was still living at home with his dad, and so he hadn’t even moved out to be with anyone, to be married or maybe have children but not even married yet,” she said.

The existence of secret children was something Parker’s family had hoped for. He was a ladies’ man, after all. A sharp dresser.

But in the years after World War II, no one came forward claiming to be Parker’s lost son or daughter or grandchild.

Cuffie is doing what she can to keep her distant cousin’s memory alive, reading more about what happened in the 2014 book, “The Second Pearl Harbor” by Gene Eric Salecker. A neighbor who shares her interest in local history loaned her a copy.

Parker’s remains may lie in a grave in Hawaii, next to others whose bodies were recovered but not identified.

With no direct descendant, the Department of Defense told Watts the family needs two samples for a match, one with a Y or male chromosome. The only boy born to Parker’s nieces, though, is gone.

Benjamin Evans Jr. died in 2006, shot to death when he confronted a man firing a handgun near his family’s apartment in Annapolis, news accounts of the shooting and the trial say.

“He has a son, but I don’t know if they can use it,” Evans said.

Today, an annual ceremony is held near West Loch to honor the victims of the disaster 80 years ago. Watts attended once and hopes one day there will be more to remember.

“I would love for the services to tell me, how he died,” Watts said. “I still have lots of questions.

“I’m very interested in what happened, my kids as well.”

A landing ship transport burns in West Loch at Pearl Harbor on May 22, 1944, a day after an explosion destroyed several ships and an estimated 164 men.
A landing ship transport burns in West Loch at Pearl Harbor on May 22, 1944, a day after an explosion destroyed several ships and an estimated 163 men. (Navy History and Heritage Command)