Lives Lost: At 97, World War II veteran takes a final road

SEATTLE — In his final months, Bill Chambers couldn't walk, but he found peace in motion.

Three times a week, his oldest daughter, Patty Cooper, would meet him at the adult family home where he lived with four other World War II veterans. The caretakers would load him into her Volvo SUV, and she would drive him through the forests, farmlands and suburbs east of Seattle.

He knew the roads well. In about 30 years working for the county, he helped build most of them.

“He’d talk about who lived here, who lived there," she said. "There’s a cemetery where his parents and my mom are, and he wanted to make sure I knew, ‘This is right where I want to be.’ He was getting things in order.”

Chambers, 97, died March 14 at the home in Kirkland. He wasn't obviously ill, but tested positive for COVID-19 after he passed.

Chambers grew up in Saskatchewan, where his father sold ice from a horse-drawn buggy to supplement their farm income.

Shortly before World War II, the family moved to Seattle. Chambers enlisted with the Canadian army at 18. He landed at Normandy on June 15, 1944 — nine days after D-Day — and spent the war driving an armored bulldozer, building roads as the front advanced across Europe.

For the rest of his life he would tell war stories. The rough voyage crossing the Atlantic on the Queen Mary ocean liner. How he slept under his tractor to protect himself from enemy fire. The time the shooting stopped when he prayed. How he never brushed his teeth.

He saw paratroopers shot from the sky and buried soldiers he knew. He saw Holocaust survivors treading the roads and gave them whatever food he had. He spent Christmas Eve 1944 with other troops in a barn in Holland. Grateful villagers serenaded them with carols.

After the war he put his road-building skills to work for King County, where the suburbs were growing to accommodate Boeing’s burgeoning workforce. He loved machines and being outside; grading roads was a great fit.

Through friends, he met his future wife, Barbara Jean. They settled in rural Carnation. Cooper, one of five children, said they would ride their horses into the small downtown. Their vacations were road trips to Yellowstone, to Disneyland. “It was a happy time,” she said.

Chambers was slight, short and quick, happy, kind and full of gratitude, but not overly affectionate — Cooper doesn't remember him telling her he loved her until about a year ago. He enjoyed playing sports. His wife wasn't a dancer, but he would venture into Seattle with friends to foxtrot and swing.

“Every day have somewhere to go, something to do and someone to see,” he would say. Being active kept him going.

Barbara died in 2014. Chambers stayed in the house. He still drove; his children would visit. Cooper brought him to get his first pedicure at 95. He loved it.

They would go to her daughter Kelly Adsero's house, where Adsero's young daughter — Chambers' great-granddaughter — would make him donuts, apple crisps or other favorite soft foods. After not brushing his teeth during the war, he eventually lost them.

Chambers hated moving into the adult family home after a fall at his own house last summer, hated losing his independence, especially hated when the staff accidentally put his wallet, with a beloved picture of his armored bulldozer, through the wash. But there was no other choice: He was too much for Cooper to manage and in-home care too costly.

But Cooper could still take him for drives, at least until the virus closed the home to visitors in late February.

They would split a sundae in the Costco parking lot, watching the customers, or drive to the old house. Along the roads he built, Cooper would blast Christian music so her partially deaf dad could hear.

Chambers wasn't very religious, but Cooper became spiritual during three decades as a 911 operator. She wanted to ensure he was prepared for what was coming.

There were emotional conversations in the car. He sought forgiveness for things he had done. He told her he was so unhappy in the home that he wanted to kill himself. She replied: “Dad, we’re not going to talk about that any more, but we will ask God to take you home.”

“He was keen on that,” she said.

On his last day, the old soldier didn’t want food or drink, but lay in bed watching longtime TV preacher Jimmy Swaggart. Whenever the staff looked in, he answered, “It's time.”

Cooper, who last spoke with him two days earlier, is OK with not having said a final goodbye.

“He was having a talk with God,” she said. “What a beautiful way to exit into eternity.”


EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of an ongoing series of stories remembering people around the world who have died during the new coronavirus pandemic.