A crucial mission; story of survival
DORSET — For years, Harry Chandler kept the story of his survival in World War II — in which the B-17 he was piloting was shot out from underneath him — to himself.
It was what World War II veterans did — or didn't do — for years. In fact, one of Chandler's best friends and colleagues at General Foods, where he worked for 36 years, had a similar story from the war. And neither knew of the other's story until 1980, the year before Chandler retired.
"I didn't know he had escaped from Austria as a Jewish kid. And he didn't even know I was in the Air Force," Chandler said.
But Chandler's story is a remarkable tale of heroism and survival in the crucial late days of the war.
Chandler, who turns 98 next month, didn't know it when he climbed into the pilot's seat of his B-17 on March 15, 1945, but that mission — one that bothered him for 60 years — likely helped keep Adolf Hitler's regime from extending or even winning the war.
And it wasn't until 12 years ago, when Chandler heard an eyewitness account of his plane's demise from a man who had seen it happen as a boy, that the story truly reached its conclusion.
A Brooklyn native, Chandler grew up during the Great Depression in the ethnically diverse Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, and spent some time visiting cousins who lived in Dorset and Pawlet.
"I first came here when I was two years old," he said. "My father designed the dam that holds the lake in Shaftsbury (now Shaftsbury State Park). "
The family's Vermont connection was strengthened when Chandler's mother and sister moved to Dorset in 1947, to a house on Cheney Road.
His father Albert Chandler, a civil engineer for New York City, died of pneumonia when Harry was 13 years old. Harry was awarded a scholarship to remain at Adelphi Academy, an independent high school, and another to attend Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where he graduated with a business degree in 1941.
"I got a job at Proctor and Gamble in Cincinnati, but I didn't stay there very long," Chandler said. "They moved me to the Proctor and Gamble Defense Corporation, which was in Prairie, Mississippi. They had a plant under construction to build munitions, and I was put in charge of employment at the age of 21. Five thousand people had to be hired."
But after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the end of Chandler's personnel career at P&G was a matter of time. He had decided in advance that if war came, he would join the Air Force and learn to fly.
"When Pearl Harbor happened I went to the local air base and enlisted," Chandler said. "I didn't want to be in the infantry. I wanted to be an officer, and as a kid I wanted to fly."
That desire to fly went back to the months before his father's death.
"Three months before he died my father took my sister and me out for an outing," Chandler said. "He took us up in a plane ... just a small single-engine plane that seated four people. And we flew all around the city."
It was another year before Chandler was called up to active duty. "I didn't get called up for active duty for a year because they had so many pilots in training. They didn't have any place to send newly enlisted ones," he said.
By 1944, his time for active duty had come. Having trained with the rest of his nine-man crew for three months, Chandler and crew went to Omaha, picked up a brand-new B-17 at the factory, and flew it to England.
War over Europe
The B-17 "Flying Fortress," a four propeller engine bomber, was a mainstay in the Allies' air war strategy over Europe. More than 12,000 B-17s were built for the war effort, and the planes gained a reputation for toughness under fire.
From Rattlesden, a Royal Air Force base near Ipswich, England, Capt. Harry Chandler and his crew — part of the Eighth Air Force, 447th bomb group — took to the skies over Germany as the Allies sought to destroy Hitler's means of production. Twenty-seven times they took off with a payload of bombs and a target; 27 times they completed their mission and returned safely, evading flak and bad weather.
March 15, 1945 would be different.
"The 28th mission we were hitting a target north of Berlin. We were told at the time it was a marshaling yard transferring troops from Russia to the Western Front. There was a factory there we were supposed to hit. We didn't know why," Chandler said.
"We dropped the bombs and headed home, and all of a sudden we're being tracked by flak. One of the shells hit my plane and sheared off the front end of it, which included the navigator and bombardier, and took with it the controls in front of me," he said. "When I came to, I looked over at my co-pilot. I pushed his shoulder but he didn't respond. I figured I could crawl over and use his controls. I unfastened my seatbelt and I was flown out of the airplane. So I pulled the rip cord and landed in a field with a group of young police guys and they took me prisoner."
"They were there when I landed," he added. He recalled they said in German "For you the war is over."
Miraculously, Chandler was unhurt in the process of being ripped out of a flying airplane. "Not a scratch on me," he said.
Of Chandler's nine-man crew, only three had survived -- himself and the bombardier and navigator, who also parachuted to safety after their section of the nose had been torn away by a 105mm shell. The other six crew members were killed.
An important mission, a heavy price
It was only later that Chandler learned the mission that led to the loss of his plane and his comrades might have been a turning point in history. The factory at Oranienburg that he helped destroy was producing components of what Nazi Germany hoped would become an atomic weapon.
Luckily for Chandler, the war in Europe was nearly over. He spent only two months as a prisoner of war.
"I went through a bunch of prison camps, walked around Germany, got bombed by the Americans, what have you," he said.
Technically, the POW camp where Chandler was stationed, in Moosburg, was liberated by the Third Army under the command of Gen. George C. Patton. In reality, his captors fled the camp before the advancing U.S. forces, leaving the prisoners to fend for themselves. They found a nearby farm and traded five gallons of gasoline for a homemade chicken dinner before U.S. troops arrived, then departed for France and finally, America.
In a world where communication is instantaneous, it's hard to imagine a time when a family would have no idea where their child was and whether he or she was in harm's way. In Chandler's case, he said his family knew he was missing in action, but that was all they knew.
"They didn't know whether I was dead or alive," he said.
Once freed from captivity, he sent word home by "V-mail," but his ride home across the Atlantic beat the mail back to Brooklyn. He called the family from Fort Dix, N.J. the afternoon he arrived home to let them know he was alive and well, and then headed home to Brooklyn.
"I went home that night. The whole family was gathered there and I kept them up until four in the morning," he said.
Between 1945 and 2005, Chandler visited Germany a number of times. But the place where he and his crew were shot down was in Soviet-controlled East Germany — which made it off-limits to the West for decades. That changed with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and eventually Chandler had his chance to return to where his B-17 was shot down.
His chance came in 2005, when a fellow Dorset resident's grandson was scheduled to row in an international regatta in Brandenburg. It wasn't far from Oranienburg, where Chandler's plane had crashed. He reached out to the newspaper in town as well as to area residents for information about the crash site. .
"I got in contact with some young men who amazingly knew all about my particular airplane. They had a hobby — they would investigate crashed aircraft from World War II — this is 60-odd years later - so we went to Berlin and got in touch with people."
The missing piece
Those hobbyists picked up Chandler and brought him to Oranienburg, where a crowd of 20-30 people were waiting along with newspaper and television reporters. The local morning newspaper's front headline heralded his arrival.
"Suddenly I was a rock star," Chandler said of the attention.
After meeting the media, Chandler was led into a meeting room in the town firehouse, where local historians presented him with the story of his plane, where it was found and what had been recovered from the crash site. He was then taken to the crash site for the first time since the plane had gone down.
"It was very emotional," Chandler said of that moment.
But there was more to come.
A retired professor from Potsdam University then introduced himself to Chandler, and made an astonishing revelation: As a boy, he saw Chandler's B-17 go down.
"He said 'when I was 14 years old my father and I went out to watch the bombers go back to England and I saw your plane get hit,'" Chandler said. "He described it as being in a spin and on fire. That explained to me why I was thrown out."
That information gave Chandler a sense of closure after living with survivor's guilt for decades. From the time he arrived home from Europe until the day he met the professor in Oriensburg, Chandler had held himself responsible — that as flight commander, he was responsible for their deaths. Now he knew that there was nothing else he could have done differently.
"I kept saying it's got to be something what could I have done? I never figured out what it could be," he said.
After his return, Chandler was needed at home, and Proctor & Gamble helped him secure a position in New York with General Foods. He stayed with that company for 36 years, retiring in 1981. He got married and had four sons; when his first wife passed away, he married the woman who had introduced them, and they were married for 25 years until she passed away.
But for years, like many World War II veterans, Chandler didn't tell his remarkable story.
"It wasn't until the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor that everybody started talking about it," he said.
Reach Vermont managing editor Greg Sukiennik at email@example.com.
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