Today is Veteran’s Day, the eleventh day of the eleventh month. This holiday started as Armistice Day, the day to commemorate the end of what at the time was called “The Great War,” “The War To End All Wars,” now simply called “World War One (WWI).” Because people can’t ever seem to have enough wars.
On this day I want to remember members of my family past who were veterans.
My family roots in America are actually pretty shallow as all four of my grandparents were immigrants. My mom was an only child, but my Dad was one of nine children. He had two brothers and all three boys are veterans. Regrettably, all three have now passed and I want to do what I can to remember them properly.
Louis “George” Charest
Louis George Charest went by “George.” He was my favorite Uncle. I have lots of fond memories of him as a crusty cigar-chomping bigger-than-life hero who could do just about anything. George was the oldest boy and second oldest in his family. He was born 4 October 1918 in Grandmere P. Que, Canada. At age three he contracted polio and survived but was left severely crippled the rest of his life. Undeterred, he joined the US Merchant Marines as a cook sometime in the late 1930s.
When the US entered World War Two (WWII), the Merchant Marines were pulled into the US Coast Guard. The Coast Guard in turn was pulled into the US Navy and provided numerous services such as chasing German U-Boats off the US East Coast. George served on a number of merchant ships during the war, and crossed the Atlantic on them a number of times, along with US navy gun crews who were embarked with the merchant crews for defense.
As a French Canadian ship’s cook, George would have German POWs, being transported back to US POW camps, working for him in his galley. George used to tell me stories (after I joined the navy) about the navy crews coming into his galley trying to tell him how to treat his POWs. George proudly told me how he’d “throw the navy guys the hell out! They didn’t tell me how to run my galley!” Then he treated his German POWs as human beings. One of them made him a plaque showing German submarine pens in La Rochelle, France, out of scrap metal and pallet wood. George passed this memento on to me, one of my more prized possessions.
George served in the Merchant Marines for several years after WWII, but when he decided to marry he left and spent the rest of his life land-bound. He passed 5 June 2018 in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, at age 99. He was always bitter that the Merchant Marines never received the recognition for WWII service they truly earned and deserved.
Joseph “Armand” Gabriel Charest
My dad, who went by “Armand.” I honestly did not know his legal first name was “Joseph” until after he passed and I became custodian of his papers. Such was the naming custom ofduring that era.
Armand was born 16 August 1924 in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. He was born with poor eyesight and needed corrective glasses, a rarity back in those days. After high school he entered a trade school and became a Tool Maker, which was a skill in high demand in Rhode Island of that era. At the time New England was one of our nation’s manufacturing industrial centers.
When WWII started my grandfather assured my dad not to worry about going into the military. Between dad’s poor eyesight and trade, which was deemed a “critical wartime industry” and “national defense work,” my grandfather told dad he had no chance of ever being drafted. So in July 1943 Dad did get drafted into the Army, after being turned away from the Navy Construction Battalion (CB’s) due to his poor eyesight.
Dad became an infantryman and machine gunner, and island-hopped across the South Pacific. His most significant engagement was the Battle of Biak Island (Biak Island, Irian Jaya, Indonesia). This battle is a mere footnote in today’s history of WWII, but was a pretty big deal to the men actually fighting it at the time. Among other events during that battle, dad had to help fend off a Japanese “Banzai Charge.”
Dad was in training to invade Japan as part of the first wave of the planned invasion force. He remembers being told by the Sergeants they “should consider themselves dead men” as no one in the first wave was expected to survive. Then we nuked Japan and the war ended. Dad became part of the first US occupation forces in Japan. He was stationed in Kure and was in Hiroshima (what was left of it). He would never talk about what he saw there.
Dad was subsequently discharged, returned home and raised a family. As he got older he would reminisce more about his service days. Dad made several reunions of his old Army unit after he retired. He passed 9 February 2004 in Los Angles, California, and was buried in Riverside National Cemetery, Riverside, California, with full military honors.
Rosaire Adelard “Joe” Charest
The youngest in my Dad’s family, Uncle Joe was born 7 November 1930 in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. He was too young for service in WWII but did enlist in the then-named US Army Air Force in 1948. He served a total of 20 years service after getting out after his first hitch, then re-entering service. His service was as an Administrative Specialist. He served during the time the Air Force was “growing up” to become our fourth service branch and saw numerous changes. He used to complain that he never wore out a set of uniforms as those uniforms changed so often.
During his career he saw service in Korea, Germany, and four tours in Vietnam. He also did a short tour on an Air Force Base on the eastern tip of Long Island, where we were living at the time. I remember him coming to visit us on weekends while he was stationed there, sometime in the early 1960s.
He married a German woman during service in Germany and later divorced. During one of his tours in Vietnam he married a Vietnamese woman, Duong Thi Ha, who adopted the English name “Linda.” After Joe retired and was settled in the US with Aunt Linda, he sponsored for immigration and then adopted all four of Aunt Linda’s children by her first marriage to a Vietnamese man.
Joe worked for a few years in private industry then landed a job with the Veteran’s Administration (VA) in Washington, D.C. He worked at the VA about twenty years, then retired in the northern Virginia suburb of Woodbridge. When my wife Winnie and I decided to move to northern Virginia we specifically picked Woodbridge to settle so we’d be close to family.
Uncle Joe passed 3 June 2018 . He was buried in Quantico National Cemetery, Quantico, Virginia, with full military honors.
Second Generation Charest’s
I’m not the only member of my Charest generation to serve active duty. My cousins Richard Hurteau, Roland Hurteau, and Paul Hurteau, sons of Therese Joan de Arc (Gaunt) Charest all served a hitch in the US Marine Corps. My cousin Roger Forbes, son of Rita (Danese) Charest, served a hitch in the US Army. At present, Uncle Joe’s grandson Raymond Charest is serving on active duty in the US Army. As my family is so physically spread out I may have some other cousins who are veterans, that I missed, so my apologies.
My navy career lasted 22 years. Compared to my dad and uncles, and two cousins who were in Vietnam, my career was rather uneventful as I was never shot at. But I did earn a navy Expeditionary Forces Medal, a combat award, for service while on the USS Scamp, SSN 588. I can’t legally talk about my submarine operations other than to say that spending an undisclosed amount of time in an undisclosed location onboard a 249 foot-long nuclear-powered submarine with 95 other men isn’t nearly as glamorous as it sounds.
- Memoirs of Armand Charest: My dad wrote his memoirs on growing up in Rhode Island during the depression and his army service.
- Dad’s Yosegaki Hinomaru: After dad passed I discovered he had a few more stories about his army service.
- The Trauma of Jingle Bells: Because I have to include at least one Navy-days Sea Story.
Edited: November 15, 2020
Edited: July 28, 2022. Added a link to Armand Charest’s memoirs, Part II, where he writes about the battle of Biak Island.