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Remains of Sailor Killed in Vietnam to be Returned after 33 Years — June 8, 2001

June 8, 2001

Remains of Sailor Killed in Vietnam to be Returned after 33 Years

June 8, 2001
Drew Brown
Knight Ridder Newspapers

WARNER ROBINS, Ga.–Joe Young and Jan Young Tadeo recall with striking clarity the day 33 years ago when the tall, young naval officers came striding across the yard.

They were 10 and 12 at the time, playing with a few other children at a back yard fish fry when they spotted the sailors walking toward them with their mother.

Joe and Jan began to run towards the men. One of them, they were certain, was their older brother Tony, a 23-year-old sailor who had shipped off to Vietnam the year before.

“I went into a panic when I realized it wasn’t him,” Joe recalled, tears welling at the memory. “My mother just collapsed. The naval officer had told her that our brother was MIA (missing in action) and presumed dead.”

The rest of that summer, Jan remembers, passed “in a state of shock.”

The family’s grief was compounded by the fact that there was no one to bury. PCF-19, the patrol craft or “swift boat” on which Tony Chandler served, had been sunk off the coast of Vietnam. His body was not recovered.

For more than three decades, each member of the Young family has carried this silent burden.

“Not knowing,” Jan said, “has got to be the most absolute worst thing in the world.”

Now perhaps the family will find a measure of the peace that has eluded them for so long.

Earlier this year, a military forensic team identified a bone fragment unearthed nearly a decade ago as Anthony G. Chandler’s remains. The family received notice a month ago of the news. They plan to hold a burial service at Centerville (Ga.) City Cemetery on June 16, the 33rd anniversary of Chandler’s death

“There’s a certain amount of dread going through all of us right now,” Jan said. “But there’s also a sense of peace knowing there’s finally a resolution.”

Four other men were killed in the 1968 incident. One of them was lost at sea and is still listed as missing. There were two survivors, both badly wounded. The sole living survivor, John Davis, skipper of PCF-19, plans to speak at the funeral.

Tony Chandler’s final homecoming has become a poignant event for the close-knit community of former swift boat sailors. Fewer than 3,000 served on patrol craft during the war, they say. Fifty-three of them were killed, according to the Swift Boat Sailors Association. The loss of each was keenly felt.

“There is no doubt this is the last swift boat KIA (killed in action) we’ll see buried in our lifetime,” said Dave Wallace, of Atlanta, director of the Swift Boat Sailors Association.

Wallace said he hopes the burial brings peace to the family.

“Every one of us lost friends over there,” he said. “But if there’s no resolution, if the body’s never recovered or something like that, it just doesn’t end. And so, this allows the family to say, ‘OK, it’s finally over.'”

By all accounts, Tony Chandler was a handsome, popular young man who excelled at everything he did.

He was an excellent athlete, according to his brother Joe. He was a superb pistol shot and particularly loved western-style revolvers. He was an avid hunter and fisherman.

“He taught me how to bait my first hook,” Joe said.

Tony loved fast cars. He owned a 1964 Chevy Impala and tore up the local drag-racing circuit. He loved practical jokes. He was popular with the girls.

“He was quite a ladies’ man,” Joe said. “He was one of the few people I know who had girls coming to the house to get him instead of him having to beat the bushes for them.”

Both Jan and Joe adored their older brother.

“My parents swear I said his name before I said ‘mommy’ or ‘daddy,'” said Jan, who now lives in Snellville, Ga. “He was my hero. I thought he hung the moon, and in many ways, he’s still my hero.”

But Jan remembers catching a glimpse of her hero’s vulnerable side soon after he received his draft notice in 1965. That year President Lyndon Johnson had announced a massive buildup in Vietnam.

“I remember walking in on him when he was in the bathroom, and he was crying,” she recalled. “That was when the realization hit me that my brother was getting sent to Vietnam.”

But rather than be drafted into the Army, Tony decided to follow the footsteps of his stepfather Jack, a retired Navy man. He enlisted as a boatswain’s mate and underwent swift boat training at Coronado, Calif.

When he was sent to Vietnam in 1967, Chandler was assigned to the coastal patrol squadron which performed picket duty along the coast of South Vietnam. Swift boats were used to interdict enemy troops and supplies infiltrating from North Vietnam through the maze of waterways that lace the country and empty into the South China Sea.

Davis, his former skipper, remembered Chandler as “probably the number-one boatswain’s mate.”

“You never had to tell Chandler to do anything. He was always one step ahead of you,” said Davis, who lives in Ohio. “He was my favorite sailor. The other crewmen were great too, but I kind of liked Chandler the best.”

Chandler was about one month shy of ending his tour on June 15, 1968.

That night, PCF-19 was assigned as the northernmost boat on the picket line, a few kilometers offshore below the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, which served as the line of demarcation between North and South Vietnam.

Shortly after midnight, PCF-19 exploded in a bright flash of light and sank within minutes. The cause of the explosion remains shrouded in mystery.

Marines at “Ocean View,” a coastal outpost directly across from PCF-19 reported what appeared to be North Vietnamese helicopters moving out to sea from above the DMZ. The U.S. government maintains that North Vietnam never used helicopters during the war.

The attack killed Chandler and four other crewmen. Three bodies were recovered. One sailor, Frank Bowman, died as his crew mate, John Anderegg, was trying to pull him into a life raft. He slipped underwater, and his body was never recovered.

Anderegg later committed suicide, said Davis, who lost an eye in the attack.

United Press International reported the next day that PCF-19 had been struck by enemy artillery fire from a shore battery. Davis believes it was an enemy rocket.

But an official investigation ruled a month later that the boat was sunk accidentally by Air Force jets sent to investigate the helicopter sighting. Pilots mistook the boat as an enemy aircraft on their radar, the investigation found. No disciplinary action was ever taken.

The USS Boston and an Australian vessel, HMAS Hobart, were also hit by rockets in the attack, UPI reported. Two Australian sailors were killed and several wounded.

But Jim Steffes, a sailor on nearby PCF-12, is certain that his boat was also attacked by helicopters as they arrived to help look for survivors.

“The official story says they were strafed by machine guns,” said Steffes, who lives in Sun City, Calif. “Well, our jets at that time did not have machine guns. They were hit by rockets. The ones that attacked us hovered over the water about 300 feet out, and we don’t have any jets I know of that can do that. But they’re never going to admit anything.”

Steffes later described what he saw to a sketch artist at the board of inquiry. The drawing the artist produced was of a Russian-made “Hound” helicopter.

“I only described what I saw,” he said. “They said, thank you, Mr. Steffes, and I went out. When the official report came out, it was fixed-wing aircraft.”

For years, the Young family held out hope that Tony had survived and would one day make it home. But eventually, they stopped talking about him, and avoided the subject altogether.

Their mother, Bessie, took Tony’s death particularly hard. And to this day, she finds the subject difficult to talk about, her children say.

Joe remained angry and hurt for nearly three deacades.

“For years, I thought he had died for no reason,” Joe said. “I felt like he was just on a 50-foot boat. How was that important? Why did he have to die?”

The circle began to close in the early 1990s after diplomatic relations began to be re-established between the United States and Vietnam.

According to the Army’s forensic report, a joint U.S.-Vietnamese recovery team traveled in 1993 to Quang Tri Province to investigate the incident. The team interviewed a fisherman who told them he had salvaged metal from the wreck and had recovered a bone fragment which he buried near his home. The fisherman turned over the bone, along with a military identification card which belonged to one of the survivors. A dog tag, which was kept by another man who dived at the wreck, was never recovered.

Two other men interviewed separately in 1993 said they saw PCF-19 as it was struck by coastal artillery fire, but their accounts conflicted in how fast the boat sank and its location.

Recovery teams traveled to the province again in 1994 and 1996, but turned up no further evidence or personal effects.

Bessie Young and Bowman’s mother were asked to provide DNA samples three years ago. Analysis confirmed earlier this year that the 8.5-centimeter bone fragment belonged to Chandler.

“They didn’t tell us that until about a month ago,” Joe said. “They ran them through triple-blind tests and came to the conclusion that this upper left arm bone–and that’s all we’re gonna get–was definitely my mother’s son.”

Jan says she “sees the hand of God” in the chain of events.

“What’s amazing is that they have such a reverence for the dead in their culture, that even though this bone belonged to an enemy, they still buried it,” she said.

Joe says thinking about his brother still makes him “an emotional wreck.” But his anger and bitterness have lessened over the years. Swift boat sailors, veterans of the war have told him, served a crucial role and saved many lives.

“It kind of eases the pain,” Joe said. “Maybe his sacrifice saved other American boys’ lives.”

Davis, the skipper, says he still misses Chandler and thinks of him often.

“It’s a relief in many ways, ” Davis said. “Everybody is accounted for. Everybody is all together now.”

Jan says even her mother has found a bit of peace.

“She says now at least she’ll have a grave to place some flowers on from time to time,” Jan said.

(c) 2001, The Macon Telegraph (Macon, Ga.).

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