(Bob Holeman conducted this series of interviews with local World War II veterans as a lead-up to Veterans Day 2011. Virturally all of those 34 American heroes have passed away during the decade following these interviews).
War may be hell but World War II gave a lot of country boys the opportunity to see a world that may otherwise not have opened to them.
Houston-born Chester Derr was one who now looks back on a wonderful career at the Winn Parish Enterprise, involvement in the American Legion and community and the opportunity to go all over north Africa, the Holy Land and southern Europe through the Air Force. His one regret is that, while he saw the romantic places, his travel schedule was exhausting and he did more resting than exploring. “I wish I had been more inquisitive,” he laments.
The handsome young cadet thought he would be a wonderful pilot, able to execute perfect three-point landings, but limited positions and an over-critical instructor prevented that. With time running down, Derr went to radio school instead in September 1943 and, with better-than-average typing skills, he was in. On to B-29 school in Madison, Wisconsin, he found a friendlier personnel officer, a fellow Texan, who asked simply, “So, you want to fly again?” Paperwork followed and he was off to Las Vegas for further training.
“Transitional training in California was the toughest ever, with the wind blowing between those mountains. Now I was a C-3 radio operator. One day on base, I heard my name called out and turned around to see my brother, Robert Carroll Derr. Of all the people in the world to run into, that was a surprise.
Derr’s trek for action began in August of 1944, in Nashville then on to Miami where he’d be part of a mission to deliver a massive C-46 aircraft with two B-29 engines to China. Unlike the long distance craft of today, the trip involved many stops with names like postcards from a tropical vacation. Puerto Rico, British Antigua and British Guiana where a landing strip was hacked out of the jungle and it was surprising to hear natives speaking the king’s English.
Derr reeled off other ports of call en route…Ascension Islands, Monrovia, Marrakesh…and each had a tale with it. “The only thing I remember about Marrakesh is that we ate in a giant warehouse. It was big enough to house a dirigible.”
The C-46 was bound for China but Derr was bound for North Africa where he served for the remainder of the war. “I was sent to Casablanca. That would be my home, flying mostly B-29 engines to Cairo. I was in all those towns where they’re fighting now…Tripoli, Benghazi. Then on to Oran to help deploy Gen. Mark Clark’s army out into Italy.”
The veteran observed that they often did not return in the same craft they flew out in. “We often returned on hospital ships that could carry 11 or 12 wounded men at a time. These were the bravest men. They were in awful pain and their flying conditions were terrible. But they never griped.”
In his duties, Derr was more in a support role than combat, yet he would get a combat medal for one incident in Italy. Only bombers went on night missions, he explained, with all other aircraft out of the sky by sundown. Derr’s flight ran late on one mission into Naples and, instead of their usual accommodations in town, his crew had to remain on the base, in a tent where the working staff changed clothes.
“The Germans attacked and you’ve never heard so many ack-ack guns. Planes were flying low. They had one dead in their spotlights but somehow they couldn’t manage to bring him down. Shrapnel was flying everywhere.”
He also had good memories of the USO and the many people who did everything they could to entertain our troops. “We’d come and sit on everything from tree stumps to easy chairs. I remember one…Arabella Show Shop. Phil Silvers. Frances Langford.”
After 1000 flight hours, personnel are supposed to be rotated home for a leave, Derr explained. But that mark came and went without a word. He ended up with 2000 hours.
After the war, Derr decided he didn’t want to live in Houston and found a job assisting a surveyor on a road project toward Denton. Pay was poor and work was brutal in the dead of winter, so he decided he could do better by going back to school on the GI Bill. He admits he had no real focus at Kilgore College. But the Fates smiled on him, for that’s where friend Hugh Gillespie introduced him to Anne Love, a Kilgore Rangerette and “one of the best-looking women I’ve met in my life. We hit it off.”
They married in August 1946. This got him back in focus. Or perhaps it was an unusual note from a judge in an essay contest by the Texas Legislature on The Duties of a Citizen in a Democratic Government. Derr didn’t win. In fact, the note read, “One of the most unusual papers I’ve ever seen.” Regardless, the young student never got lower than a B and was an honor graduate from the Department of Forestry.
His early working career changed course when his company was sold and he faced a move to Baltimore. “I’m not going to be a Yankee,” he vowed and the young couple returned to Houston. It was the fall of 1954 when the phone rang and Anne’s aunt, Mary Riser, had decided to get back into the newspaper business and offered Chester a job in advertising.
“I had a wonderful career as advertising manager. The town was thriving, with locally-owned stores everywhere. We thought we knew everybody in the community.” He is particularly proud of his role leading the local American Legion chapter which sent as many as a half dozen young men to Boys State every year, an experience that enriched their lives.