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In 2003, I interviewed one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, who visited our school on numerous occasions to tell his story. Mr. Clarence Dart was a great storyteller, not only of the war but particularly about growing up in the Depression. Here is an excerpt from my latest book.

Mural of Clarence Dart in his hometown, Elmira, NY.

Clarence Dart

Tuskegee Airman

 December, 2003.

Clarence Dart, Dec. 2003. Matthew Rozell photo.

[The Great Depression] was a tough time. To think of the way people had to live. People who had good jobs and overnight lost them because of the crash in 1929 when the stock market crashed on Wall Street. Overnight, millionaires became paupers. No money, period. A lot of people, believe it or not, jumped out of those windows down there in New York [City] and committed suicide. The shock was just that great. To think that they were penniless overnight because they bought stocks on what they call “margins”. It wasn’t enough to cover or reserve when the market collapsed and so they just became penniless overnight.

It affected everybody. People were selling apples for a nickel on street corners. My father, fortunately, didn’t lose his job because he worked on the railroad, but he kept taking pay cuts all the way through the Depression until the time it started to turn around when World War II started. I think he was down under twenty-five dollars a week, take home pay. We had just bought a house and boy, did we struggle during that time! I could take the whole afternoon telling you how we lived and what my mother used to do to keep me in clothes. My mother would buy shirts from the Salvation Army store. She would turn the collars because they would get frayed. She would take the collars off, turn them and sew them back onto the shirts. It was a time when people really had to be on their own. Of course, it also brought people together. There was some welfare help, but it was tough, especially in the wintertime. We kids use to go down and stand next to the railroad tracks. The firemen on the locomotives use to shovel coal off of the engines as they went by. We would pick up the coal and take it home. Of course, we burned everything; we didn’t have central heating in homes in those days. Everybody had either a fireplace or a big central furnace with one duct on the top that supposedly was to heat the whole house. We use to go out and pick wild mustards and stuff like that for food. Everyone had a garden also. There was a lot of implementation to survive.

( Of course) our clothes for one thing, I could remember especially in the winter we had what you called garters, but they were rubber boots, no insulation in the darn things. We would go out and play until we couldn’t feel anything in our feet and hands. You could come home and first thing we would put you in tepid water, supposedly to warm you up. As soon as you hit that water, you would start screaming. I don’t know if any of you have had frostbite or anything like that, from being out skiing or ice skating until your hands get so cold you don’t feel anything anymore. It lasts practically forever. Once it happens to you, you will always feel that cold. I experienced it again, so to speak, when we were flying, switched to the P-51s, at high altitudes, around anywhere from twenty-five thousand to over thirty thousand feet. There wasn’t much heat in the airplanes. The heat in the P-51s would come in on one side and that foot would get warm, but you would have to sort of cross your feet [laughs] to defrost the other foot. I’ll get to that further on to make a continuity.

The way I got into the service when the war started, a friend and I were talking about going into the navy. But, my mother put a stop to that right quick. She said, “You’re not going into any army, navy or anything.” Well, you know how mothers are, they’re still that way today.

When the war started in 1941, I had just turned twenty-one. I was singing in our church choir at our radio station that afternoon when they came in and said that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. I had just turned twenty-one December sixth and it happened the next day.

*

 

After high school, there were no jobs so I went to what they called Elmira Aviation Ground School. The state figured they would start all these training schools for people to learn how to be mechanics, machinists and radio operators.  I took all the classes that I could. I figured I was set to do anything, but you go around and how things were in those days, you were rejected for one reason or another.  When the assessment team from the Air Corps came around with their tests, I passed all their tests, except my medical.  Most of my medical was all right, except I didn’t pass the depth perception test.  That was because I was so excited I didn’t get sleep the night before.  My eye sight was kind of fuzzy.  In those days, the depth perception test used two sticks.  One of the sticks had a line on it and you had to move the sticks until they were opposite each other.  This was supposed to demonstrate your depth perception so when you came into land [laughs] you knew how far the ground was below you or something like that.  But it was a rudimentary test.  Anyway they told me, “You go back and get rested.  So when we come back again will give you another test.”  That happened about 8 months after that.  So I came around and passed the test.  They said, “Go home, when your class is called, we’ll cut orders and give you the oath of office.  We will see you get to Tuskegee for training.”  Well, they were still building the field down there in Tuskegee, so I didn’t feel to bad about it.  I told my draft board that I was going into the Air Corps.

*

 

Eventually, after they got us settled down some of us were transferred to the campus of the Tuskegee Institute for our ground training, to learn navigation and communications and stuff like that.  I didn’t have any trouble because I had the experience of radio and so forth.  Eventually, while we were there, after we passed our tests in ground school they would truck us each day out to Molton Field, the field I told you is going to be a national monument.  We trained in PT-17s which were biplanes built by Steermancompany. It was the thrill of my life!

*

I finally graduated from advanced and eventually I got my commission on November 3rd, in 1943.  We transitioned into P-40s.That was an experience because in the military in those days when you transitioned into another airplane they just showed you to start the engine and gave you some of the air speeds you should fly at for approach and take off, and away you go, there is no instructor in there with you.  Nowadays in the military you have to go to school and simulators.  That’s why they require everyone to have a college education in the Air Force today because it is very complicated.  There are lots of buttons to push.  If you ever get to see the cockpit of those fighters nowadays you just wonder how the guys ever have time to do anything, but just watch all these little screens [laughs] and push all these little buttons and what not.  Doing the things they have to do is very complicated.  My class fell as we graduated.  We took our transitioning into this one beat up P-40 that they had there.

After that we were sent to Patrick Henry and were transferred over seas.  We had to the [good] fortune to be on a luxury liner that had been converted to a troop transport, so we had good meals except that we ran into one big storm and… well, it wasn’t funny, because this one time in the middle of the storm the ship started to roll. Then it got worse and the next thing you know the chairs and tables,  they weren’t bolted down, people were sliding from one side [laughs] of the ship to the other, oh what a mess! You could here the crockery and the plates falling on the floor, breaking! Well, after about a couple hours of that, we got out of the storm into calmer water and after nine days we landed in Oran, Morocco. We were sent to the edge of the desert to train for a while.

The 99th Fighter Squadron, which I was eventually transferred to, had come over earlier. They had fought with the 12th Air Force with the 79th Fighter Group and they had moved to Italy. We got a chance to do some dive bombing and strafing  there on the desert and flying under a bridge, which we were told not to do, but we all did it anyhow, just the thrill of it… [Laughs] you know? There was nobody around to tell us really what to do. There were no officials so to speak except for the people running the field there, so once we got out of sight … we used to do the same thing at Tuskegee. We used to buzz the people picking cotton in the fields [chuckles], stuff like that. There were all kinds of complaints…people just didn’t know how to report us… if they got a number off the airplane or something, you know, you’d be washed out right away.

We were put on a C-47 to catch up to the 99th, I’m just speaking about myself now, and Capodichino, outside of Naples, Italy on the day before Vesuvius exploded, I mean erupted [March 18, 1944]. Just the weight of the ashes out of that volcano destroyed nearly every airplane on the field, broke the wings off, the tails off, it was a mess. So we didn’t have any airplanes to fly and we had to wait about… oh I guess it was over a week, and they flew in replacements for us. Then they moved us to a little town outside of Naples called Cercola,  and we were based there for  I would say the first few months and that’s where I started mycombat career.

The first time you find people trying to kill you, it puts a different phase in your life. You know,  when I was a kid I used read all these romantic stories about “G-8 and his Battle Aces” about air duels in WWI, when they were flying the Fokkers and the Allies were flying Spads, Sopwith-Camels and stuff like that. Well, our job mainly was to do divebombing  and strafing, so we were never more than two or three thousand feet in the air, and you would have to come down from that anyhow to strafe, except when you were divebombing.

I think it was on my fifth mission we got a call to relieve some GIs that had been pinned down by the Germans. They told us to go give them some help. We had a new flight leader, and he should have known better, because he had been there about a month or two ahead of us…  so he started…he put us in trail, like in a gunnery school formation you know, everybody nose to tail, but with, you know, space. So we spotted the target- we went around the first time firing at,  I think it was, a German machine gun nest; no return fire, so we went around the second time. I said  “This isn’t right”, because the rules of combat… you make the first pass, if you don’t get any return fire, you just keep going, you come back another day. Well, we went around a third time and the ground opened up -it was [like] the best 4th of July sight you’ve ever seen! They threw everything at us, and it wasn’t long before I heard a big “bang” and the cowling started peeling off- like somebody peeling a banana. Then another “bang” and a hole opened up between my feet and the rudder pedals and another “bang” behind the cockpit, and  the next thing I knew I was “counting blades”! There was a three-bladed prop on the P-40s and the engine…they shot out my fuel lines, oil lines, coolant lines, and the engine quit. And since we were strafing, I think I was…down under five hundred feet! So I couldn’t jump out, because the kinds of ‘chutes [parachutes] we had in those days, if you weren’t at least two thousand feet, your chances of landing safely weren’t too good, because they were kind of slow opening, they didn’t pop open like the ‘chutes  do today. So I had to find a field to put the thing down- I figured I had picked a good field, I thought it was a good field, but it turned out it was a plowed field, but from the air it looked like it was kind of smooth.  So I knew I was going to have to belly land this thing. I reached down, pushed this little lever that locked my harness and glided toward the field and the next thing… just as I was about to put it down, the airplane stalled!  One wing dropped, and I think it was the right wing caught the ground, and the airplane cartwheeled, a really rough ride. When it came to a stop- I was sitting there kind of dazed in the cockpit- I saw these guys running over this wall into the field, it turned out they happened to be GIs, not from the place where we were relieving … this was another group of guys, who said the Germans had moved out of this field about an hour before. I was sitting there just in the cockpit because both wings were broken off, the engine was out of the mount, and the tail was broken off and they got me out of the cockpit.  They had a medic with them who fixed up my few scrapes and bangs, but I was on crutches, I guess … well, they got me transportation back to my base.  I was on crutches I think for about three days, because I was a little sore [before] I was back in the air.

(L-R) Tuskegee Airmen Clarence Dart, Elwood Driver, Hebert Houston, Alva Temple discuss kill of ME-109, summer, 1944, Italy

because Mark Clark  had taken Rome, liberated it, and the Germans were on the run. I got back to my base and flew a few more missions….when they brought the other three squadrons over, we got brand new P-51s like the one in that picture. [Points to picture on the table-(L-R) Tuskegee Airmen Clarence Dart, Elwood Driver, Hebert Houston, Alva Temple discuss kill of ME-109, summer, 1944, Italy] Now this was a P-51 C or B, not the D’s that everybody thinks of [Points to picture again] when they talk about P-51s. These were the Razorbacks. But they were good airplanes. In fact, I liked them better than the newer D’s- to me, they were more maneuverable, it was more like a Spitfire t-because the D’s were heavier and they didn’t feel as agile as the C’s were and I felt comfortable, because I thought you weren’t as exposed in these airplanes.  In the D’s you had that bubble canopy, you had that 360 degree view but… like I said, it was heavier… and I didn’t like it, but eventually I was given one and told I had to keep it and they gave my airplane to my wingman! But anyway….

The reason why we got our reputation was when we first got over there [to Italy], we used to take the bombers from the IP, which is the Initial Point, to the target and pick them up when they came off the target. We wouldn’t go [all the way to the target]…but then Colonel Davis said ‘from now on, you’ll go with the bombers through the whole mission”  because the Germans were sending their fighters up in their own flak- they were getting desperate. Our mission was to keep the fighters off the bombers, not to disrupt the formation, because when the bombardier took over the airplane at the Initial Point, he flew the bomber through the Norden bombsight…once he started on a target,  he couldn’t deviate because he’s figuring out the wind drift and everything, so the bombs will hit where they’re supposed to. It didn’t always work, but that was our mission-we kept the Germans off the bombers and that’s why we never lost a bomber to enemy fighters in 200 missions. At first they didn’t want us…but toward the end, they started asking for us as an escort, because we protected them to and from the missions. Of course, we couldn’t do anything about the flak, though. In fact, we lost some of our own guys getting hit by flak.

Read more about Mr. Dart and several World War II airmen in my new book.

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