By Loretta Gillespie
The Cullman Times
Editor’s note: This is the first of 3 local veterans The Times will be spotlighting in honor of Veteran’s Day.
You may know Chester Freeman as the tall, soft-spoken gentleman who quietly goes about doing good for his fellow man through his efforts with the Lions Club. Or you might know the name from the Field of Miracles Park, which he was instrumental in bringing to Cullman. You could know him through his church, where he is also very active.
But did you know that Chester Freeman was once a spy?
It’s true. Freeman spent much of his tour of duty behind enemy lines in the jungle on islands in the South Pacific during World War II. His mission was to gain intelligence about the location and activity of the Japanese troops.
Freeman was inducted into the Army in 1942, soon after the war broke out. He did his basic training at Fort Walters, Texas, near Mineral Wells. Thirteen weeks later he found himself in Pennsylvania.
“Several of the guys in my group were going on sick call because of an outbreak of the measles,” Freeman recalled. “They kept telling me to come with them but I wasn’t sick, so I stayed in the barracks. While they were gone, a call came in and they sent the ones who were left to the South Pacific. The ones who had gone to sick call were all sent to Europe.”
Throughout the war, he would owe his life to coincidences like that.
Freeman was assigned to the Americal Division, mainly made up of soldiers from Chicago, Dakota and Massachusetts. He stayed with A Company, 132nd Infantry, whose badge is the Southern Cross, throughout the war. “I often see Colin Powell wearing the Southern Cross,” said Freeman.
His unit replaced the 3rd Marine Division in the Solomon Islands; their mission was to protect the Air Force base there. His duties included gathering intelligence. He spent 472 days either on the front lines or behind enemy lines.
Many of the harrowing experiences were dangerously too close for comfort. “Our job was to set up ambushes on specific trails in the jungle, and to spy on the enemy,” he explained. “At one point we were we in enemy territory for 81 days, so close that we were able to see what the enemy was doing.”
Freeman vividly recalls the first real battlefield he was on, “We needed to take advantage of a hill,” he said. “I was a recon scout, and I got caught between machine gun fire from both sides.”
For eight long hours, Freeman was stranded in a no-man’s land with both friendly and enemy fire coming at him from all sides. “When it finally got dark enough for me to get out of the way, I took off my cap and found five bullet holes in it.”
As Freeman made his way back to his unit, a motor squad approached him asking for directions to the site of the firing. “I had just stepped a few feet away behind a banyan tree when a shell hit and killed all of them.” Freeman was wounded in the thigh.
When the medics came up, he was bleeding and had lost consciousness. They loaded him up and sent him to a hospital on Guadalcanal for 30 days. He received a Purple Heart for his injury.
Upon returning to his unit, Freeman was promoted from Private First Class, to Corporal, then Sergeant, and then Staff Sergeant in rapid succession.
In 1944, amid constant battles, his unit protected the airport. “Mt. Baggi, an active volcano, was always erupting and the water from the river would change course, causing massive flooding where we were. When the river changed courses for miles, we had to be picked up by PT (patrol torpedo) boats and taken back to our posts.”
Crossing the river at night was an unforgettable experience for the young soldier. “The volcano erupted and the earth opened up,” he recalled. “Trees were falling everywhere. Lava was flowing around us and we were very disoriented. There were many earthquakes. A lot of men drowned. It was a long, miserable night. We had no idea what was going on around us.”
Later, Freeman’s unit unloaded ships on Lahti Island during the invasion of the Philippines. “We were part of the invasion of Cebu Island,” he explained. “We ran into a lot of Japanese resistance. The enemy was on one side of the railroad bed and we were on the other. The navy had cruisers nearby. Our objective was to take Hill 260.”
A new lieutenant came up to where Freeman was on point. “He had only been there for about five minutes when he took a direct hit from a shell, killing him instantly. He probably saved my life,” said Freeman softly.
Freeman was wounded, though, and evacuated to Sabu Island. He spent 30 days in a field hospital following that experience. Freeman received an Oak Leaf Cluster for the wounds he sustained. He was also awarded medals for his part in two invasions and a Bronze Star for combat. He was only 22 years old at the time. Following his release from the hospital, he was reassigned as a non- commissioned information officer.
“I feel that I was fortunate to have been able to put all that behind me,” he said. “Many soldiers had a lot of difficulty letting go of the war.”
At the time of the surrender Freeman’s unit was ready to invade Japan. “We were among the first troops to go into the country,” he said. “We went right into the barracks that the Japanese had just vacated. They were put just across the fence from us.”
Freeman’s unit walked night patrol duty near the Japanese troops. “They were very disciplined, submissive and nice.”
Freeman was in Japan for almost two months. He was able to tour the grounds of the Imperial Palace, and see a little bit of the country.
On Oct. 22, 1945, he was officially discharged from the United States Army. “Around that time there were 10 million other vets who were discharged.”
“I had missed everything about home,” he said. “It was impossible to get good food, and what food there was, was seldom hot. I had missed my life in Cullman.”
He had begun corresponding with a vivacious young lady while in the service. Her name was Hilda Wood. When he returned home, they were married.
Jobs were hard to find. “I had asked everyone for work, but there was none to be had,” he recalled. He went to work bagging groceries for Brindley Grocery. It was different from being a spy — but a lot safer. Later he went to work for Cullman Banana Supply, and then for Curtiss Candy Company, where he worked for 18 years, then bought the franchise. “I was in the candy business a total of 28 years,” he said.
Chester Freeman worked his way up in the world through his initiative and determination. He and his wife have two children, Carolyn, who is married to Dr. Bill Peinhardt, and Dr. Phil Freeman, whose wife is Patti. They have five wonderful grandchildren.
Freeman is an active member of the Lion’s Club, involved in St. Andrews Methodist Church, which he has attended since 1948, and was involved in the Cullman County Industrial Development Board, and the Chamber of Commerce. For 32 years he was Chairman of the Advisory Board at Wallace State Community College.
He was also involved with the Park and Recreation Department from its inception in the early 1970s. He was a member of the National Park and Recreation Trustees, which oversees the national parks in the United States and Canada.
He brought to Cullman the idea for a park for handicapped citizens. Having seen one on his trips for the National Park system, he thought to himself, “We can do this in Cullman…”
He says that was the easiest job he’s ever had. “We had a lot of lunches where I would explain the concept, and everyone was anxious to be a part of the project.”
Freeman looked at several models for the Field of Miracles, but was adamant that the one in Cullman be center of activity, and not pushed to one side. He made sure that it was located in the hub of the park.
His work with Sight Conservation is legendary, and has helped many people. “I’ve been able to be with kids when they could see for the first time,” he said in awe.
“I’ve had the privilege of working with really good people,” he said. “It’s been interesting. I’ve always appreciated the support from the community.”