Lt. Col. Chester Vernon Harker
Chester Vernon Harker Chester Vernon Harker © 352nd FG Association Archive
© 352nd FG Association Archive

Units: 486th FS, 352nd FG
WWII score: 1.5
Born: Hamilton Township,Trenton, New Jersey, 06/02/1919
Rank: Lieutenant Colonel
Medals: * Distinguished Flying Cross with Oak
Leaf Cluster
* Air Medal with 10 Oak Leaf clusters
* Air Force Commendation Medal with 1 Oak Leaf cluster
* Presidential Unit Citation with 3 Oak Leaf clusters
* American Campaign Medal
* European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with 6 Battle Stars
* World War II Victory Medal
* World War II Occupation Medal
* National Defence Service ribbon with 1 Battle Star
* Korea Service Medal
* Air Force Longevity Medal with 4 Oak Leaf clusters
* French Croix de Guerre Medal with 1 Bronze Palm and 1 Silver Star
* Belgian Croix de Guerre Medal with 1 Bronze Palm
* United Nations Service Medal
Aircraft: P-47D, PZ-H
SN: 42-22486
"Cile / Luck of the Irish"

P-51B-5-NA, PZ-H
SN: 43-6509
"Cile II/ Luck of the Irish"

P-51D-5-NA, PZ-H
SN: 44-13979
"Cile III/ Luck of the Irish"

P-51D, PZ-H
SN: 44-?
"Cile IV/ Luck of the Irish"

P-51D, PZ-H
SN: 44-?
"Cile V/ Luck of the Irish"

P-51D-15-NA, PZ-H
SN: 44-15611
"Cile VI/ Luck of the Irish"

P-51D-25-NA, PZ-H
SN: 43-6509
"Cile VII/ Luck of the Irish"

   
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Teacher becomes fighter pilot

Mary Emma Burton Harker and Russell Vernon Harker's son was born on February 6th , 1919, in Hamilton Township which is a suburb of Trenton, New Jersey. He was named Chester (after his uncle) Vernon (dad's middle name) Harker.

When he attended Greenwood Elementary School he started taking drum lessons as well, and was playing in a band by the time he was in 7th grade. In September of 1936 he entered Trenton State Teachers College where he majored in Science and Math. By September of 1940 he began teaching science, math and physical education plus coaching basketball and baseball.

Chet was at his parents' house on December 3rd , 1941, the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor. At that time, teachers were exempt from the draft, but the Armed Forces were desperately in need of math and physics teachers.

In early January of 1942, he went down to the Army Recruiting Office to find out more about employment as a teacher in the Army Air Corps and the recruiting sergeant suggested he'd apply for the Aviation Cadet program. Chet took the physical the next Monday, the Intelligence Test on Tuesday, the Psychological Profile on Wednesday, taught school on Thursday, packed up his belongings on Friday and was on the train to Maxwell Field on Saturday, January 17th , 1942.

In April later that year, he was sent to Carlstrom Field, Florida for Primary training. This is where he first soloed in the PT-17 Stearman trainer. In June he was sent to Gunter Field, Montgomery, Alabama for Basic training, where he logged 60 hours in the BT-13. He graduated in September of 1942 and first met Lucille on Saturday afternoon of the Labor Day weekend, after the final parade and graduation.

He left for Advanced Cadet flight training at Dothan, Alabama after graduation. In the first week of November, his class was sent to Eglin Field for ground and aerial training, where he was 1 of the 4 students in a class of 200 to be selected for a check-out as a fighter pilot. On one of the aerial gunnery missions, with a check-pilot in the back seat, Chet half rolled off the target and headed for the deck. The Lieutenant in the back seat blacked out from excessive G's which pissed him off. He stormed into operations and signed Chet up for “fighter pilot”. The majority of the class went to transport of bomber units.

On November 10th , 1942, Chet Harker was commissioned 2nd Lieutenant and received his silver wings at Napier Field, Alabama. His parents and Lucille attended the graduation. On November 18th he reported in to the 326th Combat Training Unit for checkout in the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt.

He asked Lucille to marry him on March 3rd , 1943, which they finally did at Lucille's brother's home in Jersey City on April 3rd , 1943.

 

Joining the Bastards

On March 8th , 1943, he was transferred to the Fighting 21st Squadron at Republic Field for further combat training prior to an overseas assignment.

On May 24th , 1943, the 21st FS was redesignated the 486th FS and transferred to Westover Field where they joined up with the other 2 squadrons of the 352nd FG. They started the trip to the New York Harbor on June 16th en set sail to England on the QE on July 1st , 1943. The group debarked in Scotland and finally arrived at Bodney on July 7th .

Lt. Harker's P-47D 42-22486 "Cile" named after his wife Lucille.

Chet flew his first combat mission on September 7th , 1943, and the group received its first eight P-51s on March 1st , 1944. The 486th flew the first integrated aircraft missions with both P-47s and P-51 on March 8th , with Chet leading one of the two 4 ship P-51 fights. It would be another month or so before the entire group had converted to P-51s.

Chet completed his first 50 missions combat tour on March 23rd , 1944 and came back to the States for 30 days R&R leave.

He was also there when the group made the move to Y-29 at Asch, Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge and during Operation Bodenplatte. On January 27th , 1945, the group moved again, this time ot R-80 in Chievres, Belgium.

He recalled a certain top classified mission:

"One afternoon, a highly classified wire came in from higher headquarters that was passed to the 486 th FS for implementation. Seems that the hot-shot General of the 3 rd Army had overrun his stock of maps after they had liberated Munich. Two pilots were detailed to fly maps into a designated point where they would be retrieved by 3 rd Army personnel. Our planes were stripped of guns, ammunition etc. to lighten the weight and special external tanks with built in parachutes, filled with maps, were fitted to the external wing tank shackles.

Since we would have no guns in case of attack, 2 P-38s, I think from the 55 th FG, were designated as top cover for us. We rendez-vouzed with the P-38s in the vicinity of Paris and they escorted us at cruise altitude until we arrived in the vicinity of Munich where we let down to around 15,000ft and were picked up and directed by ground control to the drop point.

After release of the tanks we climbed back to cruise altitude with the P-38s and headed home.

My wingman on this mission was Joe Gerst. "

During his time with the 486th , Chet Harker flew 109 combat missions (the first 40 in P-47s and the rest in P-51s) and destroyed 1.5 enemy aircraft in aerial combat, 2 probables in the air, 3 on the ground while strafing enemy airfields, and 3 damaged on the ground. He flew a total of 7 aircraft during WWII, all named “Cile” (“Cile I”, “Cile II”, etc. ) after his wife Lucille.

 

The demise of Cile V

© Chet Harker
Personally signed photograph of the late Chet Harker. Thank you so much Mr. Harker!

On October 28th, 2009, I received the above signed photograph of Mr. Harker. He also shared a personal story along with it:

This photo was taken in the fall of 1944 at Bodney airfield by the PR officer of the 352nd FG. Part of the nose art, which you can't see in the photo, indicated that “Cile” was along on all 109 of my combat missions. This was the 5th of the 7 planes assigned to me during combat in the ETO. There is a story attached to this plane that I remember quite well.

I was strafing some enemy aircraft on a field on the outskirts of Prague, Czechoslovakia, when several pissed-off Germans decided to use me for target practice. They shot off about 12 inches of the right wingtip, part of the right aileron, a chunk of the right flap and about 10 inches off of the right horizontal stabilizer. In addition, one of their rounds exploded the unused ammo in the right wing bay so I could no longer use the guns.

Below 200 kts, the plane wanted to roll over on to its back so I firewalled the throttles and climbed back up to altitude and joined up with a group of B-17s returning from their mission. They had some rather pointed remarks (jokingly) about my having to depend on the “big brothers” for protection instead of me protecting them. After a rather scary flight back to England I landed at Bodney where the ground crews had fun counting the holes in the plane (there were 168 bullet holes) while I was debriefed. The plane was classified “beyond repair” so the next day I went down to the depot and picked up a new P-51 that became “Cile VI”.

This aircraft went to Belgium during the Batlle of the Bulge plus some additional time in Belgium. When we returned to England the latter part of March 1945, “Cile VI” was transferred to one of the replacement pilots and I returned to the depot to pick up one of the latest P-51 models that had a few extra gadgets on it that the engineers wanted tested in combat.

According to my flight log, the last flight for “Cile VI” was my 106th combat mission, so “Cile VII” only flew 3 combat missions before cessation of hostilities in Europe."

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