When the list of distinguished military officers who now wear stars on their shoulders is reviewed, the names include very few black individuals, much less black siblings. US Navy Rear Admiral Lawrence Cleveland Chambers and US Army Major General Andrew Phillip Chambers are an example of black siblings who have both been decorated with stars.
Growing up on the inner-city streets of Washington, D. C., Lawrence and Andrew, like most little boys, were in constant competition with each other. If they were not attempting to grab their mother’s attention, they were opposing each other in “war games.” As time went on, these innocent games of childhood moved the brothers into reality as they became two of the highest ranking officers in the US armed forces.
The brothers were introduced to the military at a young age due to their mother’s (Charlotte Chambers) job with the US War Department where she worked after her husband died. Charlotte was able to get her sons through high school, but with three other children in the family, college for the boys was out of the question without full scholarships. Thankfully, both Lawrence and Andrew were active participants in their high school’s ROTC.
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After graduation, Lawrence was offered a number of ‘partial’ scholarships from schools such as Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). However, it was his impressive record in ROTC during high school which caught the attention of retired US Army Colonel H. O. Atwood and Wesley Brown, the first black admiral to graduate from the US Naval Academy. Both individuals encouraged Lawrence to submit his application to the Academy. After passing the entrance exam, Midshipman Lawrence Chambers entered Annapolis in the fall of 1948 and his illustrious military career was off and running.
The Navy offered Lawrence the opportunity to fulfill two childhood dreams – becoming both a pilot and an engineer. “As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be an aviator and an engineer. I don’t know which I wanted to do more.” After 18 months of flight training, Chambers pinned on his gold wings in 1954 and soon after began to fly a string of missions which included a number of bombing assignments. His second dream became a reality five years later when he completed his Bachelor of Science degree in aeronautical engineering from the Naval Post Graduate School located in Monterey, California.
During the evacuation of Cambodia and Vietnam, Admiral Chambers commanded the aircraft carrier, USS Midway. On April 29, 1975, Buang-Ly, a major in the South Vietnamese Air Force, put his wife and five children in a Cessna O-1 Bird Dog two-seater. He then took off from Con Son Island and managed to evade enemy ground fire. With limited fuel and no radio, Major Buang headed out to sea with two options - find a ship, hoping the crew don’t shoot him down, and pray that he can land the plane safely. The second was to crash land in the sea, knowing most—if not all—of his family would be killed.
Before long, he spotted the USS Midway. The carrier’s crew attempted to make contact with the pilot as he circled overhead with his landing lights on. Buang dropped a note from the plane, asking for a helicopter to be moved so he could land on the runway. At that time, he had one more hour of fuel in reserve. Then Captain Larry Chambers, commanding officer of the Midway, called for volunteers and ordered any helicopter which could not be quickly and safely moved out of the way to be pushed over the side of the ship into the South China Sea. The deck was soon filled with crew members of all ranks working together to accomplish the task. All total, approximately $10 million worth of UH-1 Huey helicopters met a watery grave. After landing on the deck, Major Buang was escorted to the bridge and personally congratulated by Captain Chambers. The crew of the Midway then established a fund to help get Major Buang and his family settled in the United States.
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Younger brother Andrew chose not to follow in Lawrence’s footsteps. When he graduated from high school, Andrew turned a deaf ear to his mother’s advice and went to work. Thankfully, it only took a few weeks for Andrew to realize he needed to continue his education, thus he enrolled in Howard University. While at Howard, Andrew participated in ROTC and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the US Army.
Like his brother, after beginning his military career, Andrew also continued his education. Receiving his master’s degree in communication from Shippensburg (PA) State College in 1974, the advanced degree helped to increase Andrew’s chances of being promoted. He also continued military schooling with the Infantry School, Command & General Staff College, along with the Army War College. “I never came into the army expecting to make general officer. I just wanted to be a good lieutenant, then a good captain, and then a good major . . .”
General Chambers’ first assignment was with the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Here he earned a number of awards for excellence and heroism during his combat tour in Vietnam. Later, he served as director of the Army Equal Opportunity Program at the Pentagon.
Known as “the soldier’s general,” Lt. General Andrew Chambers served as the head of the US Army VII Corps. Based in Heidelberg, Germany, it was the largest corps in the free world at that time. As Director of the Army Equal Opportunity Program, he helped write and publish the Army Affirmative Action plan, which later served as the model for a number of other agencies. As commander of the U.S. Third Army at Fort McPherson, Georgia, Lt. General Andrew P. Chambers was later presented the “Buffalo Soldier Award” from the Black Military History Institute in Atlanta.
After he retired from the Army, General Chambers served as the director and vice president of the Association of the U.S. Army. In this capacity, he was in charge of fundraising, in addition to performing functions as a corporate liaison working with private industry. He also served as the director of AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC), a public service program with operations throughout the United States.
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It goes without saying; the brothers have mastered the game of “one-upmanship” while discussing their respective military assignments. (One can only wonder what it must be like during the Army-Navy game.) Admiral Chambers states, “Naturally, I think my brother chose the wrong branch of the service.” General Chambers counters with, “The Navy and Marine Corps just weren’t physically tough enough for me.” Though the brothers toss around their playful put-downs with each other, they each also recognize the significant contributions his brother has made to the United States military.
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“My brother and I have always had philosophical differences and I never could understand why Andy (a former paratrooper) would want to jump out of a perfectly good-working airplane. But all in all, I think both of us have done quite well.”
Admiral Lawrence Chambers