F2c Chester John Miller

Unknown Sailor

F2c Chester John Miller

It was snowing in Detroit on November 27, 1940, when four teen-age friends enlisted at the Navy recruiting office. A little over a year later on December 7, 1941, all four were on ships at Pearl Harbor when Japanese warplanes attacked.

Clarence W. Lipke and Chester John Miller, both firemen 2nd class, were killed on the battleship Arizona. Their friends survived harrowing attacks and the war.

Clarence Lipke was born March 17, 1923, the son of Charles Frederick Lipke, an auto factory worker, and Margaret Mary Ludwig Lipke, a homemaker. The spring 1940 Census said he had completed a year of high school and worked 30 weeks part-time as a pin setter at a bowling alley in 1939, earning a total of $180.

His older brother, Army Private Nicholas J. Lipke, was killed in combat in France in 1944. The city of Detroit named Lipke Park in memory of the brothers in 1952. The park and its rec center were shut down in 2013 as part of Detroit’s many years of budget troubles. It was renovated and reopened several years later with funding from charities started by Detroit newspaper columnist Mitch Albom and Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford.

Chester Miller, the other sailor killed on the Arizona, was born June 19, 1923, according to the Defense Department. That date is questionable. The April 1940 Census said he was 14 and a student. The April 1930 Census said he was 4 and 8/12 — putting his birth in the summer of 1925. He appears to be no more than a boy in a photo taken at training camp. The minimum age for enlistment was 17, so perhaps Mr. Miller fibbed to qualify.

Mr. Miller was the son of John William Miller, an auto factory employee, and Helen Miller, a homemaker. The father was a Polish immigrant.

The third buddy was Charles W. McClelland. He broke a leg when he was hurled into the air from the concussion of a torpedo striking his light cruiser, the Helena. After two surgeries, he rejoined the ship and survived a second harrowing attack in July 1943 in the South Pacific when three torpedoes sank the Helena in the middle of the night. He managed to get into a life raft, which drifted toward a Japanese-held island, Vella La Vella. Islanders rescued him and others and hid them for a week until they were picked up by Navy destroyers. Seaman McClelland survived both several bouts of malaria. 

The fourth sailor, Byrl Eugene King, survived the Dec. 7th attack on the battleship Nevada, which lost 76 men that day. He was transferred to a light cruiser, the Phoenix, and served in the Navy until the end of the war.

The four teens trained together at Great Lakes Naval Station 30 miles north of Chicago. At the end, sailors whose last names started with “A” through “M” were assigned to the Arizona,  McClelland recalled. The exception was for men with family on other ships, which was how he joined his brother Jim, who was already aboard the Helena. Jim McClelland was severely burned in the Pearl Harbor attack. King joined a relative on the Nevada.

Lipke, Miller, and McClelland attended Grant Elementary in a Polish neighborhood in Detroit.

 “As teenagers they got spending money collecting returnable soda bottles for the deposit, selling The Saturday Evening Post door to door, or selling newspapers on the corner,” Mr. McClelland’s daughter, Bonnie Ignash, wrote on his behalf in April 2018, when he was 94.

They joined the Navy to get jobs with meals and benefits — “something that was hard to come by back then,” Mrs. Ignash wrote.

Mr. McClelland told his daughter he once had lunch on the Arizona with his buddies Clarence and Chester. “Dad was impressed because on the Arizona they were served at a table with plates. On the Helena you had to walk in a chow line and your food was piled on a tray.”


Sources: Special thanks to Charles W. McClelland and his daughter, Bonnie J. Ignash. They provided the photograph, which shows Mr. Lipke on the left, Mr. Miller in the middle and Mr. McClelland on the right. Other sources include the Detroit Free Press; Pearl Harbor-Gram, the newsletter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association; the Medford (Oregon) Mail Tribune; the Zephyrhills (Florida) Free Press; Census; Navy muster rolls; Veterans Affairs death file; Defense Department; Michigan marriage record; the 116th Infantry Regiment Foundation. This profile was researched and written on behalf of the U.S.S. Arizona Mall Memorial at the University of Arizona.

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