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Claude Kerce, New London Survivor

Explosion survivor Claude Joseph Kerce, in the fifth grade.

Kerce, with his wife Wanda and one of their three children, Ellie Jeannotte, in the Kerce home at DeSoto, Texas. After his London experience, Kerce graduated, served in World War II and is retired from Braniff Air Lines.

     DESOTO, TX – Claude Joseph “Joe Bo” Kerce worked his boyhood summers in the New London cotton fields through the day, served with the U.S. Navy in the Pacific Theater in World War II, labored for major oil companies after the war and is retired from a former airline company.

     He was also in fifth grade English class on March 18, 1937 when London School exploded. He had ridden the school trailer-bus to classes that morning. After the blast, he ran the three miles back to his house.

     On May 8, 2009, Kerce, then 83, granted an interview with the Press about his London experience.

Scholar and Picker

     Born in Van Buren, Ark. Kerce (rhymes with pierce) and his family eventually moved to New London. His stepfather, George William Kerce, was a welder for Humble Oil and onetime president of the London School Board. Mother Gertrude took care of Joe Bo, his brother George William Jr. and sister Glenda. The Kerces lived “Behind the old Church of Christ on Grover’s Property on what we called The Hill. We attended church there and that’s where my religion started.”

     They were customers at McConnico’s Drugs and S. M. Riley’s Store and Filling Station. 

     London School, when Kerce enrolled, had replaced the old school house which stood at the site of the former Sunshine Nursing Home.

     “We had a cafeteria, tennis court and a band hall,” Kerce recalled.

     He studied math, English, biology, geography and had a class in art. Another fond memory was Mrs. Lancaster’s Music Room on the Main Floor.

     “She was a Coca-Cola fiend, always having a coke in class.”

     For himself, Kerce admitted, “My trouble was doing homework. I wanted to play too much.”

     His playing involved football (as halfback), hardball (catcher) and basketball (“I wasn’t worth a dime”). Kerce was marching band drum major in his junior year.

     Transportation to and from school was on goose-neck 30-seat bus-trailers painted the Wildcat’s blue and gold. Kerce’s driver was Mr. Barber. While Barber drove, a teacher-monitor at the rear of the trailer made sure the riders were aboard, seated safely and behaved themselves.

    “We went to school in record time. And you gave no crap to the teachers.”

     Mr. Barber, in summertime, hired students to pick cotton on his land. Joe Bo was a picker.

     “We were in the fields from sunup to sundown, and when you went out there, you went to work. I know what it’s like to fill a bag. And I know what it’s like to come home with filthy fingernails.”

     His salary was a nickel an hour, a worthy minimum wage in Depression days. Back in school, the kids sometimes skipped the cafeteria lunch to buy a five-cent burger at Shaw’s Hamburgers.

     “Potato chips were three or four cents more and you didn’t get many chips. It was a specialty.”         

     All through his London years, Kerce was nicknamed “Joe Bo” a country hitching of his middle name and his dog, Bo.

“Nobody Knew What Happened”

     School was winding down on March 18, 1937. Kerce was in English class at the far southeast wing of the main building, on the same bottom level as the Industrial Arts classroom in the northeast wing, with the main entrance and auditorium occupying the middle section.

     “They had all the buses parked, as they usually were. I think around five minutes to four, before the bell rang to dismiss the students from school for the day, that’s when the explosion happened.”

     No one knew or suspected that odorless natural gas from a broken pipeline under the school had filled the crawlspace. A spark of unknown origin in the Industrial Arts room ignited the gas. The wave spread instantaneously to a huge pocket of gas (presumably where the pipe rupture was) destroying a section of southeast classrooms next to the auditorium and traveling towards Kerce’s room.

     “Nobody knew what happened,” said Kerce. “The English room was demolished and caved in.”

     Through fire, smoke, dust and debris pupils and teachers tried to clear the rubble.

     “I remember Billy Hall got a big gash on the side of his face. My little playmate, Johnny Duke, had his head popped open and to this day he is walking around with a steel plate in his head.”     

     Ann Wright, his English teacher and a member of Kerce’s church, was helped by Joe Bo.

      “I pushed her through, and there was much commotion. Then I ran all the way from that school all the way home.”

     The other Kerce boy, George Jr., had skipped class that period. A childish infraction of the school rule with a fateful consequence.

     “He had played hookey and went to the band hall. His classroom was demolished and he missed being killed.”

     Glenda, a secretary and attendance clerk for New London, survived.  

     Their father was returning home from work when the school blew up.

     “He was coming from the fields and it happened just when he was coming by the school,” said Joe Bo. “He was driving one of those Humble welding trucks, tore a school fence right down and started to work.”

     Kerce is not exactly sure how long his stepfather helped at the scene, but thinks he was there for 24 hours. Like many survivors and rescuers in years to come, G. W. rarely spoke about his experience.

     “For a long time, he was very tight-lipped on stuff like that.”

     Years later, Joe Bo would still be removing tiny bits of concrete from his skull.

“Think About Days Ahead”

     Kerce lived a protected life after that, avoiding any discussion or reminisces.

     “No words can describe or illustrate what happened there. Men from all walks of life were asking if they could help. Even a letter from Hitler. Politically, we were at odds with Germany, but he still extended his help to us.”

     Kerce studied in the rebuilt London School, but when America entered World War II, Kerce got his parent’s permission to join the Navy. After six weeks of intensive training in Corpus Christi, he was assigned aboard the destroyer USS Fred T. Berry and participated in the invasions of the Marianas and Tinian. After the war, he worked for Humble, Mobile and Magnolia Oil Companies. Joe Bo moved to Braniff Air Lines in Dallas as a maintenance man and finally to GTE, where he retired in 1991.

     On June 13, 1955, in his hometown Church of Christ, Kerce married the former Wanda Ellie Branch of Pritchett, Texas. They have three children, two granddaughters, one grandson “And a fine great-grandson, Brynner, who turned six this March.”

     The last time Joe Bo visited the New London Cenotaph was about 15 years ago. He read the names on the monument and remembered them. But he regrets not being able to remember those names now.

     “I don’t want to think about the past. It’s done and it’s over with. I prefer to think about the glorified days ahead.”

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The Overton Press is published weekly by East Texas Community Newspapers.