Vietnam Casualty laid to rest after 33 years

By Travis Fain
The Macon Telegraph

CENTERVILLE --- Lest we forget, Anthony Chandler was buried here Saturday, 33 years after an explosion rocked his Navy ship off the coast of Vietnam.

A piece of Chandler's arm bone is all that made it back, but his family and friends laid that to rest in Centerville City Cemetery, finally home in his family's plot.

They buried a bit of themselves, too, and some of the questions that have haunted them about that night, June 16, 1968, when Chandler and four others died as Navy patrol boat PCF-19 sank off a foreign land.

Jack and Bessie Young --- Chandler's parents --- sat in the shade of a funeral home tent, their daughter and son nearby. A contingent of old soldiers, most of whom never met Chandler but called him brother anyway, stood behind his coffin.

John Davis, who was there that night with Chandler, walked slowly to the podium, showing the painful gait he earned so many years ago.

"I just want to say something about Chandler, and this is what it's all about," said Davis, once captain of PCF-19. "Chandler was a boatswain's boatswain. He stood out above everybody on our ship, on every ship."

Davis looked out upon the crowd, more than a hundred under a sun so hot one member of a Navy honor guard collapsed, only to rise and keep his position, a wet towel on his neck.

"Some didn't even know him," Davis continued. "But they're here today. To honor him."

A black flag waved nearby. "P.O.W./M.I.A.," it read. "You are not forgotten."

A group of bikers stood off away from the service, quiet in leather vests and jackets. None of them ever met Tony Chandler, they said. But still, they knew him well.

"He's our brother," said Stanley Amey, a Vietnam veteran living in Bonaire. "We came to welcome him home."

June 16, 1968

Davis was "elbow to elbow" with Chandler that night in Vietnam, he told Jack Young on Friday as they sat outside the family's home in Warner Robins. Davis and about a dozen other men who were near the incident, or just affected by it, traveled from across the country to meet the Youngs this week and pay their respects.

Davis came from Ohio.

Jim Steffes, who never knew Chandler, flew in from California because he was on a Navy boat just south of PCF-19 the night it sank.

Pete Sullivan was on shore that night and coordinated gunfire as an attack broke out on the ocean before him. He never met Chandler, but came down from New Hampshire just the same.

Larry Lail came from Virginia, never knowing Chandler either. He drew the grim duty of diving through the Vietnamese waters that night, retrieving bodies broken in the blast.

Bessie Young greeted each of them with a hug, her dark brown eyes near tears.

"You know, it's just a mind boggling thing that they loved him so good," she'd say later.

As Friday stretched on, the Youngs' grassy front yard filled with cars. Bessie Young served pecan pie as she rushed around the house, asking new friends if they needed anything while Jack Young, a World War II veteran, sat outside and traded war stories.

They talked about soldiering and the food you eat in war. It was generally agreed that you needed a "cast iron stomach" --- Jack Young's words --- to handle much of it.

But eventually the conversation turned to that night in June 1968, and to Chandler, whose deep brown eyes --- his mother's eyes --- stared at the group from a stand of pictures on the table.

It was dark and quiet on the water, Davis remembered. And out of nowhere an explosion shook the boat, slinging Davis, blinded, into the water. When he put hands to his face, it was like touching "a bowl of spaghetti," he said.

Davis and crewman John Anderegg floundered in the water. Anderegg tried to keep fellow sailor Frank Bowman above the surface, but let him go, realizing Bowman was dead. His body was never recovered.

Instead Anderegg, who has since died, swam to Davis, who was badly wounded and still carries so much shrapnel from the explosion that it sets off airport metal detectors, he said.

Chandler, then 23, was nowhere to be seen.

The men around the Young family's table Friday swear they saw Vietnamese helicopters that night and have no doubt that an enemy attack sunk Chandler's boat.

But the U.S. government maintains the North Vietnamese never used helicopters in the war. An official investigation into the sinking of PCF-19 determined an American jet mistakenly targeted the boat and sank it with a missile shot.

No disciplinary action was ever taken.

Lail also believes --- no, he knows --- that he recovered Chandler's body from the scene. He remembers zipping four men into body bags and that Bowman was the only PCF-19 crewman unaccounted for. But only three bodies made it home, and Chandler's wasn't one of them.

"I don't know what happened," Lail said Friday. "I wish to God I did."

That night still haunts Lail. It affected him so much that he picked up the phone 28 years later and called Chandler's family, tracking them down with help from the Warner Robins library, he said.

He told them what happened that night and that their son wasn't just missing. He was dead.

It was a hard thing to do, but it started the healing process for the Youngs, they said, something they will be forever grateful for. Then they learned just this year that a fragment of Chandler's arm bone had been found, that it was recovered in 1993 from a Vietnamese fisherman who told a search party he found the fragment and buried it near his home.

DNA testing confirmed in February that it belonged to Chandler, according to military documents. It was sent home to Warner Robins.

Davis, who sometimes wonders why he was spared that night, believes he has another piece of Chandler imbedded above his left eye, that the force of the explosion drove it into his skull.

"I say, 'that's Chandler,' and I carry him around with me every day," Davis said Friday. "If they ever have to operate on me ... I'll go blind before I let them take that."

There was quiet for a while, then Lail leaned across the table and asked Jack Young a question about his son --- stepson, really, though Jack Young never thought of him that way. He asked the father how he deals with his broken heart.

"I always dream about the boy," Jack Young answered. "But I always dream about him being alive."

Lest we forget

There are 1,973 American servicemen listed as missing in action from the war in Vietnam. All told, 88,000 are considered MIA from all American wars, according to Department of Defense figures.

The government spends about $100 million a year on recovery efforts, and every month remains are brought home "just like (Chandler's) were," according to Larry Greer, a spokesman for the department's POW/MIA office.

Since the end of the Vietnam War, the remains of 612 service members have made it home, he said.

That's 612 American flags, just like the one draped over Tony Chandler's coffin Saturday.

"This is hard," Davis said, placing his hand atop the flag's blue field of stars. "But I miss you, Chandler. God bless you, and I love you, and I always will."

Davis turned back to Chandler's family, then smiled and patted Chandler's coffin one last time.

"This is my man," he said. "I'm finally glad he's home."

The crowd sang "Amazing Grace," old soldiers in the chorus. A 21-gun salute cracked the hot and heavy air, and "Taps" rolled out across the cemetery. Veterans saluted while Chandler's flag was folded tight and handed to his mother, who held it in her lap and cried.

The funeral was over, but not the story of PCF-19.

"Not till we get the other boy," Lail said. "We get the other boy, it'll be over. And we'll get him. Frank Bowman, quartermaster second-class, Walterborough, South Carolina."


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This page was last updated on:  26 August, 2013 at 10:58