Al Chestnut


(This column was first published in the September 9, 2002 Buffalo News.)


On August 19th a wonderful column about Al Chestnut written by Charity Vogel appeared in this newspaper. If you didn’t catch that article, I urge you to look for it in your library or to retrieve it from The News archives on the web.


The article told how Chestnut, then a young Army officer, was captured on Bataan by the Japanese within weeks of the beginning of World War II, how he made the infamous Death March across the peninsula and how he spent the remainder of the war as a prisoner on one of the Japanese home islands.


That story brought home vivid memories to me for, although we have lost contact over the years, I consider Al Chestnut a good friend. We spent several interesting weeks on canoe trips together in Algonquin Park.


I reported on one of those trips in an early column I wrote for The News. Here is what I said at that time: “Twenty years ago Al Chestnut paddled and portaged us for eleven days through the western part of Algonquin Park: from Kiosk partly over trail-less areas across the Nipissing, down to Smoke Lake, and then out the Oxtongue River to Huntsville. That trip was in early May just after the ice went out. 


“I best recall two things about that trip. I was unprepared physically and did not contribute my share. Even so I was constantly bone weary. And I was frightened. I had never been in the north in early spring and I was not ready for the skim of ice on the lakes each morning reminding me what a swamped canoe would mean, the morass of the trails sucking at our boots and several times even pulling them off, or the racing river currents at each turn driving over the bank straight on into the forest and trying their best to take our heavy old canvas canoe with them.”


Yes, that trip was tough going but it was also one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. As a bonus, in the evening after we had climbed exhausted into our sleeping bags, Al shared some of those wartime stories. Although that trip was so long ago, I can still remember vivid details. For example, he told how he was injured in one of the early bombing raids before he was captured. He was wounded in the shins diving into a slit trench. You can visualize that dive when his injuries were in the front of his legs. He also told how the prisoners were forced to wade ashore when they reached Japan to make their enemy no longer appear formidable.


Another recollection that Ms. Vogel’s column brought back was Al’s record keeping for he retained the tiny script he developed during wartime. The daily log he kept on our trip was so small I could hardly make it out.


Al and I were together on an earlier canoe trip when we worked at Camp Pathfinder. We led a group of older campers preparing for leadership roles, several of them high school football players. As part of their training they did all the cooking and camp maintenance. One evening in response to some grumbling, we gave them a chance to switch roles if they could get one of us down on the ground within one minute. We faced the seven campers across a line Al scratched in the dirt. But instead of charging across the line as the campers expected, we ran off into the woods, returning a minute later. Tricky but effective: the grumbling stopped.


I join Ms. Vogel in saluting this fine friend.--Gerry Rising