Navy veteran: On the sea, in the air
WWII service included chasing subs, training pilots
LAKEFIELD -- If Darrell Gentry's commitment to the U.S. Navy was anything like his commitment to his dance moves, he deserves every patch and medal.
During his footloose days in the Navy, Gentry frequented the huge ballrooms of Chicago in his spare time. Now the Lakefield resident, who is mere weeks from his 90th birthday, still goes dancing every other Sunday in Brewster.
Gentry grew up on a farm near Okabena and graduated in 1939 from Okabena High School.
"I helped my dad on the farm and sowed a few wild oats," he recalled with a mischievous smile. "I had a kid brother, and we'd hang around together and chase girls. Of course, you couldn't go in your own town -- we always went (to Lakefield)."
In June 1942, he enlisted in the United States Navy and was sent to Great Lakes, Ill., for basic training.
"When I joined up, I thought I was going to go into the Navy -- always got a dry place to sleep -- unless you get the deep six -- and something nice to eat. Not like a lot of foot soldiers; they had really rough going, I thought," Gentry said.
Weeks later, he boarded the U.S.S. Dahlgren, where he would spend the next year on convoy duty in the North Atlantic Ocean.
"We escorted bigger ships and aircraft carriers," he said. "One time we were in the North Atlantic and the waves were so high we had to get behind a big ship, otherwise we probably would have gotten swamped."
With Gentry's days chasing girls behind him, he joined his fellow sailors in chasing German submarines -- and dodging them.
In fact, his vessel was credited with sinking a German sub during the war by using depth charges.
"They're just a great big barrel with an explosive," Gentry explained. "They go down and you can set them to where you think the sub is at, and then they explode and rip the sub apart."
Although he never got seasick -- he credits his experience fishing in deep waters -- Gentry soon tired of life at sea.
"I really kind of didn't like it. I had two other brothers that were in the Navy, Lester and Russell. And my brother Les was chauffeur for the captain of the U.S. Naval Air Station up here in Minneapolis," he recalled about how he switched his assignment. "I had heard of swapping -- you could swap duty with someone that wants to go to sea.
"So Les said: 'Well, I'll ask the captain to see if he can scare up somebody.' The captain had a kid who was giving him trouble, and he said, 'I'll be happy to get rid of him. I'll ship him out there, and when you're on shore, you get off the ship and he gets on.'"
It was back in Minneapolis that Gentry joined the U.S. Navy Air Force as a trainer for naval cadets. He used open-winged, two-seater planes called "little yellow canaries" to teach the recruits how to fly.
Then, Gentry was sent to Chicago, where he learned how to repair propellers for Navy aircraft and was given the designation of AMMP, or Aviation Machinist Mate (P).
"When I was in Chicago going to propeller school, I liked to dance," he recalled. "They got really some very nice ballrooms there -- the Aragon and the Trianon, huge dance halls -- and they had all the famous bands there, and I got to meet quite a few nice ladies."
Later, while maintaining airplanes and training soldiers in Beauford, S.C., Gentry was surprised to run into an acquaintance from Sioux Valley -- Abner Brandt, whose children still live in Lakefield. Brandt's new bride, LuElla, invited him over for dinner, and the two kept in touch afterward. The Lakefield Veterans of Foreign Wars post, where Gentry served twice as post commander, provided military honors at Brandt's funeral in 2006.
Gentry spent the final few years of his service training sailors on the Hudson River before he was discharged in 1948. Yet in the end, his favorite memory of service had nothing to do with sailing: he co-piloted a plane with a Marine known as Capt. Carl.
"He flew an F7F, which is one of the fastest planes they ever had in the Navy, and he held a world speed record at the time I was his captain," he recounted. "He didn't have any nerves in him; he was nuts, I thought, the way he flew that plane."
Following his honorable discharge, Gentry married wife Margie in 1950 and had two children: Brad, who is now deceased, and Darla. He has six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
After working for many years at what was then Minnesota Natural Gas, he retired in 1986, the same year Margie died.
A few years later, he married his second wife, whose name was also Marjorie -- Marj, to be exact -- and took a part-time job at what is now Osterberg Funeral Home for 22 years.
The former racing enthusiast has kept plenty busy over the years, golfing, biking, and, of course, dancing.
And while he doesn't remember exactly where he was on Aug. 14, 1945 -- the day the iconic photograph of a victorious sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square was taken-- one thing he does know for certain.
"Man," he said, a hint of good-natured mischief returning to his voice, "I wasn't the lucky guy that got to kiss that girl."