Chester Bailey, decorated Georgia sailor, dies at 101

Not interested in being a rancher and farmer like his father, Chester Bailey joined the U.S. Navy in the spring of 1941 when a recruiter came to his hometown of Blountstown, Florida.

He led a full life and did not dwell on the wartime events of his Navy career, but when he did tell a story, everyone listened. After basic training, the Navy assigned him to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The transport ship he served on was under sail when the Japanese attacked on Dec. 7, launching the U.S. into World War II, his daughter Gina Bailey said.

When the ship returned on Dec. 10, Chester was one of several seamen who volunteered to dive deep into the dark waters to retrieve the bodies of fallen sailors.

When he told Gina about that horrifying experience, he remembered the bay was oily, full of debris, and, in some places, still burning. “But he said they had to find the bodies for the men’s families,” Gina said. “Those men were heroes.”

Chester Bailey, born in 1921, died in Conyers, Georgia, Aug. 6, a week before his 102nd birthday. He and his wife Gloria had moved from their South Georgia home to metro Atlanta to be closer to their four children. After Chester retired from the Navy, he became a broker of heavy machinery. He had clients across the country, and his career took the family from Jacksonville to New York and Huntsville, Alabama, before they settled in Valdosta, Georgia, which offered interstate access and proximity to extended family in Florida.

“It seemed like my father had a zillion cousins,” said Gina. “He loved to tell the story about a revenuer coming (to the farm) in the 1920s to search for moonshine,” she said. And one of his cousins casually and quietly took a seat on top of a barrel where the liquor had been hidden to keep the agent from looking inside.

During his long naval career, Bailey received commendations for bravery even though he wasn’t a front-line combatant. During World War II, he was among a few men chosen for a reconnaissance mission on an island in the New Guinea area; only one other sailor and he returned. The others were killed or taken prisoner. He was outside Nagasaki, Japan, after World War II ended, washing down planes that had been covered with radioactive fallout from the atomic bomb the U.S. dropped on that city.

During the Korean War, he was on a freighter hauling ammunition from Japan to South Korea. When several 2,000-pound bombs came loose in the hold, he entered it and re-secured them, Gina said.

As the communists were taking control of China in 1949, he was assigned to the boat pool in Shanghai and helped with security for the American Consulate, including repelling starving Chinese civilians scaling the embassy walls in search of food. He was among the last American troops leaving the city and helped the consulate dispose of code-breaking equipment in the harbor.

After the Korean War ended, Chester was riding a train in New York when he heard a woman laughing while she was reading a book. Something about her laugh convinced him she was the woman for him, so he introduced himself to his future wife Gloria and escorted her home. They were married 68 years.

Though Bailey’s formal education ended in the 10th grade, his daughter Nadine Bailey often said he belonged at Georgia Tech because of his mechanical inclinations and intellect.

He loved “gizmos,” his daughter Gina said

“He loved knowing how things worked, car engines, heavy machinery, anything. He bought an airplane and read about it, passed the test and flew his own plane.” He often said that if you could read, you could teach yourself to do anything. Bailey continud to embrace new technology, buying and using one of the first mobile phones and home computers. He worked into his 90s.

In addition to his daughters Gina and Nadine and his wife Gloria, Chester Bailey is survived by his sons Jared and Vincent, three grandsons, his brother Jake, his sisters Faye, Joyce and Mary Lou.

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