Soon after he was drafted to serve in the United States Army in 1942, Chester A. Scerra said he was asked by one of his superiors if he spoke Italian.
“I said I did, and I was transported to Washington, D.C, where they made me a member of the Office of Strategic Services. The OSS was the Central Intelligence Agency before there was a Central Intelligence Agency. We did then what they do today,” the 90-year-old Herkimer native said.
Not sure of what he had got himself into, Scerra said he traveled to Virginia to learn about bomb making and how to disarm explosives, and to Georgia for paratrooper training.
“If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t. But at the time, we were at war and I didn’t want to be the only one of the guys to say he wanted out of the program,” Scerra said has he sat on the deck of his home on the shore of Canadarago Lake on Tuesday. “Jumping out of a plane? I thought that was crazy. A lot of the stuff we did was crazy. If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have done it.”
A recipient of the Purple Heart and the Italian Cross of War Merit, among other awards, Scerra has been selected for France’s highest honor, the Chevalier de la Legion d’Honnneur, for his contribution to the liberation of France during World War II. The medal is expected to be presented to Scerra in November, although final arrangements, including the location of the ceremony, are pending.
A member of the 390th Paratroop Battalion of the 98th Infantry Division, Sgt. Scerra made 29 jumps, assisted in various demolition efforts and disabled enemy bridges and communication.
Serving under the direction of Gen. William J. Donovan, “Donovan’s Devils” were sent to Northern Africa for specialized training. Scerra’s unit was then deployed to Corsica, tasked with gathering information on German troops who controlled the region, and relaying information to Allied forces.
“We were always on the run because the Germans were always looking for us,” said Scerra. “It was terrible, just terrible. We lived in the mountains and relayed our intelligence to the British who would send in their bombers in at night. We were covered with lice and slept in a different place each night. That’s how we lived behind enemy lines. If you were captured by the Germans, you’d be killed. ”
After the Corsica campaign, Scerra proceeded to Italy.
“The longest I was ever behind enemy lines was seven months. We ate what we could get our hands on. We slept in abandoned barns. We just did our mission, whatever it was. They told us where to go and what to do, and we did it. We never knew why. They didn’t tell us anything,” said Scerra.
Page 2 of 2 - The son of Italian immigrants, Scerra was drafted two months after he and his wife were married.
“I just wanted to get home to her,” he said. “That’s what I thought about the entire time.”
After his honorable discharge in 1945, Scerra was reunited with his wife, Anne. The couple had four children and Chester worked in construction while Anne ran Chet’s Luncheonette in Herkimer.
“I couldn’t ask for anything more,” said Scerra, who sold the eatery after his wife’s death. “I’ve got good family, good friends and a good life. I survived the war and made it home. I’m just happy my children did not have to do the things I had to do. I wouldn’t have wanted them to go through it.”
Tex Seamon, former Otsego County director of veterans services, helped Scerra apply for the Chevalier de la Legion d’Honnneur. He said World War II veterans in Herkimer County can contact county Veterans Representative Charles Miller or state Veterans Representative Mary Ellen Blair about their eligibility. In addition to meeting strict criteria, veterans must have personally aided in the liberation of France from Nazi occupation to be eligible for the commendation, said Seamon.
“I never would have expected it,” Scerra said of the prestigious honor. “The most important thing is that I got home and that I have had a very happy life. That’s what’s important.”