U.S. Airforce, Lieutenant Colonel
(1939-1965) World War II, Korean War and Cold War
Vincent Clarke’s active-duty career spanned World War II, Korea and well into the Cold War, but he spent part of his retirement in the skies above wartime Vietnam.
Occupation: Career military, retired liquor store co-owner
Branch of military: U.S. National Guard, U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force
Highest rank: Lieutenant colonel
Years of service: 1939-65
Boot camp location: None, “drilled weekly at local armory” in National Guard
Active duty operations: World War II, Korean War
Locations deployed overseas: New Guinea, the Philippines, Okinawa, various Pacific islands, Japan, Korea
Combat injuries: None.
Active with veterans groups: Military Officers Association of America, Veterans of Foreign Wars, National Association of Uniformed Services, American Legion.
Vincent Clarke grew up in New Jersey and turned 17 on the day war was declared on Germany following the Blitzkrieg. He was called to active duty in the fall of 1940 and spent time at Fort Dix, N.J., Camp Polk, La., and in the Carolinas before heading west to guard the Oregon-Washington coast while based at Fort Lewis, Wash. It was in Olympia, Wash., while guarding the airport when he got his first look at a P-38 fighter plane and got the bug to fly.
He passed a test and went through aviation training in California and Arizona, then was sent to Georgia and Florida on his first assignments. After three months of training in a P-51 fighter, he was sent to New Guinea via Hamilton Field in 1943. He ended up flying 108 missions all over the Pacific and compiled more than 300 hours in the cockpit, flying everything from tiny L-4s to copiloting B-25 bombers. Mostly he did close air support and dive bombing and strafing in single-engine planes. He was on Okinawa when the war ended.
He stayed in the service in Japan and stateside got married (Louise) in 1949, but by July 1950 he was in Korea flying P-51s and F-80 jets mostly out of Japan and Teagu, South Korea. His plane was hit one time well north of the 38th parallel and his trim control was severed, creating a wrestling match with his stick. He wedged his log book between his seat and the stick to help him control the plane back to base. In all, he flew 102 missions over Korea.
He and his wife were assigned to Hamilton Field in 1951-53, with his wife as commander of the WAC squadron. They lived just off South Novato Boulevard and he flew F-84s, F-86s and F-89s. He spent time in Moses Lake, Wash., Okinawa, Japan and Colorado Springs (NORAD) before retiring in 1965 following a 26-year career.
But a week after retiring, he was in Saigon working for Air America. He flew more than 8,000 hours (mostly in C-45s and C-46s) out of very short airstrips shuttling cargo, dignitaries and other passengers (“I got to meet a lot of Vietnamese generals”). He left in 1975 at the end of the Vietnam War.
Clarke has lived in a hilltop home on the city’s east side since 1975. His wife died in 1987 and he was remarried in 1989 to Doris, who had worked for Air America in Vietnam.
What’s your favorite memory of your service?
Flying the Mustang was just so great because it brought me home so many times. It was fun to fly and very maneuverable. And in those days it was fast.”
What was the scariest time?
“We were based at the northern tip of Luzon (Philippines) and were on the way back from Hong Kong one time. We did a lot of long-range stuff and we tried to empty our fuselage gas tanks before we switched to the wing tanks. Right as I was switching, my engine quit. I was at 11,0000-12,000 feet above the clouds and I knew it was nothing but black water below those clouds, and I hated flying over water. I did everything I was supposed to do, but I just started going down. My flight leader told me to try something and right before I hit those clouds, it caught. I was at about 5,000 feet.”
Is patriotism what it used to be?
“It’s hard for me to understand the lack of patriotism today. Sometimes people think it’s a bad thing to even talk about it. Every year I get on my uniform on and go to Civic Center on 11th of November, enjoy the music and the speakers and see my old friends, but there were so few there this year.
“Don’t know what we have to do to regenerate the feeling that being patriotic is good. You don’t have to walk up and down the street yelling about it, but I’m talking about being proud to display it. People don’t read enough history and or read enough about how great the guys who started this country were.”
Interview by: Brent Ainsworth, Novato Patch, on December 4, 2010