By Dan Bailey
“It was a wonderful and exciting experience.”
That’s how Mary Ellen DeDominicis Chestnut sums up her two years as a Civil Air Patrol cadet in a squadron based at Miami Beach Senior High School during the early 1940s.
Born in New Jersey, she moved to Florida as a teenager after her older brother, Barney DeDominicis, was killed when his steam merchant ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat in April 1942. When her remaining brother, Edward, enlisted in the U.S. Navy in Miami Beach, she and her mother expected him to be discharged there, so they moved to Florida in anticipation of that time.
“So, of course, he was discharged in Norfolk, Va.,” she recalled with a laugh.
The family was prepared to return to New Jersey, but when her brother went home he found all his friends were gone. Instead, he joined his sister and mother in Miami Beach, telling them that seemed to be as good a place to be as any.
And so Mary Ellen DeDominicis, later Mary Ellen DeDominicis Chestnut, attended Miami Beach Senior High, joining the all-girl CAP squadron there as a junior and senior. Being in a cadet squadron “was so exciting for me, because I loved flying,” she said, recalling an “imperious” flight instructor whom she and her fellow cadets knew as “Madame Rinker.”
Chestnut also served as drill sergeant for her unit’s drill team. Told she certainly didn’t sound like a drill sergeant over the phone, she assured an interviewer: “I can if I want to.”
One particular episode during a drill competition remains vivid nearly 70 years later. “The wind was so bad my commands were lost; we looked like ants out there,” she said. “That was embarrassing.”
She also remembers standing watch from atop the Blackstone Hotel — which, at 13 stories, had been the city’s highest structure until 1936 — for enemy submarines in Miami Harbor.
“We also tried to make sure people kept their lights low” at night, so enemy planes wouldn’t have obvious bombing or strafing targets.
For her and her fellow cadets, it was all a part of doing what they could to help out the war effort, said Chestnut.
“We did have a great time,” she said fondly. “We always did."
“It was a big, big part of my growing up.”
Mary Ellen DeDominicis Chestnut, who turns 85 in August, now lives in Franklin, N.C., with her husband, Earl, who served in the U.S. Army Air Corps in the Pacific during World War II. They have been married for 60 years and have three children and three grandchildren. Chestnut is retired after a 35-year career as a high school educator.