[Ed. Note: This page is not a complete biography on Mac McDerby. It is a collection of anecdotes about Mac that give a bit of insight into the achievements and character of the remarkable founder of Yellow Jacket Boats.
More complete details of his years at Higgins Boats can be found in the book, Andrew Jackson Higgins and the Boats that Won WWII, by Jerry E. Strahan. Most of the stories on this page came from this book. You may also read accounts from two men who knew Mac, Pic Cyr and James Riley.
Long before Mac arrived in Denison, he had already achieved and contributed a great deal to boating, and to our nation. If you knew Mac, or have more information about his life, we would welcome your input. Please click here to send an email.]
Richard A. McDerby was born in Louisiana on Monday, February 14, 1910. His early life near the Mississippi River and the bayous of the Delta would lay the groundwork for his long career in the boating business. As a young man, he became a licensed commercial captain on the Mississippi, a qualification that enabled him to secure a job with Higgins Industries of New Orleans in 1934. Higgins had developed innovative designs for watercraft that could operate in the shallow waters of the bayou, and serve the burgeoning oil, fishing and transportation industries of the day. Those innovations would lead to the development of the famous landing craft for which Higgins was best known, the craft that brought our troops to the shores of Normandy for the D-Day invasion in 1944.
It was Mac's job to train thousands of young sailors, soldiers and other military personnel at the Higgins Boat Operators School. By the end of the War, more than 30,000 people had received training designed, delivered or overseen by Mac McDerby. He was demanding and rigorous in his training exercises, staging mock operations and invasions on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, using up to sixteen boats at a time, most often in the cloak of night. One of McDerby's trainees, wounded in a kamikaze attack at Guadalcanal, would write Mac a letter expressing his appreciation for Mac's arduous training, citing its effectiveness in the face of combat conditions.
Following Victory in Europe in 1944, attention turned to the Pacific Theater, and the nation was asked to see the effort through by buying War Bonds. Higgins, with Mac leading the charge, staged a series of mock invasion demonstrations in June of 1945, beginning in Denison, TX on the shores of Lake Texoma. Landing craft, speed boats, aircraft and even a lifeboat dropped from a B-17 would participate in the the large-scale demonstration, with 35,000 Denison area residents cheering from shore. The event would be repeated at several venues along the Red River and the Mississippi, concluding in New Orleans, where over $300,000 in War Bonds were sold.
At the New Orleans demonstration, both Andrew Higgins and Mac McDerby would be struck by burning sulphur from one of the mock bombs that were detonated. Higgins escaped injury as Mac extinguished the flames on his boss' clothing, but Mac would suffer burns on his shoulder and arm that left lifelong scars.
During his time in Denison while planning the "Mighty Seventh" mock invasion in April of 1945, Mac had the very good fortune of meeting Catherine Conatser. The blind date was arranged by Denison's mayor at that time, Bill Marisco. Things apparently went very well, because shortly after the War, Mac and Catherine were married. Mac moved to Denison and opened a marine supply business.
It was from that business that the idea to build boats grew. By 1949, Mac and Catherine's brother Bill Conatser, pictured at left, had formed the McDerby-Conatser Boat Company and were building plywood-on-frame boats. Before long, they began building the first Yellow Jacket Boats, using innovative molded plywood hulls from Industrial Shipping in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, and deck designs, seating configurations and hardware of their own choosing. Almost immediately, they outgrew their downtown location and acquired a site just downstream from the Denison Dam tha would become the permanent home to Yellow Jacket Boats.
Mac lived in a quiet residential area of Denison, and many of the neighborhood kids (now in robust middle age) recall good times with "Uncle Mac", which you can read here. Mac played whiffle ball with the kids, and many recall the unique features of the McDerby home, where they were always welcome.
Mac invited Roy Rogers to be a partner in Yellow Jacket boats. The two shared a passion for motor boat racing, and Yellow Jackets were light, fast, and could carry large horsepower engines with their reinforced plywood transoms. Roy was the perfect spokesperson for the company, blending his all-American cowboy image with his reputation as a successful race boat driver.
Mac McDerby at the helm, heads down the Red River toward New Orleans with Roy Rogers.
Following the demise of Yellow Jacket Boats in 1959, Mac returned to his beloved New Orleans, where he operated a boat dealership until his retirement. Until his final days, he spoke of building wooden boats again one day, but that was not to be. Mac passed away on January 30, 2002, just two weeks short of his 92nd birthday.