World War II veterans are disappearing at an alarming rate. Many of their stories have not been told. When they came home, they tried to move on with their lives as best they could. I think it is a shame that so many stories have been left untold (including most of my own father’s story). It’s too late for me to interview my Dad, but a friend of mine agreed to sit and talk with me the other night.
Interview with Al Clemmens, 33rd Troop Carrier Squadron
Al Clemmens lived in Fallbrook, San Diego County, California. He was 19 years old. His mother had previously passed away, but he left his father for the Army Air Corps (now the Air Force) in November 1942. He was not married. He was in primary flight training in Santa Ana, California; basic flight training in Merced, California; advanced training in Ft. Sumner, New Mexico; and troop carrier training in Austin, Texas. In April 1944, he went overseas. His first overseas base was Hollandia, New Guinea.
Al’s job was to fly troops and supplies where they were needed. He flew all over the Philippines, New Guinea, and Australia. He flew C-47 aircraft first, and later C-46 aircraft. Al loaned me a book about the troop carriers in the South Pacific, which I am really enjoying. The troop carriers were absolutely critical to the war effort. The terrain is such that the only feasible way to move supplies, vehicles, and troops was by air. These pilots flew with no weather reports and no radio contact. The loads were heavy and often unbalanced. They navigated by the seat of their pants. Al said it is called dead reckoning, but he wishes they would find another term.
While he was still based in New Guinea, they sent Al and two other aircraft to Tacloban in the Philippines. There was only one airstrip there. They were so short of fuel that if an airplane came in that was low on fuel, they just pushed the airplane off the strip and into the bay to get it out of the way. They needed the space to bring in more supplies. I still am amazed at this, but it makes sense to move them if they didn’t have fuel to fly them. Getting supplies and troops in was more important than saving the planes.
The three aircraft that had flown in from New Guinea had flown in empty. Al said he couldn’t figure out what was going on. There was a briefing about 3:00 a.m. with intelligence people, and these pilots were told where the Japanese fighters were, and they were told to go into Manila. They were just starting to fight for Manila. Intelligence didn’t know if Nichols Field in Manila was under control by Allied Forces or by the Japanese. They were told to stay over the water and go in through Corregidor. They were told they may have radio contact, to give it a try. They were able to get in touch with Nichols Field. They were advised what runway to use, but cautioned to land short because of snipers. They landed short, but were still confused as to why they were going in with empty airplanes.
About 45 minutes later, they saw trucks coming down the ramp with people in them. As the trucks moved closer, they could see that they were women. Army nurses that had been captured on Corregidor and held as prisoners of war for 37 months had just been freed an hour before the planes landed. In Al’s words, “They were quite a happy lot.” They flew them back safely to Tacloban where there were 4-engine planes waiting to take them back to the United States. One of the passengers that Al had in the group of nurses was a major. A number of years later after the war, Al saw this Army nurse on the television program, “What’s My Line?”.
Al talked about the terrain they flew through in the Philippines. He showed me a picture of an airstrip that was pretty much cut out of a mountain side. As pilots landed, they actually traveled uphill about 300 feet. If they overshot the strip, they hit the side of the mountain. He talked about a couple of pilots that were killed on that airstrip.
The pilots would sometimes be told that there was a storm coming in, but they didn’t know when it was going to hit. So they would fly until it was too dangerous and then wait out the storm. He told me a story of one pilot who didn’t survive a storm.
One time flying into Manila, Al had about an hour and a half’s worth of fuel, and things were getting bad. There was a fresh water lake, and then the terrain went up about 400 or 500 feet. Towards Manila Bay, there was a radio tower that stuck up about 1,000 feet. He had no idea where it was located. He was at about 200 to 250 feet, just above the water of Laguna de Bay. His co-pilot was a mechanic, and was very rattled. He had about 28 passengers plus crew on board. The passengers were obviously frightened. He didn’t know what to do. He gave a thought to ditching, but continued to circle around. He knew pretty well where he was and what direction he had to fly to get where he was going. The radio tower was still a mystery. He knew he had about 25 minutes to get over to Manila Bay the way he was heading. He figured he could try that way, and if that didn’t work, he had about 20 minutes to try something else. He said a prayer. He decided that the tower was out there somewhere, but he wasn’t going to worry about it. In about ten minutes, he came right into the air field. He told me that this was the occasion that he began to get his testimony that there is a God. He said there is no other answer. When he landed, he sat and shook for quite a while. Eventually, he tried to stand, but his knees wouldn’t hold him up, so he sat about another ten minutes before he could move out of the plane. He has always remembered that flight as a day when he had Heavenly help.
Al also flew people and supplies between the Philippines, Okinawa, and Japan. When the war ended, he flew supplies into Japan. He was in Tachikawa just outside of Tokyo. He remembered the people staring at them. It was obviously quite unnerving. He talked about being on a train with everyone watching them. Suddenly, it became very dark, and he realized they were in a tunnel. It was obviously very scary. They went through about ten tunnels, and he figured that each one was going to be his demise. He said, though, that when the Japanese surrendered, they truly surrendered. There was no attempt made to do harm to them. While in Japan, they were told not to fly over the cities that had undergone nuclear attack because of the air quality.
After the war, Al flew for an airline that had started in Manila. He really enjoyed that job, but the airline sold out to Philippine Airlines. At that time Al was ill with fever, so he returned to the United States. He worked for the telephone company for three years, and then flew for United Airlines out of Chicago for a year. He spent 4 1/2 years flying for California Central Airlines out of Burbank. Later he spent many years flying for the telephone company and PG&E to inspect their lines and cable right of way.
I’ve mulled this interview over for a couple of days. I know that my Dad spent a good deal of time in the Philippines and New Guinea. He talked about how short of provisions they were at times, especially fuel. I can’t help wonder if one of those important supply drops that Al made possibly saved Dad’s life. Maybe there was food, munitions, or replacement troops that came just as Dad’s unit thought all was lost. Maybe he was my Dad’s guardian angel. I don’t know that it’s true, but it is certainly interesting to think about. I’m grateful for this soft-spoken, lovely gentleman, for his skills in the air, and his willingness to serve. In a few weeks he will celebrate his 89th birthday. Happy Birthday, Al! We love you!