Air Force 44th Infantry Division, 31 Air Command Group,
8th Fighter Group
World War II, Korean & Vietnam Wars
Vincent J. Clarke was born on September 3rd, 1922 in Bridgeton, NJ. His parents were farmers to start but they were unsuccessful, forcing his father to become an artist, painting pictures for magazine covers. Vincent had only one cousin that he knew of that served in the Army. He grew up in Bridgeton until he enlisted in the New Jersey National Guard in 1939. At seventeen years old, he enlisted because he remembered that just before his birthday Germany invaded Poland and England declared war on Germany, starting the war in Europe and prompting Vincent to enlist. His father had been killed in a motorcycle accident when Vincent was only 14 so his mother had to sign the papers for him. She did sign them but very reluctantly. He only had two years of high school completed, and he believed that by joining the National Guard he would be able to finish school, but to his dismay his unit was called to active duty. When his unit was called to active duty they were called the 44th Infantry Division and he was part of that unit for two years.
He didn’t attend a regular boot camp. But during the weekend training exercises his unit got all the training and arms familiarization that one would have received at a boot camp. He spent most of his first few assignments moving around the United States, spending months at air bases all around the country. He lived in everything from cold tents, to regular military barracks. At the barracks the men had a hard time finding entertainment, but he found that most of the men we of Irish descent and most were Irish tenors. But the USO also provided the men with entertainment, and Vincent was very luck because he was located near a hospital were nurses were that he could dance with.
He was a G.I. until he transferred to the Air Force. When asked why he switched he came up with an event recalled from memory. He was guarding the airfield at Olympia, Washington, it was wet weather and he was walking around the runway. Spotting two Lieutenants, he noticed how comfortable they were as they slipped into the tavern across the street from the airfield and ate hotdogs and hamburgers. Luckily at this time the Air Force was expanding, and this gave Vincent a chance to switch to the “glamour branch.” He filled out an application, and passed their exam and before he knew it, he was off to pre-flight training in Santa Anna, CA.
Pre- flight was a problem for Vincent because he only had two years of high school. The math was hard and he had to self-teach a lot of it to himself. But this buddies helped him at night by tutoring him. Unfortunately, developed Scarlett fever while he was there, causing him to be sent back a class. Besides that he graduated pre-flight with no problems.
From there he went to California, for primary flight school. Flying the “Stearmen” every day for at least one hour, the recruits would also have drill, pt, and classes on flight. At this point he was finally allowed to fly alone. Vincent remembers the experience to be, “scary, but really thrilling.” At this point he knew he had done it, he was well on his way to becoming a pilot. Moving on to the basic school and beyond he learned how to fly many more types of aircraft.
His first mission was in New Guinea and he flew ground support missions. He was only there for a short time before being transferred to the Philippines. There he flew alongside bombers to provide cover for the vulnerable, heavy bombers. Lucky he never encountered any enemy aircraft. Once a pilot reached 300 hours he became eligible to be rotated home, but Vince was given the opportunity to become part of command headquarters. From the headquarters he planed missions, and did more organizing than actual flying. He was still in the service when the Atom Bomb was dropped. The bomb caused excitement because the men knew that now they didn’t have to land on the mainland, were civilians were armed and ready to fight till the death.
Once the war was over he stayed in Japan, to conduct occupation. Most of these missions were to simply let the Japanese know that the US was still in charge and close by. He was there for a year. Upon his return he was sent back to the states to Pennsylvania. He there was a part of the flight safety division, where he solved crashes, incidents, etc. Soon after he meet his wife, who was also in the service and was returning from a tour in Europe. They got married in 1949 there was a problem because she was stationed in Texas, and he in New York. But the air force, in the interest of moral, planned to move the newly weds to the same base. There was a deal for the couple to be moved to Hamilton, CA but just before the plan was put into action, Vincent’s boss told him that it was time to pack his bags because he was headed to Korea. The United States needed veteran pilots to fly WWII planes that could stay airborne for long periods of time, thus they were already in the air when the call for help came in. The deal was that reserve units and their aircraft were being shipped in the USS Boxer over to Japan, to conduct missions out of Japan.
In Korea, the main land wasn’t held strongly enough to the point were the commanding officers would let the pilots stay over night. So they would fly from the airbase to the field in Korea. Then conduct missions all day out of that field. He even recounts flying 16 missions in one day, but really short missions. Then at the end of the day they could fly all the way back to the airbase in Japan.
One interesting thing he remembers is that each pilot had to spend 30 days with a ground unit, calling for air support and such. Vincent got paired with a Puerto Rican unit, but he didn’t see a whole lot of action because the unit was more of a back up unit.
He retired in Colorado Springs, CO in 1965. Upon arriving home he just slipped on this civilian clothes and went to go see his family. “The reception was great, but there wasn’t a banner like there was for WWII,” said Vincent. As for awards he has the DFC, an Air medal with 11 oak leaf clusters, a Joint services commendation medal, and also various service ribbons from various battles. When he left the service he had heard about Air America, and ended up serving for Air America during the Vietnam War.
Most of the men that he flew with are gone, but he manages to keep in touch with a few that are still alive. Vincent is Life Member of Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Military Officers Association, Air Force Association, and the American Legion. He remembers his service as, “very satisfying.” When asked if his service was justified, he responded, “oh yes, all us felt it was justified. At the time it didn’t even feel like service.” His scariest moments were when the men who were ranked higher than him made mistakes and were killed. He asked himself, “they were so experienced and respected and they were still killed. What will happen to me?” If he could teach young Americans on lesson it would be to respect the flag because you don’t know how lucky you are until you have seen the rest of the world.
Interviewed by Robert Kent on July 15th, 2011