- Associated Press - Sunday, March 6, 2016

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) - She’s an old soul, really. There’s no better way to describe Jill Chandler than that, an old soul.

Back in the Disco 1970s, for example, while her teen peers were fixated on booty shakers like the Bee Gees and Donna Summers, Chandler was mailing pen pal letters to luminaries who had long lost their luster.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Benny Goodman, Harry James, Count Basie .

And if Chandler’s passion for collecting autographs and personal letters had stayed in that golden oldies realm, well, she’d still have a compelling story to tell.

Then in 1982, fresh out of Newport High School and 18 years old, Chandler set her sights much higher.

She began contacting World War II aviators, both the famous and the unsung flyboys who once helped save the world.

This happened years before the Internet, remember.

Chandler conducted her research the old-fashioned way, scouring public libraries for names and addresses.

She mailed inquiries and requests to national and private military organizations.

And then amazing things began to happen.

Scores and scores of personal letters and signed photographs flooded back to this young woman in Spokane.

Which transformed Jill Chandler’s hobby into one of the most moving collections I’ve ever seen.

Chandler calls them “My Guys.” They are celebrated former aces and obscure gunners and crew members who dropped bombs all over Hitler-held Europe.

She estimates her collection at some 400 photos and several thousand letters.

“When I read the letters, I cry,” said Chandler, now 53. “If I ever get a chance to read these in public, I won’t be able to hold the tears back.”

I met Chandler one day last week in her mother Ruedene’s North Side condo. Chandler works in the medical records department for Group Health, a job she’s held for the past 28 years.

On this day, Chandler brought a sampling of the correspondence she keeps in plastic bins.

It was still way too much to assimilate at one sitting, but a signed and framed color photograph caught my eye.

In it a pilot sat grinning in the cockpit of his World War II fighter plane. The side of his plane is all but covered with four rows of red-and-white Nazi flags - 28 in all, one for each destroyed German plane.

The inscription reads, “To Jill Chandler with kind regards and best wishes, Francis Gabreski, Col. U.S.A.F.”

Nicknamed “Gabby,” Gabreski was the top Army Air Forces fighter ace over Europe. He was a prisoner of war for a time and, if that wasn’t enough, Gabby became a jet fighter ace with the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War.

Gabreski died in 2002 at age 83.

Chandler began her quest at the perfect time. You couldn’t even begin to replicate it since nearly all of her “Guys” are now dead.

“They were already old when I wrote to them,” she said, adding that “stamps weren’t very expensive back then.”

Even so, Chandler was attending Spokane Community College and working a janitor job on the side.

“I was really surprised at the number I was getting back, and it’s sad that I have to keep them in boxes. If I had a house, I would have them all over the walls and a museum in my basement.”

So how did this all begin?

Family ties. Chandler said her father, Bruce, who was a boy during World War II, was “always talking about the trains going through downtown, moving tanks and armament through Spokane. He shared that all my life.”

That was just part of it.

Chandler’s uncle, Wayne Miller, died while on a mission to bomb a German ball bearings factory on Oct. 20, 1944. Miller was a waist gunner on a B-24, part of the 460th Bomb Group, 15th Army Air Forces stationed in Italy.

Flying in formation, Miller’s aircraft was accidentally struck by a plane flying below.

All 10 men perished on the lower airplane. Miller’s B-24 actually inverted from the impact.

In the calamity and chaos, the bail-out procedures began. Miller and two others went out the rear hatch over stormy seas and were lost forever.

Moments later, however, the pilot managed to right the airplane and somehow limp back to base.

“Never found any of them,” said Chandler, who learned the story after contacting two of her uncle’s former crewmates.

Visits with another relative, Fred Shaw, added to Chandler’s aviation interests. Shaw, who settled in Spirit Lake, was a master bombardier on a TBM Avenger, flying off the USS Bunker Hill. He made it home but not unscathed, losing an eye from shrapnel.

Many of these letters contain intimate accounts, stark reminders of the wartime dangers that these warriors took for granted.

Take this excerpt from Jay Coberly. The first lieutenant was captured after being shot down over Schweinfurt, Germany, in 1943.

“I ended up in Stalag (Luft) III near Sagan Poland and later was taken to Moosburg, near Munich when the Russian Army came close to my POW camp. We were liberated by General Patton’s 14th Armored Division on April 29, 1945 when they entered southwest Germany.”

Coberly died last year at age 98.

Another prize came from Capt. David McCampbell, the Top Gun of Top Guns.

McCampbell, who died in 1996 at age 86, is the U.S. Navy’s all-time flying ace by downing 34 enemy aircraft.

Becoming an ace generally takes five or more kills.

McCampbell almost doubled that in one day, Oct. 24, 1944.

In his Grumman Hellcat, he shot down nine enemy planes, setting the all-time single-mission combat record.

“I just kept on shooting,” the future Medal of Honor recipient said after he landed.

But consider this: A website reports that McCampbell, who would also fly in the Korean War, had just two rounds remaining in his six machine guns and fuel enough for only 10 more minutes of flight.

“I brag about all the planes I shot down,” McCampbell once said. “But I don’t brag about the number of people I killed.”

Coeur d’Alene-born Gregory “Pappy” Boyington was the larger-than-life World War II ace and leader of the famed Black Sheep Squadron. He was also the first aviator to respond to one of Chandler’s letters.

“From Pappy to Jill Chandler with Black Sheep greetings,” Boyington wrote on green stationery festooned with his own snappy black letterhead, dated March 8, 1982.

This dude was something else.

A POW. A Medal of Honor recipient. Boyington never shied away from the limelight.

A highly fictionalized TV show was made about him. The Coeur d’Alene Airport now bears his name. Pappy left the world in 1988 at age 75.

“The aces were the superheroes, the jockeys of the sky,” Chandler said.

“The guys who flew on the bombers, I wrote to them differently than the aces. The men in the bombers kept more to themselves and didn’t seek notoriety.”

So what does Chandler hope to do with all this?

A book for starters, working title: “Forever In My Mind. Stories the Airmen Told.”

This could be the foundation for speaking engagements, as well.

Whatever she does, compiling such an irreplaceable and compelling collection is an incredible accomplishment.

“They’re all heroes,” Chandler said. “These men sacrificed it all for our country, and I don’t want their stories to be forgotten.”

___

Information from: The Spokesman-Review, http://www.spokesman.com

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