J.D. Chastain, 91, was serving aboard the USS Saratoga in late February 1945 when Japanese planes attacked the ship, which was supporting the U.S. invasion of Iwo Jima. The man who served as grand marshal of Waco’s Veterans Day parade Friday found himself in the battle of his life as six bombs and five Kamikaze pilots slammed into the vessel Chastain was trying to protect with an anti-aircraft gun.
“I was shooting as hard as I could,” Chastain said.
Smoke began to billow around his position, clouding his view of the attackers.
The mayhem continued for about half an hour, but Chastain and the Saratoga survived, limping back to land for repairs.
But others were not so fortunate. He recalls that 123 shipmates were killed and more than 300 wounded, Chastain said.
Chastain has lived a rich life and has a trove of stories to tell, but not all involve his military service of 33 years, counting time in the U.S. Navy Reserve.
As a member of the Texas Department of Public Safety crime lab, he identified the dead after two horrific plane crashes in Texas. One involved Braniff Flight 352 between Dallas and Houston that in 1968 plunged into a field near the Navarro County community of Dawson, killing all 85 passengers on board.
Chastain supervised creation of field labs for the DPS and implemented a protocol for estimating blood alcohol levels that eliminated gaffes “that had everybody testing drunk for a week and everybody testing sober the following week,” Chastain said.
“I was head of the crime lab for more than 30 years, having joined the DPS in 1948,” Chastain said.
He was born on a farm near Grosvenor in Brown County and moved often as a Navy man and with the DPS before retiring to Hewitt to live closer to family members.
“I graduated from Howard Payne University with a degree in chemistry,” he said. “A friend of a friend told me the DPS was hiring, and they put me in the crime lab at about the time it was expanding. I traveled so much they called me Wagon Wheels.”
Late in the evening of Sept. 29, 1959, Chastain was dispatched to Buffalo, a farming community in Leon County, where another Braniff flight was 23 minutes into a trip from Houston to Dallas when it exploded and crashed into a potato field. All 28 passengers and six crew members were killed, and witnesses began calling for help.
A report in a Leon County newspaper said authorities moved the remains of the victims to the Buffalo High School gym, which had been set up as a temporary morgue.
“We sent a crew over there, identified the dead and released the bodies,” Chastain said, his voice rising. “The FBI sent over a team, and I told them we already had completed the identifications. That began my running fight with the FBI. I saw a law enforcement bulletin quoting C. Lester Trotter as saying we had misidentified some of the dead.
“That was a lie, and I challenged him on it later at a meeting of the International Chiefs of Police.”
Chastain said Trotter, former assistant director of the FBI, now deceased, told him he only meant the Texas team had not used fingerprinting in its process.
That was true, Chastain said, adding he sometimes took a more direct approach to sorting out the gruesome details of a crash scene.
“If you find a billfold all tied up in the clothing of someone in this situation, you know good and well it belongs to that person,” he said.
The Buffalo crash featured a bizarre twist in that the Braniff flight was scheduled to fly to New York after its stops in Texas. Word spread that a hit man involved in the ambush and murder of mob heavyweight Albert Anastasia in a New York barbershop in 1957 was among the flight’s passengers.
“A bunch of hoods came down from the East Coast to reclaim the body. You could recognize them as thugs just to look at them,” Chastain said. “They asked if he had any money on him, and I said he had about $300 in a money bag. They said that was chicken feed and that he would have had more, and I told him that was all I found.”
Chastain said he instructed the men to visit the nearby high school, where the mobster’s body and those of others had been placed in bags.
“They paid the funeral director $50 to look inside the bag and dug around until they were satisfied with what they found,” Chastain said.
When Chastain hurried to the scene of the crash near Dawson in 1968, he was followed shortly thereafter by a crew from the FBI, with specific instructions ringing in their ears.
“I talked to one of the agents, and he said, ‘Trotter told us that if you are here, we should just go home.’ ”
And they did, leaving Chastain to deal with the aftermath of a crash he thinks was caused by an engine mount breaking, causing the engine to break loose.
Accuracy is essential
Working in a crime lab, accuracy is essential, Chastain said. He would examine bodies for moles, birthmarks, tattoos or appendectomy and C-section scars, then would compare notes with relatives. Often he would recruit the help of dentists who had made charts of dental work performed on victims.
“You better make sure you are dadgum right before releasing the body to the next of kin,” he said. “You don’t rush.”
Harkening back to his active-duty hitch in the Navy, Chastain said he signed up 1943 and had much to learn, having grown up on a farm with 10 brothers and sisters.
“Before I joined the Navy, I had never even ridden a public bus,” he told the Tribune-Herald in a 2013 interview. “I didn’t even know what a pizza was.”
He said he distinctly remembers how tired he stayed from constant chores aboard the USS Saratoga and the taste of beans for breakfast. He spent an enjoyable time in Hawaii tuning up airplanes but was even more thrilled to return home in 1946.
“The whole time in the service, I never had a leave,” he said.
Testified 3,000 times
Back in Texas, after graduating from college, he broadened the influence of the DPS crime lab and estimated he testified in court “at least 3,000 times.”
“That’s where I developed a purple-passion hate for defense attorneys,” he said.
He testified before the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals about the use of so-called “drunkometers” and the need for scientific principles and controls to properly gauge alcohol levels in the bloodstream.
“The decision of the court led to technical supervisors being stationed all over the state who can supervise the use of instruments by various agencies,” he said.
After retirement, he served as a Brown County commissioner in Brownood, leaving after 2 1/2 terms “because I was getting tired of it.”
He and his wife, Mary Ann, have five children and 12 grandchildren, and several call Central Texas home.
“I’m thankful every day I did move to Waco,” he said. “It’s convenient for getting to my doctor and everywhere else.”
Chastain typically starts his day with a steaming cup of coffee at the Shipley Do-Nuts shop at Hewitt Drive and U.S. Highway 84.
This year was the first he served as grand marshal of the Veterans Day parade in Waco, and he got a big kick out of the experience, he said. He might tell you a story about it.