Memorial Day Weekend: Korea Edition

Yes I’ve been radio silent almost a year. Maybe I’ll write about why someday, but the important thing is, I’m ok and I’m slowly starting some new adventures. Thanks for being here always!

In Korea, Memorial Day (현충일) is June 6th, a week later than my American friends and family celebrate the memory of our soldiers with lavish summer backyard barbeques, overt displays of patriotism, and caring about disabled vets for a few days out of the year. I’ve never really noticed any block party style celebrations of Memorial Day in Korea, as it seems to be a more solemn day, but of course, everyone loves a three day weekend, so I expect there will be lots of people going out and enjoying the beautiful weather we are having. There are also official memorial ceremonies at military graveyards and Korean War Memorial sites. But why after 6+ years of living in Korea am I just now choosing to write a Memorial Day post?

(UN Memorial Cemetery in Busan, Gallivantrix 2016)

Connected to my last several posts and my year long absence from the blog, I have recently been digging into my own family history. I’ve always known that my paternal grandfather was an ace pilot, and that his general age range put him as “probably served in Korea?” but I never had any facts. My grandfather died when my father was only 10, and as a result, my father has shared fairly limited information about him with me. Since Korean Memorial Day is all about those who fought and died for the Republic of Korea, that means that the vast majority of the focus is on the Korean War (1950-53), so I’m going to tell you about my grandfather, Captain Kenneth D. Chandler.

My grandfather was actually born in Canada, which came as a surprise to me, in 1923. Then his family lived in Arizona and southern California, answering some questions about my father’s family diaspora. Even though they moved around with the military, and I know they were stationed in Hawaii in 1948, because my dad was born there, it seems my grandfather never stopped loving the American southwest. My grandmother lived in Arizona until she died and my dad took me on trips all over the southwest on our family vacations.

I knew that his family was Mormon (LDS) and that he had left the church because when I was driving across America with my father to move to Seattle, we stopped in Salt Lake and found his name in the big Mormon Book of Families (not actually what they call the book). I remember feeling that it was very strange, since he had chosen to leave, and yet the church insisted on praying him into heaven after his death. I suppose that’s kinder than praying his soul into hell, but still kind of creepy. On more than one occasion, the LDS Chandlers have sent me mail. They still track out family tree, but since I have no kids, and I’m my father’s only child, there’s really nothing left here for them to track.

On October 25, 1942, my grandparents were married. Kenneth was 19, and Rose was 16. I can only assume they rushed an early wedding so that Kenneth could could go to war and Rose would not be left with nothing if he died because my grandfather’s military career also began in 1942. I haven’t yet found details of his military record for WWII, but I do know that he was a fighter pilot and flew in Europe. When he returned alive, he and Rose had three children (1946 uncle B, 1948 dad, 1950 aunt M) two of whom I have never met. I’m told that he was a fairly distant father, which is a bit sad, but hardly surprising given that something in his childhood caused him to cut ties with the church and by implication the rest of his family, and that fact that he likely already suffered some form of PTSD by the time his first child was born, and definitely by the time he returned to his family after the Korean War. (I did say I was doing this research for generational trauma healing purposes, right?)

I had already known he was an ace pilot in the Air Force, because my father’s own air force career (not a pilot) was inspired by his father’s. The Air Force family way of life was a pretty big deal in both my homes growing up, as my step-father was also Air Force. I went to air shows, and military parades, and there’s really nothing quite like the 4th of July on a military base. I also had the benefit of travelling widely as a child, and getting early exposure to different cultures and value systems. Although I decided the military was not for me, I think it had a strong impact on who I am as a person, both in my globetrotting tendencies and in many of my morals and ethics. It’s hard to imagine nowadays, but I was instilled with the ideals as a kid, and that sort of thing stays with you.

I had further suspected that my grandfather fought in the Korean war, but had no details. The internet, however, provides a near endless resource of information and human connection. Koreanwar.org is a website that connects survivors, veterans, and civilian aides from the war. When I searched for my grandfather’s name, I found a message from 2006, practically next door to where I was living that year. Yun-Kuk (Ted) Kim wrote:

City and State: Edmunds WA
Service or Relationship: friend of a veteran
Comments: Captain Kenneth D. Chandler shot down a MIG-15 in North Korea in December 1951 over Cho-do area. His aircraft, however, was disabled by a MIG’s debree [sic] ingested into his F-86’s engine, knocking it out. He bailed out over the off-shore island of Cho-do. I was stationed there with a US Air Force combat intelligence unit as an interpreter. I happened to be on the beach that day, supervising unloading of a US Navy landing craft. When I saw a Sabre pilot bail out over the Cho-do Bay, I and another Korean airman rowed out into the bay in a row-boat and waited for him. When Capt. Chandler (probably) fell into the water, we grabbed him and pulled him into the boat. We rowed him to a waiting US Navey [sic] helicopter and delivered him to safety and home. I am looking for Capt. Chandler if he is the one I rescued and if he is still alive. (He should be between 85 to 90 years old now.) Appreciate any help. Ted Kim, Edmonds, WA.

Entry 57095 May 10, 2006
https://www.koreanwar.org

Fam, I was shook, and strangely involuntary tears came to my eyes as I read the words of this man who had pulled my grandfather from the sea. It’s not quite as time travellery as that my father would not be born without him, since my father was 3 years old when this happened. Nonetheless, to see that there was a Korean man who touched my family so closely had lived so near to me (I was in Seattle at the time, and regularly drove in and out of Edmonds which is a part of the greater metropolitan area), and that here I am now in Korea looking at his words. I wish I could visit Cho-do bay, but sadly it’s north of the 38. Also, sadly, there’s no email for Ted (김윤국), and I can’t extend to him my multigenerational thanks. Luckily(?) someone replied to Ted later that year to let him know about Captain Chandler’s death.

Thanks to the extra research of a friend after reading this post the first time, I now know that he flew alongside Colonel Dayton Ragland, the only African American to shoot down a MiG-15 in the Korean War. On November 18, just a few weeks before he was pulled from the sea, my grandfather and then Lieutenant Ragland strafed an airfield destroying at least 4 MiGs and damaging 4 more. Although at the time, the destroyed MiGs were all credited to Captain Chandler, I suspect that’s not entirely accurate. Ten days later Ragland shot down the MiG that earned him his only credited shot, and was himself shot down and taken prisoner. Ragland’s story is infinitely amazing, if you want to read more, check out this twitter thread by @hankenstein.

A handful of years ago, when I was visiting my father, he showed me a shadow box he had made of his and my grandfather’s side by side military careers and told me the story of when my grandfather won the Bendix Trophy race.

The Air and Space Museum in D.C. claims that they have the original trophy on display, but my dad says that’s not true, because during the year that it was in his house (1957), my age 9 dad-to-be broke it. One side of the propeller was broken off, and my grandmother had it brazed back together leaving a small bump.

When my then-adult dad had a chance to visit the museum, there was no trace of the damage and repair, so he reasoned it can’t really be the original. A few more tidbits about the race I learned later in my own research: He broke the race’s speed record that day, the previous record was 666 mph, and he flew 679 mph. He was also a wingman to Chuck Yeager in the movie “Jet Pilot” where he flew the plane of the plane of the Russian character Lieutenant Anna Marladovna (Janet Leigh). I don’t know if the two men were friends, but they certainly were colleagues and comrades in arms.

Captain Chandler and 1st Lieutenant Frank Latora, both of the 343d Fighter Group, were killed when their Lockheed T-33A Shooting Star jet trainer crashed 12 miles (19 kilometers) north east of Parker, Colorado, while on a ground-controlled approach to Lowry Air Force Base on the night of Friday, 28 March 1958. Captain Chandler’s remains are buried at Rose Hills Memorial Park, Whittier, California.

Bryan R. Swopes, 2018 http://www.thisdayinaviation.com

My grandmother held on to the Bendix trophy for the next 2 years. She refused to surrender it until there was another winner. There was no official race in 58, 59, or 60, and so no winner was named. I suppose it was a piece of her husband that she didn’t want to relinquish after his death, and she was so determined about it that the race authorities threatened both to remove Captain Chandler from the official record and to put my grandmother in jail before she finally gave up the trophy. Even though she turned it over, the trophy never lived with another family, as it was retired before the next official race in 1961.

My grandfather died tragically at the age of only 33. My dad says he never really got to know his father, who tended to show more interest in the eldest son. Perhaps if he had lived a little longer he would have shepherded his middle child into adulthood, or perhaps he would merely have contributed a different legacy to our family’s generational trauma, but regardless there is no denying that Captain Chandler would certainly have been proud of Colonel Chandler, and I hope of Professor Chandler as well.

This Memorial Day, I remember Captain Kenneth D. Chandler: WWII & Korean War veteran, ace pilot, Bendix Race winner & record setter, and my grandfather. May your memory be a blessing.

Captain Kenneth D. Chandler, with the Bendix Trophy. (Jet Pilot Overseas)

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