A military career remembered

Thursday, June 7, 2007

When Wheaton native Devere L. McQueen was 15 years old, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and was sent to Grand Maras, Minn., where he trained as an equipment operator.

"I left from Cassville on a train, and in six months time, I was trained in the operation of bulldozers, road graders and dump trucks," said McQueen, who entered the CCC in 1934 during the height of the Great Depression.

McQueen, the son of Harrison and Sarah McQueen, was accepted into the CCC at the age of 15 because his parents were in severe financial straits. Each month, McQueen received $30. Of that amount, he pocketed just $5 a month with the rest sent back to his family in Wheaton.

In February of 1935, McQueen's CCC group was moved to Applegate River near Medford, Ore., and in 1939, McQueen joined the CCC in Shell Knob. In 1940, McQueen enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps at the age of 21.

Details about McQueen's life and military career were shared during a visit to the Cassville Democrat office last week. McQueen's visit was prompted by a recent decision he made to donate his Air Force uniform to Har-Ber Village near Grove, Okla.

Last Tuesday, McQueen's daughter photographed him in the uniform, which he can still wear 35 years after retiring from the Air Force. The uniform will be delivered to Har-Ber Village this month along with biographical information and a note that reads: "Uniform speaks: Take good care of me. I was proud to serve my country and to be worn with pride."

McQueen's military career spans both World War II and Vietnam. He served six years and five months in the Marine Corps and then 24 years in the Air Force.

During World War II, McQueen began his service with the Marines in American Samoa. In January of 1942, McQueen sailed from Navy Harbor in San Diego, Calif., and 21 days later, ended up in American Samoa where he spent the next six months undergoing intensive training in combat and jungle warfare.

McQueen then volunteered to serve in a 3rd Marine Radio Battalion, but when it was time for the battalion to leave, McQueen wound up in the hospital.

"If I'd been a part of that battalion, I would have been cannon fodder," McQueen said.

While hospitalized, McQueen was visited by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and got to meet Eddie Rickenbacker, a World War I fighter ace who was shot down over the Pacific Ocean during World War II, lost at sea for three weeks, rescued and brought to the hospital in American Samoa.

"He was a real celebrity," said McQueen.

After leaving the hospital, McQueen was asked to join the Quartermaster Corps and he spent the next year and a half supplying all the ships and combat troops who were stationed in American Samoa.

In May of 1944, McQueen found himself aboard a destroyer that was headed to Pearl Harbor.

"I trained there for 45 days with the 5th Amphibious Corps that went to Iwo Jima," said McQueen. "The day before we were to leave me and another man were told to go to the barracks and pack our bags.

"We got on the Aircraft Carrier Kitty Hawk and returned to the U.S.," said McQueen.

Upon his return to the U.S., McQueen learned that the president had just mandated that all servicemen who had served in the war for 24 months had to return to the U.S. before being deployed again for another tour of duty.

"Fate played a big part in my military career," said McQueen. "When the radar battalion left, I was in the hospital and avoided becoming cannon fodder. The corps that went to Iwo Jima was annihilated, and I escaped that because I was sent home."

McQueen finished out his stint in the Marines in Kodiak, Alaska, leaving the service in August of 1946.

When McQueen left the Marines, he was a single man, but not for long. He came home to visit his parents and met the love of his life, Bonnie Lavelle Lee Hooker, a widow with two young daughters. Before McQueen even arrived in Wheaton, Lavelle had seen a photo of McQueen and proclaimed "that is the man I am going to marry."

The couple did get married, and McQueen went to work for a gasoline company in Wheaton for a little over a year. In 1948, McQueen decided to rejoin the service and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force.

McQueen was assigned to Tyndell Field in Panama City, Fla., where the family spent the next 16 years. During that tenure, McQueen did tours of Guam, Turkey and Thailand.

In 1967, McQueen was reassigned to Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina, and during his last two years there, was promoted to chief master sergeant of the base. McQueen retired from that post in April of 1972.

McQueen and his wife moved back to Barry County in March of 1977 and built a house south of Exeter where they lived until 1985. That year, the McQueens moved to a home on Rainbow Drive in Cassville, and it is there that McQueen still lives.

At age 88, McQueen's memory is razor sharp. He had no trouble recounting his military experience and never faltered as he chronicled a military career that spanned over 30 years. McQueen also spoke abuot his wife, who died eight years ago.

"My wife wanted me to be buried in my uniform, but I had another idea," said McQueen, fighting back tears. "I am going to be buried in a suit my wife purchased for me with her own money. She worked in the orchard and it was the first time she'd ever worked (outside of the home). The very first thing she bought was a suit for me, and that's the suit I want to be buried in."

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