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Greeley World War II fighter pilot receives congressional medal posthumously

August 1, 2015
In The News

After her husband, Col. Van Chandler, died in 1998, his wife, Mary, stayed out of his metal footlockers for more than a decade.

They were married for 53 years. Van was a kind, humble man who enjoyed his privacy. Throughout their marriage, one of the phrases he repeated the most was, “No big deal.”

She knew the lockers were filled with “Air Force stuff,” items Col. Chandler accumulated during a 32-year career in the U.S. Air Force, but Mary never saw a need to poke around in his things. From the beginning of their marriage, she understood the military was his business, not hers.

Eventually, on a whim to unclutter her house, she cracked the lockers open.

Inside, she found faded uniforms, stacks of yellowed files and photographs of Van she’d never seen, usually of him blending in with a crowd. She also found letters inviting him to receptions thrown in his honor he never attended and a heap of multi-colored medals and pins.

Mary didn’t know what the medals stood for, so she ordered a “Medals of America” catalogue and flipped through the book, matching each medallion in her hand with the picture on the page. She paired military records with the correspondences and photographs and laid them out in order in laminated sleeves. Through this process, Mary discovered just how good her husband was at his job.

She already knew he was the youngest ace pilot in World War II. Van was only 19 when he struck down five enemy planes in aerial combat as a lieutenant for the 336th Fighter Squadron of the 4th Fighter Group, flying out of the Debden air base in England.

What Mary didn’t know, and what she learned while piecing together Van’s history, was in September 1944, before those kills, Van bailed out of a crashing plane in Germany and survived by hiding in a friendly civilian’s attic until an Allied Forces tank rolled through town and transported him back to safety. She didn’t know he received the Air Medal at least a dozen times, or the Distinguished Flying Cross and Legion of Merit multiple times.

While the complete count is unclear, Mary found 16 different medals from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War in those footlockers. In August, 40 years after Van retired and 17 years after he died, she’ll add another medal to the collection.

Later this month, Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., will present Mary Chandler with the American Fighter Aces Bronze Medal in recognition of Van’s achievements as an ace pilot in World War II. The bronze medal is a replica of the gold medal presented to the American Fighter Aces Association in May, representing the 1,450 military pilots who distinguished themselves in aerial combat during World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

The gold medal is the highest civilian honor Congress can give and is meant to acknowledge individuals or groups who made a significant impact on American history. George Washington was the first recipient in 1776, and other recipients include Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Mother Teresa and Robert Frost, as well as groups such as the Selma marchers and the ace fighter pilots.

Receiving the gold medal is remarkable, but Mary knows if Van was alive, he’d eschew the praise. The Air Force consumed his life since he was 17, but he rarely spoke about it or his achievements, especially with Mary. Van maintained that humility after he finished his service.

When he was a teenager, Van wanted to enlist in the Air Force right after he graduated from high school. He hitchhiked from his home in Waxahachie, Texas, to Dallas to sign up, but he was told he was too young. Chandler persisted and eventually earned his pilot wings Jan. 7, 1944, when he was 18. Soon after, he deployed to England, where he served in the 336th Fighter Squadron of the 4th Fighter Group, the highest-scoring American group in World War II, according to Dr. Roy Heidicker, 4th Fighter Wing Historian.

Even at 19, Chandler was gifted in aerial combat. He took down five enemy planes in the air to earn his ace status and destroyed four more on the ground by strafing enemy airfields.

Despite the seriousness of his job, Chandler kept a sense of humor. He cut holes in the tops of his thick, leather boots because he said he wanted to let his toes breathe. Once, on Arbor Day, he dressed up in a silly outfit and walked up and down the halls of his barracks, singing songs and shouting at officers to come outside and celebrate the holiday by planting a tree.

Chandler rose through the ranks and later commanded tactical fighter squadrons in west Germany and Vietnam, and served in the Pentagon and at Headquarters Strategic Air Command at the Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. Over his career, he destroyed a total of 12 enemy aircraft, nine in World War II and three in Korea.

Despite the success, Chandler was practical about his work. He served across the United States and overseas in England, Guam, Turkey, Korea and Vietnam. Sometimes Mary traveled with him and other times she stayed behind because it was too dangerous, especially after they had their daughter, Linda. Whenever she asked him why he had to leave for a new assignment, he’d reply, simply, “That’s what they pay me for.”

Chandler earned dozens of medals and recognition, but he never boasted about them. Even in his retirement, he refused most opportunities to publicly acknowledge anything he’d done, including his college graduation. After Chandler retired from the Air Force and came home to Greeley, he completed a business degree from the University of Northern Colorado in three years. On his graduation day, Mary and Linda got dressed up to attend the ceremony. Before the event, Van left the house and said he’d be right back. He returned some time later, holding his diploma.

Aside from being modest, Chandler also valued privacy, which is another reason Mary thinks he would dislike being recognized for receiving a congressional medal.

When he was diagnosed with cancer and made arrangements for his death, he told Mary he wanted his ashes dropped over the Rocky Mountains, but they never clarified the specifics. Soon after he died, a friend of Van’s contacted Mary and asked where the ashes were. She discovered Van instructed this friend to take the ashes up in his plane and pour them over the Pawnee Buttes instead of the Rockies because he realized flying a small plane close to the mountains was too dangerous, and he didn’t want anyone to crash on his behalf.

He’d occasionally “talk shop” with other military buddies, but the conversations didn’t revolve around him. Few of the men who served with Van knew he was an ace, let alone the youngest ace in World War II.

When Van died, Mary notified his friends of his death. Many of the veterans wrote back they were shocked to learn this man they were stationed with for years had a list of accolades they knew nothing about. Col. Raymond Kleber served with Chandler in the mid-1960s in Turkey, and remembered him as shy and reserved, which was unusual for a pilot of his caliber.

After learning about Van’s medals and stitching together his past, Mary’s perspective of him didn’t change.

She knew him well and always understood he was a talented, dedicated pilot and thoughtful husband and father. During their five decades together, Mary doesn’t remember Van losing his temper even once. She thinks he was content with what he accomplished, but saw it as a duty, not something to be advertised or paraded for others.

Although Mary didn’t view Van differently after going through the footlockers, Thomas Nash, their grandson, did.

Nash, 26, got to present the current 4th Fighter Wing with Van’s shadow box at the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina, where the box is now on display. Nash knew his grandfather was a fairly decorated military veteran, but his primary memory of Van was watching him read the newspaper in his ink-stained arm chair.

“It’s been a perspective shift of remembering grandpa, who I remember as stationary, smoking a cigar, versus an incredibly adept pilot and a very, very smart person,” Nash said.

Though Chandler might not have wanted the publicity, those who knew him are thrilled he’s receiving the congressional medal posthumously and getting the recognition he, and the other aces, deserve.

“You know what’s nice about this medal? I get to see it first and he can’t hide it,” Mary said.