Chester Stephens thought he could use a little extra money, so he took an extra job in the service.

He made 25 cents a head cutting GI haircuts.

They were quick and easy, he said. Zip, zip, and you’re done.

“The whole time I was in the Army, I saved my wages,” Stephens said.

He was thinking ahead, about being home, so he mailed his earnings to his parents and had them save his money in the bank.

Stephens was working for a ranch company south of Glenrock when he was drafted at age 21. It didn’t bother him any. It seemed most boys got taken right out of high school.

He had been part of the ROTC program at the University of Wyoming, so when he went to Texas for Army training, he made corporal right away. He spent a year there and trained new recruits.

For recreation, the soldiers boxed in the yard. Once, a man who boxed professionally asked for volunteers so he could practice. Stephens got in the ring.

“I told him I never boxed, and he said, ‘The hell you haven’t,’” Stephens said. “He knew right away that I’d boxed.”

Stephens grew up one of three brothers.

“You learn to fight,” he said.

Stephens joined the 161st Field Artillery Battalion of the 35th Infantry Division, when the unit was on maneuvers in the south. At the time he worked in ammunitions, but the battalion already had someone else for the job.

“They couldn’t have two ammunitions sergeants,” Stephens said. “They bumped me back to private.”

He was a private for one day. Then he got the sergeant position. He doesn’t know what happened to the other guy.

“They still owe me a day’s wages,” Stephens said.

When Stephens filled out an Army form about his skills, he wrote that he was a rancher and drove a tractor.

One day, the Army sent him to North Carolina to pick up a bulldozer.

“I didn’t know nothing about a Caterpillar,” he said. “Mine was farm tractors.”

But on his form, “I didn’t say farm tractor, I just said tractor.”

A mechanic taught Stephens how to use the tractor. He learned enough to return to his battery and give a lecture on the thing.

“I got along pretty good with that,” he said.

It took 30 days to get across the Atlantic Ocean, the convoy zig-zagging all the way to avoid German submarines.

In England, the 161st prepped for the invasion of Normandy. Stephens was in charge of three vehicles, 10 men. It was his job to supply ammunition to the battery throughout the war. Before the invasion he readied the jeeps and put putty on the carburetors so water wouldn’t get inside. Stephens saw Eisenhower once, when he addressed the troops before the invasion began.

On D-Day, Stephens could hear the shells and explosions of the first wave. He separated it from his mind. He had a job to do.

“The Army trains you, and you forget about a lot of stuff,” Stephens said. “I mean, it’s either kill or be killed.

“... At that age you don’t worry about it. When you get older, you do.”

Stephens was in the third wave, landing on Omaha Beach July 7, 1944. The battalion fought its way into Saint-Lo, France, where American planes filled the sky.

Through the battles of Northern France, Rhineland, Ardennes and Central Europe, Stephens dug foxholes. He was a country boy, he said, so he didn’t mind the work. It was the best way to stay safe, and the battalion got shelled a lot.

When a shell fell, Stephens would jump inside, “and you’d get maybe a guy or two on top of you,” he said. It seemed many of the guys in the battalion came from New York and New Jersey, Stephens said, and they weren’t used to the labor.

As Stephens remembers it, the battalion captured a train car filled with Limburger cheese and crackers. The snacks held the men over until rations arrived. They had joined Patton by that time and were marching fast. A battalion log kept by Capt. Jake Griener noted that they once traveled 277 miles in a week.

Of the ten men Stephens oversaw, not all came home.

“I could tell you lots about death and all,” Stephens said, “but I don’t want to.”

Once, the battalion fought the Germans on a hill, and Stephens was set up in a cemetery. A man named Cecil was with him. They built a small fire to keep warm and covered it with a can so the Germans couldn’t see.

Shrapnel tore through Cecil. The corporal in charge took him to the medics.

“We never seen him again,” Stephens said.

Stephens had been laying down, and the shrapnel flew over him. The battalion retreated back across a river shortly after that, the only time Stephens remembers doing so.

“I was just a lucky boy. Lots of times it was that way,” he said.

“... You never know how close you come.”

At Hellimer, France, sometime around Thanksgiving, the unit was running out of ammunition. Stephens and several others were sent back to replenish the supply. They had to travel down a marshy path that had been shelled by Germans, flooding the road. Stephens and the others chained the cars together, bumper to bumper, and tied the chains to the trees to pull themselves across.

They returned with three truckloads of ammunitions, and for these efforts, Stephens was awarded a Bronze Star.

The battalion made it through Germany, stopping just seven miles outside of Berlin before going home.

Back in Wyoming, Stephens’ uncle was selling his ranch. With the money he saved during war, Stephens bought it. He married a few days later and began ranching near Glenrock with 20 head of cows.

“That’s what I done all my life,” he said.

So many years later, after heart attacks and strokes, Stephens can’t remember the names of all the little French towns his battalion liberated. He can’t work as hard as he used to.

But the one thing he saved up for, his ranch, continues on. His children and grandchildren will keep the family business going.

They served with honor

Some have said that 1,000 World War II veterans die each day in United States. History dies with each one.

"They Served With Honor" is a special project by the Star-Tribune to collect stories from Wyoming World War II veterans. We will feature one story each week through Veterans Day 2011.

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