94-year-old Chester “Chet” Thomason of Lemon Grove, CA appears on episode #477 of Hometown Heroes, along with others who played a role in his return to Crystal Cave 77 years after his dangerous and pioneering work on the tourist attraction.
It was an assignment with the Civilian Conservation Corps in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks that introduced Thomason to the large marble cavern that had been discovered in 1918. In the summer of 1940, 17-year-old Chester Thomason was crawling all over that labyrinth, planting charges of dynamite for the controlled demolition of certain portions of rock, in order to create passageways and make room for bathroom facilities for visitors.
Listen to Hometown Heroes for Mr. Thomason’s memories about his adventures in the cave, as well as why his son Corey was so determined to take Chester back to Crystal Cave that he enlisted a group of football players to make that dream a reality. As dangerous as some of that pre-war work in a fledgling national park was, what Thomason endured in the Navy was even more hazardous. Joining the Navy just months after completing that CCC work, Thomason was assigned to the destroyer USS Monssen (DD-436) as an electrician’s mate. Click here to read an extremely thorough account Mr. Thomason wrote about his time on the Monssen, including the hostile engagements before America was officially at war, as well as the destroyer’s tragic demise.
His decision to enlist was informed by a visit with a friend who had just returned from Army training.
“He told me they were loading real bullets into their equipment,” Thomason remembers. “So I knew that there was a war coming.” The promise of a place to sleep and regular meals made the Navy preferable in his mind to the Army, but little did Chet know he would be experiencing combat conditions before America ever entered World War II.
Patrolling Atlantic waters from its base in Iceland, the Monssen participated in the sinking of multiple German submarines, but avoided damage when her sister ship, the USS Kearny (DD-432) was torpedoed by a U-boat on October 17, 1941, 7 weeks before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Thomason witnessed that, and quickly became aware that 11 men aboard the Kearny had been killed. Six months later, Chet would witness more history when the Monssen helped escort the carrier USS Hornet when it launched B-25 bombers toward Tokyo in the legendary “Doolittle Raid.”
“I saw them take off,” Thomason recalls. “B-25s would just skim the water before they would get up to speed.”
He remembers crossing his fingers while cheering them on from approximately 200 feet away. Chet’s experiences aboard the Monssen over the seven months that followed are recorded in his narrative at destroyerhistory.org, as are the harrowing events of a “Friday the 13th” Thomason remembers as “my lucky day,” November 13, 1942. The Monssen was off of Guadalcanal, and Chet was below deck when the destroyer was rocked by Japanese shells in the middle of the night. When the primary and secondary steering positions were knocked out, he would end up briefly controlling the ship’s course from his position at the aft steering gear, relying on instructions received through headphones. Before long, he would be on the edge of the burning, sinking, ship, trying to figure out how to survive. “I saw a ten-foot 4×4 out there,” he says of the sight that triggered his exit from the doomed destroyer. Three friends followed him, swimming for that piece of wood that would keep them afloat as fire and explosions continued around them.
“One shark come up to take a bite of me, I saw his teeth,” you’ll hear Chet remember. “I took both feet and kicked him in the side of the face. He left me alone.”
Listen to Hometown Heroes for Chet’s explanation of how he survived 14 hours floating in the water, and which one of his prized possessions is still on that sunken ship. You’ll also hear how he almost ended up on a Japanese-held beach, but was rescued by an American Higgins boat just in time. Taken ashore on Guadalcanal, he would partner with Marines for nearly two weeks in defense of American positions. He was then brought back to San Diego, arriving two days before Christmas in 1942. Thomason’s next assignment would be on the destroyer USS Stevens (DD-479), seeing extensive action in the Pacific, and eventually giving him nearly five years of sea duty on destroyers before his discharge. For more of his recollections from the Navy, check out a video of Chet that is part of the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress. After the war, Chet became an electrical contractor, later moonlighting as a hypnotherapist.
As “The Electrifying Chet,” Thomason says he helped countless people quit smoking, and entertained scores of interested onlookers through his performance. Listen to Hometown Heroes to hear what Hollywood legend John Wayne said to Chet after taking in one of his shows. In 1992, he organized the first reunion of USS Monssen survivors, convening in San Diego on the 50th anniversary of the ship’s sinking. One reunion he often dreamed about was another rendezvous with Crystal Cave, but it took a persistent effort by his son, Corey, to pull it off.
“Four years ago I tried to take him down to Crystal Cave,” Corey Thomason explains. “I just ran out of steam trying to get him down there. Couldn’t do it.”
This time, a little online research led him to Fresno City College, and when he talked to coach Tony Caviglia, he found a willing partner in his quest. After clearing the idea with the school’s compliance department, Caviglia brought five football players along as he met the Thomasons at the national park.
“They pretty much carried dad halfway down and halfway back up,” Corey says of the trail the crew had to navigating, enjoying brief respites of asphalt path where they could roll Mr. Thomason’s wheelchair. Once inside, the 94-year-old was able to show his companions some of the places where he had crawled around as a teenager. “He was in his glory,” Corey says. “All the rangers were listening to his every word.” At one of the spots where Thomason had planted dynamite in 1940, the resulting groove now has small stalactites dropping down from it. They have been dubbed “Chester’s stalactites,” and will be mentioned on future tours of the cave. The Thomasons weren’t the only ones moved by the experience. “I didn’t even know there was a cave like that that even existed,” says Tony Caviglia, the football coach. “Working together as a unit to get that guy and his wheelchair down to the mouth of the cave, it was exciting for me to see.” Running back Jamal Pickett didn’t hesitate when he heard about the request to help a veteran. “It was extremely hard,” you’ll hear Pickett say, describing the unique challenges posed by the cave’s passageways. “We were going to get him there safely. We had to make it happen. It was just a blessing to be a part of it.” Braylen Williams, a defensive back, has lived relatively close to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks his entire life, but had never visited the cave before.
“It was extremely emotional,” you’ll hear Williams say of the chance to help Thomason realize his dream. “He knew this was his last time seeing it, and we just wanted to make that moment special for him.”
It took teamwork and ingenuity, but a persistent son was finally able to deliver on a dream his father could not surrender. Members of our latest generation came through in a creative way for a member of our Greatest Generation. Corey Thomason, himself an Army veteran who served in Vietnam, has this final thought about his father. “We live the way we do because of men like him who were able to step up and answer the call.”