Chester Hemperley Hears Roosevelt’s Declaration of War with Fellow Dodson Students
Bob Holeman conducted this series of interviews with local World War II veterans in 2011-12. (Most of these 34 American heroes have passed away in the decade since)
It was a grim Monday when, on December 8, 1941, principal H.R. Silvest, a World War I veteran, called all of Dodson High School’s students into the auditorium. “They’d set up an old Philco radio and everybody gathered around it,” recalls Chester Hemperley who was a student at the time. “That’s when President Roosevelt announced the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor and that we were at war.”
Still a high school student during most of the war’s action, this World War II veteran signed up in late 1944 just before being drafted when he would turn 17. He still saw plenty of action in the Navy in the wake of the Allied Pacific offensive.
The son of Lacy and Hazel Payne Hemperley was born in Leesville on Oct. 21, 1927. At the time, his dad worked for Western Union. Young Hemperley started school in Leesville but after first grade, his family moved to Winn where his dad worked in construction (including the camps that were throughout the area during the war). He then started with LP&L, which would later become Entergy.
Hemperley calls himself an average student at Dodson. Since they didn’t offer football, the athlete found an outlet for sports in basketball and softball. He was still just 16 when he graduated from high school and got in a couple of semesters of electrical engineering at Louisiana Tech before signing up for the Navy.
“When I took my physicals in Monroe, they found I was in perfect health. I went by train…to that time, I’d never been on a train…to New Orleans where I went through the Naval Center for more physicals and to get shots. Then we went all the way to San Diego by train. We had six weeks of training and exercise. I grew up in the country so I already knew how to shoot a rifle. I came out as an expert marksman.”
The young sailor was put aboard the USS Gillette 681, destroyer escort. He spent the next six months training, mostly in the engineering department to become an electrician and fireman. His next assignment was aboard the destroyer USS Gunason that headed overseas. “It had everything. It shot the big shells, five feet long. Anti-aircraft guns. Depth charges.”
First stop was Pearl Harbor where the war effort in the Pacific had taken priority over cleanup of the harbor. It was still littered with wreckage from the Japanese bombings. While ashore, the sailor got himself a tattoo which he shows off today, rolling up his sleeve. “I remember when we crossed the International Date Line. When we passed Iwo Jima, I thought about my cousin, C.B. Payne, who was a Marine and one of the few to survive that battle. He was shot in the shoulder.
“When we got to Guam, we’d just taken it over. All sorts of Japanese were still there. We went ashore on whaleboats to take on supplies. I didn’t have to go but I volunteered. Guam was now a supply base and they had row after row of big ice boxes, labeled according to what was in them. Fresh fruit, vegetables, you name it. We nearly ate ourselves to death, it was that good.”
The destroyer headed into the China Sea, into Seoul, Korea. There they picked up 17 sailors who’d become separated from their ship. “They gave us a little liberty. It was a peaceful couple of days. This was a long time before Korea was even thinking about being divided. The whole time in the region, the Gunason was on patrol duty. There were still some little Japanese submarines out there that didn’t know the war was over. We dropped depth charges on some subs and floating mines.”
Next destination was Sasebo, which had been a major Japanese naval base until the end of the war. When the men got shore leave, they were sure to find the Army canteen where they served Japanese beer in big green bottles. Back on duty, two American and two British destroyers crisscrossed the area, clearing out mines and working to halt looting and pirating of oil, gasoline and supplies that was stored on islands.
“All along we were on patrol for smugglers and pirates. Sometimes when we came across their boats, they wouldn’t stop. But a shot across their bow would bring them around quick. Once, we were near Hiroshima and I was able to go over there with the Army. You could only get so close, due to the radiation. The devastation was unbelievable. I saw a few of the residents who had survived the blast. They had all sorts of growths on their arms and faces.”
The Gunason then sailed to Yokosuka, another Japanese naval base that had been taken over by the United States. The ship was put in dry dock for three weeks of needed repair. “On ship, I was an electrician’s mate. I was responsible for electrical systems. My office was a little battery room. I had to keep them all charged all of the time, so they were ready to go at a moment’s notice.”
While in dry dock, the men got some leave. Hemperley traveled by electric train to Toyko, perhaps 50 miles. “It was a huge city. We went all over. I didn’t notice any bomb damage. But the one thing that amazed me was that when you walked down the sidewalk, any Japanese you’d meet would get completely off the sidewalk and bow down to us. When they were defeated, they were completely defeated. I don’t suppose they really wanted war themselves. That’s often the case…it’s the leaders.”
When the destroyer was put back into duty, it patrolled day and night, “taking care of stuff.” Days on end would pass where the men would never see land on either horizon. His Pacific service came to an end in the latter part of 1947 when the destroyer returned to Long Beach Naval Base where it would be put out of commission.
Hemperley said there was a sense of sadness: the ship that he’d spent all his time of overseas action aboard was now placed in a line of decommissioned ships, side by side. His duties changed from maintenance to guard. For three months, while he slept aboard an anchored transport, Pioneer, he was on duty, armed with a pistol, on watch over these rows of ships to ensure there were no incidents of fire or other problems.
He discharge came through October 22, 1948. He was a fireman mate and electrician mate first class. A buddy, Dub Holland of Odessa, Texas, wanted them to get a Cushman motor scooter for their return home. “I talked him out of it. That’s a long way, to Odessa. We took Greyhound instead. I left him when we got to Odessa. I got off in Ruston and, believe it or not, I had a little money and hired a taxi back home.”
After four years of active service, two weeks was enough of “doing nothing” so Hemperley went to work for Southern Bell that covered a nine-state area at the time. He worked in the Monroe district first, then Homer for about three years. When the chance to come to the Winnfield district came open, he jumped on it. Here he started as a lineman, then installer and systems repairs and switchboard. He was here until he retired in 1986, working 39 years total.
Billie Lou Richardson attended Winnfield High School while Hemperley was at Dodson. The returned sailor first met her when she was working at the soda fountain at Mack Branch’s Walgreens store. “I went in to get a drink, liked her looks and called her up to get a date. She was driving her daddy’s 1940 Ford around. I was driving a Dodge coupe I’d bought new. We went together close to two years.”
The couple married July 9, 1950. They have two sons, Kerry and Randy Hemperley and one daughter, Kim Hemphill. Seven grandchildren are Cody, Kayla, Dustin, Josie, Chase, Justin and Shauna. Three great grandchildren are Isabella, Logan and Makenna. For over 20 years when they lived in Winnfield, the church home of the Hemperleys was Laurel Heights Baptist. Now in Dodson, they are members of Salome Baptist Church where Hemperley is a deacon..