High school diploma is special for Pickerington senior
Pickerington resident Donald Chester was a graduating senior in the truest sense of the word after collecting a diploma last month with 150 students at Meadowbrook High School in Guernsey County, Ohio, where he attended high school in 1942.
"I had 15 credits in Senecaville, Ohio, and the navy drafted me and of course when they draft you you gotta go unless you want to go to Canada," said Chester who is 80. He moved to Pickerington more than 20 years ago. According to Meadowbrook's oldest graduate, the passage of time did nothing to dampen the thrill of receiving a diploma and the experience was enhanced by the standing ovation he received when the school's principal, Chuck Chippi, presented him the overdue document.
"He called me up and I went up on the stage and he said 'Mr. Chester, I have something to give you; I've got your diploma after 62 years,'" Chester said. "That was something else. I really enjoyed that."
Although he missed the benefits of a traditional graduation by receiving his diploma at 80 instead of 18, Chester said he wouldn't trade his experiences serving aboard the USS Ticonderoga aircraft carrier as head cook during World War II.
"I loved the Navy, it was clean living," he said. "Your nose never got stuffed, the air was pure, no dust at all." The graduate said getting drafted to fight in a war is a scary experience, but he lived more history at sea during the war than he would have ever learned his senior year in high school.
"Oh hell yes, you're scared," he said. "You're not as scared when you get drafted as you are when they start shooting at you," he said prior to describing the experience of his ship taking two hits from Japanese kamikaze planes in Jan. 1945. The attack which forced him to experience the burial at sea of 2,000 shipmates.
Chester said the violence of war was something he will never forget, a tragic reality of battle he said is the reason some veterans never discuss their experiences. "A lot of men won't talk about their experience and I didn't talk about it for a long time," he said. "Too much blood and guts. I went to see that show Guadalcanal (Diary) and I started to cry. It still gets to me."
Besides causing the death of about half the carrier's crew, Chester said when one of the Japanese planes hit the conning tower, it nearly killed the captain, a man he said was like a father to him.
"He was bleeding like a sieve. We didn't think he was going to make it, no way," Chester said. He said shrapnel had punctured Capt. Dixie Kiefer's body in 65 places and despite the injuries, the captain vowed he would be standing on shore to greet "his boys" when they returned to land.
"When we pulled into Hawaii, he wasn't standing, but he was there," Chester said. Kiefer watched from a wheel chair as the Ticonderoga came into port.
Chester said life at sea in World War II also offered him a front row seat to some of the most memorable events in modern history including the Japanese surrender to Gen. Douglas MacArthur aboard the USS Missouri and the dropping of the atomic bombs credited with forcing the surrender.
"They came up the gangway one by one ..." Chester said of the Japanese officers. "They had swords and the handles on the swords were full of diamonds, pearls, emeralds; all the stones you could think of. "I would like to know what MacArthur did with all those things. I would like to have one of them."
The bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were something Chester said he witnessed from the sea. He also saw the results of the atomic bombs. "We were out at sea, I had to wear dark glasses but you could see the mushroom clouds go up," he said adding a visual inspection of the cities was permitted about eight months later. "It just looked like somebody lined a thousand bulldozers up blade to blade and went through there," he said. "There was nothing, not even a blade of grass."
Chester said outside of the tragedies he experienced, he has several fond memories of life aboard ship including beating surprise inspections to find liquor he was rumored to have stored for poker games with the pilots.
"I used to keep three fifths of whisky on board and they'd pull inspection on me," he said adding they never found the bottles hidden at the bottom of giant bins containing rice, beans and barley. Chester said he also enjoyed making sure a leg of lamb -- which he said the Navy required to be part of the stores despite the fact no one wanted to eat it -- never lasted long enough to be eaten; thanks to his persistent encouragement that the soldier accompanying him to buy food "trip" when coming aboard.
"'Leg of lamb,' I said, "'damn, we just can't seem to get that leg of lamb on board,'" Chester said adding he and his more seasoned shipmates enjoyed sending fresh-faced recruits on searches for nonexistent items from the engine room, such as a cup of steam or a left-handed monkey wrench.
Chester's wife, Eva, died last year. They were married 59 years. He said he would serve again in a second if it saved his son or grandchildren from being drafted. While he acknowledged the house on Kennington Square in Pickerington is too big for him and his poodle, Jasper, Chester said he plans to stay there. He said he will spend his days in his woodworking shop in case his late wife needs to find him. "I'll stay here," he said. "She may decide to come hunt for me some day and I just want her to know where."