Jimmie Chambers

As a World War II gunner, the 'Lucky Greek' flew 98 combat missions, receiving numerous distinctions

March 23, 2009|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,andrea.walker@baltsun.com

Jimmie Chambers, a World War II flight engineer and gunner who later worked for an investment firm, died in his sleep Wednesday of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at the Baltimore VA Rehabilitation and Extended Care Center. He was 87.

The son of Greek immigrants, Mr. Chambers grew up during the Great Depression on Pearl Street, now the site of the University of Maryland Medical Center and the Baltimore Veterans Affairs complex. He attended City College and then worked at Bethlehem Steel and the Maryland Drydock Co., helping to build Liberty ships.

He often recounted how he knew the U.S. was going to enter the war because he saw merchant ships being fitted with artillery, his family said.

From 1939 to 1941, Mr. Chambers managed and ran beverage operations at Baltimore's Keith's Theater on Lexington Street, which was famous for big band concerts and its pina coladas. While working at the theater, he got the opportunity to play the cornet with the Dorsey Brothers' Band.

During the war, he served as a technical sergeant and engineer gunner in the 57th Bomb Wing, 321st Bombardment Group, 445th Squadron. He participated in combat operations over some of the most heavily defended targets in the Mediterranean, including action over Monte Cassino. He flew 98 combat missions in North Africa, Corsica and Italy during World War II and was known as the "Lucky Greek" because the men on his plane always returned safely from their missions, even when the plane was heavily damaged by anti-aircraft fire, his family said.

"He decided he was full time and was going to keep on doing combat missions," said his daughter, Roxane Chambers of Baltimore.

After his initial tour of duty was completed, Mr. Chambers voluntarily continued to fly until the war was over. He received numerous citations and distinctions, including the Distinguished Flying Cross with nine oak clusters, and in February 1945 was awarded the Soldier's Medal for Heroism.

After the war, Mr. Chambers traveled extensively throughout Europe and South America and studied religion and philosophy in California. He returned to Baltimore for a short time before taking a job with Bechtel Corp. in Point Barrow, Alaska, where he lived with native Inuits. The time he spent in Alaska was the source of countless stories of polar bears and dog races he was able to share with his children.

His son, Alexander Chambers of Baltimore, recalled watching television as a child on the polar bear rug his dad had brought back from Alaska.

Mr. Chambers returned to Baltimore in 1957, and in 1960 he married Grace Bianculi Villacres, granddaughter of the South American painter Cesar Augusto Villacres.

He ran the N&D restaurant, which was part of the historic Rochambeau apartment and hotel complex, from 1958 to 1964. Then he began a career with First Investors Corp., selling mutual funds, insurance and other investments until he retired.

Mr. Chambers had a love of gardening and storytelling, and was well-read.

"When he played Trivial Pursuit, he knew all the answers," his daughter said. "For someone who didn't have any formal degrees, he knew everything."

Viewings will be held at Mitchell-Wiedefeld Funeral Home at 6500 York Street on Tuesday and Wednesday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Services will be held at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation at 24 W. Preston St. at 11 a.m. Thursday. Burial will follow at Garrison Forest Veterans Cemetery in Owings Mills at 1 p.m.

In addition to his wife, son and daughter, Mr. Chambers is survived by another daughter, Pamela Chambers of Connecticut; a brother, John Chambers of Australia; two grandchildren; and many nephews and nieces.

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