World War II widow Fern Bridges finally lays her husband to rest
For more than seven decades, Fern Bridges prayed the first love of her life would come home to American soil before she passed.
Fern and Allen Chandler met in Fletcher and were married in 1942. She was 17. he was 20. If it wasn't love at first sight, it was pretty close.
“He was a Sunday school teacher and a deacon when he was a senior in high school,” Fern Bridges recalled. “I just liked that about him.”
What followed was one life ended and others interrupted by war and its destruction.
Allen, who served aboard a B-17 Flying Fortress in Europe, never came home.
He was declared dead in 1946, his remains never recovered.
Then, in October 2017, Bridges received word from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency that Chandler's dog tags had been found near Barby, Germany, along with bone fragments that couldn't be positively identified. But the dog tags were enough.
"After so long I had wondered if anything would ever be found," Bridges said.
Late last month, Chandler's remains and those of four other crewmen from his plane were interred at Arlington National Cemetery in a ceremony Bridges attended along with their son, Wiley Chandler, and her daughters, Kathy Martin, Christy Flick and Paula Ingram.
“It was very touching,” Bridges said. “Your whole body seems to react to it. The burial of a loved one. And to think, he had gone that long before anything was found.”
Wiley was just an infant when Allen Chandler left Fern and the boy for war in 1943. The couple's parting proved so difficult, Chandler asked Fern not to accompany him to the bus station. They paused on the stoop of a library to say their goodbyes.
"I think it would have just been too hard on him," Bridges said in an interview last year.
Chandler served as a radio operator and gunner. On Nov. 2, 1944, his plane, nicknamed Bomber Dear, flew in one of the largest air operations of the war. From their bases in England, more than 600 B-17s, escorted by an equal number of fighters, attacked an oil refinery near Mersberg, Germany.
The aircraft ran into trouble near Barby. Strafed by German fighters, the Bomber Dear caught fire and went into a tailspin. As it plummeted, four men parachuted from the plane. Three would later be captured and sent to POW camps. A third got caught in a tree and was shot by German soldiers. Five perished in the crash, including Allen Chandler.
“It was a wonder any of them got out,” Fern Bridges said.
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency is tasked with bringing home the remains of American personnel from past conflicts. The process can be lengthy. The agency initially notified Bridges that her late husband's remains had been found in 2015, but that proved to be false.
Two years later, she received official notification. The agency narrowed down the location by knocking on doors and asking people in Barby if they had ever heard stories of an American plane crashing nearby during the war.
With the crash site located, they started digging.
“They documented every single item,” Bridges' daughter, Kathy Martin said. “Every button, crosses and bone shards. Everything they found.”
Authorities identified one crew member using DNA, but identified the rest, including Chandler, by their dog tags. Bridges received the dog tags in an October presentation. They hang on the wall of her home at an Edmond retirement community along with Chandler's picture.
In 1946, Fern married Edwin Bridges. The couple spent nearly a half-century together before his death in 1994.
“After a period of time, you have to accept any death,” Fern Bridges said. “Getting a good husband again helped greatly, but you never get over the connection with him (Chandler).”
Edwin Bridges was himself a World War II veteran. He accompanied Fern on a visit to the home of one of Chandler's crew members not long after the war. Bridges was always aware of the place Chandler had in Fern's heart.
“Allen was such a dedicated husband,” she said. “He couldn't have been a better man. The closeness I had when I had him was still inside. But I didn't dwell on it during my second marriage. You accept any kind of death. But (Edwin) was so considerate of my feelings. And if (Edwin) had been living I'm sure he would have gone with us to Washington. He was so understanding.”
For Wiley Chandler, 75, who never knew his father, having his remains buried in Arlington National Cemetery didn't bring any new sense of finality. He'd already been at peace with what happened to his father.
“I already had closure in the sense I knew he was already with the Lord,” Wiley Chandler said. “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. I knew he was in heaven and so finding the remains didn't do that much for me because I knew where he was.”
The discovery and interment did signal an end of sorts.
“I was just thankful it had come to a conclusion and that we had all the information we would ever know and to understand that it was at an end,” he said.
For Bridges, Chandler's return to American soil is comforting.
“That helps me to know he's back,” she said. “Of course, at the end of time, we'll all meet in heaven.”
But until then, her prayers have been answered.