Meet: Clarence N. Chamberlain, Jr.
Colonel USAF (Retired)
Who I Am
I am Clarence N. Chamberlain, Jr., Colonel USAF (Ret.) and formerly of
the 489th Bomb Group, Eighth Air Force, WWII. Until recently, I lived
in a beautiful little suburb of Los Angeles, California, called Palos
Verdes Estates on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. From our front deck on a
hillside 600 feet above the South Bay coastline, my wife "Mike" and I
could overlook all of the beach cities from Redondo Beach to Malibu. This
view, of course, places Los Angeles International Airport nearby at our
doorstep and was convenient to all of our friends visiting the city. We
have recently moved to Airforce Village West in Riverside, California,
near March AFB.
I was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on August 30, 1922. Having found
that city not too much to my liking, I left (with my parents) for New
Jersey at the age of six weeks. There, I spent the formative and educational
years graduating from Asbury Park High School and entering Monmouth Junior
College (now Monmouth College). From an early age, I had wanted to be
in the military and Monmouth Junior College was a preparatory stage to
entering the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. Tojo changed
that, however, with the infamous Pearl Harbor attack of December 7, 1941.
Within hours, shaking with patriotism, I joined my brother, cousin and
a mutual friend on a hitchhiking pilgrimage to 90 Church Street, NYC,
to join the Marines. As luck would have it, though, the Marines would
not sign us up without parental consent. By the time we returned to obtain
that, my head had cleared and I joined the Army Air Corps Aviation Cadet
First Military Action
Called to active duty on January 8, 1943, I left Trenton, New Jersey by
train for classification at Nashville, Tennessee. I was chosen to be a
pilot and placed on a train for Maxwell Field, Alabama for preflight training.
This is where we learned the meaning of "Sir", "Salute" and "Shinola"
- also rudimentary academics and Morse Code. It was interesting - the
musicians among us mastered Morse Code like they had been born with it.
Following preflight, the fun really began. After another long and wonderful
train trip, we arrived at Primary Flying School. In my case, that was
Bennettesville, South Carolina, a civilian contract school. But, no matter.
At last we were going to fly!! I was beginning to think they were going
to strap wings on planes.
Two Major Lifetime Goals Fulfilled
After about 60 days and nearly as many Stearman, PT-17 flight hours, it
was on to a similar period at Basic Flying School, Shaw Field, Sumter,
South Carolina. Here we flew Consolidated Vultes BT-13s and 15s, affectionately
known as Vultee Vibrators. This was followed by another midsummer un-air-conditioned
deep south train ride to multi-engined Advance Flying School at Turner
Field, Albany, Georgia. The equipment used (beside the ever-present Link
Trainer) were Curtis AT-9 and Cessna AT-10 twin engined birds. Next to
my first solo in Primary, graduation from Advanced was the greatest experience
of my military life. (Of course, this does not include my marriage and
the birth of our children). I had achieved two major lifetime goals simultaneously
- my gold 2nd Lt. bars and my silver pilot wings. What a day!! My parents
came all the way from New Jersey to help celebrate. There were others
with me that day who would wind up on the same base with me in England:
Jack Clawry, Ralph Cotton, Carl Clader, Joe Lawson and Jake Jacobs. Carl
actually joined my second crew to help me with the flying duties.
My First Christmas Away From Home
After yet another train ride for a brief respite at home in New Jersey,
I then drove a high school friend's car to Tennessee for him. I had been
assigned there for 4 engine B-24 Liberator training at Smyrna Army Air
Field outside Nashville. It was here that I spent my first Christmas away
from home. We hardly had time to think about it with the intense schedule
we were on.
With B-24 qualification under our belts, another long circuitous (security,
you know) train trip found these new "hot rock" B-24 jockeys in a cold,
soggy, coal smoke-laden Salt Lake City flight crew depot. For the first
time, we met the nine other men we were going to go to war with.
Members of Crew #2918 were as follows:
2nd Lt. C. N. Chamberlain, Wanamassa, NJ
2nd Lt. K. K. Burnett, Keosauqua, IA
2nd Lt. H. J. Becker, Royal Oak, MI
2nd Lt. D. J. Carter, Austin, TX
S/Sgt. E. A. Pontillo, PA
S/Sgt. T. J. Ambrose, Rome, NY
Sgt. K. L. Gullekson, Wayne, MI
Sgt. C. W. Kidd, Charlotte, NC
Sgt. J. E. Lancelot, Midwest
Sgt. A. J. Langsdorf, Long Island, NY
To this day, I'm in infrequent, and sometimes, indirect touch with all
but Lancelot and his replacement, PFC M. V. Trevino.
More Hours On The Train Than In The Air
We were all happy to be away from Salt Lake City even if it was another
troop train. I am sure, by this time, I had far more hours on the train
than I did in the air. Our destination was Operational Phase Training
in Casper, Wyoming - in midwinter! This seemed to be a particularly snowy
and cold winter, too. In fact, the weather so interfered with our training,
that, by March, 1944, we moved to Pueblo, Colorado to finish filling all
of our squares. They had to make room for the new class following close
Some Close Calls
A couple of hairy incidents occurred to us in Casper. One was a night
Cross-Country flight over the Rocky Mountains. Weather turned foul - really
foul. Radios, wings and propellers iced up. Lost visual ground contact
in the overcast. In short, we were L 0 S T! Things were getting very dicey.
Then, through a brief break in the clouds, we spotted a coded navigation
light line on the ground. With the next break, we were able to identify
one of the light codes and reestablish our position. We were in a river
valley not too far from the base. With this knowledge, we let down through
the clouds (and between the mountains) and broke out beneath. We then
simply followed the river back to base. What a welcome sight!!
On another occasion, we were assigned to drop practice bombs at night.
This was done, along with many other aircraft, in a triangular pattern
at about 15,000 feet. At each corner of the triangle was a lighted target.
The procedure was to enter the pattern on a prescribed heading and to
fall in trail behind the other aircraft in the pattern. Then, while flying
from target to target, the bomb aimer (bombardier) sited the target, killed
his drift and dropped a 100 pound practice bomb on each one.
The tail gunner took strike photos through the camera hatch in the rear
of the aircraft. Pattern spacing was maintained by watching the wing navigation
lights on the traffic ahead. Mindful of the fact that the left wing was
tipped with a red light, the right one with a green light and the tail
with white, station keeping was fairly straightforward. HOWEVER!! One
night we were boring around the courses and the plane in front turned
left showing its red-tipped left wing. All normal. Then out of nowhere,
another red light of about the same intensity appeared in the space ahead.
At first, I thought another aircraft was cutting into the pattern. But
as I watched, not only was the light moving incorrectly to be a left wing
tip, IT WAS GROWING! This could mean only one thing. What we saw was the
large red passing light in the leading edge of an oncoming aircraft's
left wing. We were head on!! All I could do was dump the nose and peel
off to the left as this intruder drifted away over our right wing tip.
Needless to say, one close call like that is enough in a lifetime, much
less one night.
So, we canceled out and returned to base. Later, I found out that we
had nearly lost Sgt. Gullekson through the camera hatch when I exercised
my avoidance maneuver. He was poised there to take the strike photos.
That was really unnerving, since he was without his parachute. As a large
tail gunner, he used a chest chute which had to be removed to operate
his camera. WOW.
Lieutenant and Crew Lost In Combat
While at Casper, we shared quarters and became quite friendly with 2nd
Lt. Cliff. Bentcliffe's crew. This included his navigator, Lowell Fiscum
and bombardier Lou Celentano. They were later assigned to the 44th Bomb
Group and lost in combat.
A Beautiful Airplane
From Pueblo, we proceeded to Lincoln, Nebraska. There we picked up our
brand new B-24H, serial number 42-95215. Boy! It was a beautiful airplane.
All shiny and new. And all ours. What a feeling of ownership we enjoyed.
Our crew pampered that airplane all of the way to Valley Wales on Anglesley
Island. There, we rudely discovered it was not to be our airplane. As
a replacement crew, we went one way and the airplane another, never to
be seen again by us. I recently found out what happened to it, but that's
another story. It was assigned to the 492nd Bomb Group. After being shot
up with only one engine remaining, it was abandoned on July 18, 1944 over
The trip to Valley from Lincoln, Nebraska was uneventful via Grenier
Field, New Hampshire, Goose Bay, Labrador and Bluie West 1, Greenland.
Weather was crummy leaving Labrador. After landing in Greenland on June
4, 1944, we spent D-Day and a few others waiting for favorable weather.
We finally departed there on June 7 for an 8:50 hours to Valley. The last
couple of hours were spiced up by a not too welcome gasoline leak in the
A Family-like Group of People
It was a beautiful June day in Valley. We spent the night there and were
then transported to a "holding" base at Stone. This is a hamlet south
west of Birmingham near Kidderminster in Staffordshire. It was at Stone
that I had my first exposure at an English pub. I never realized until
then how family-like they were. It was like attending a party at a neighbor's
home. The atmosphere was cheerful, gregarious and entertaining. After
a few days there, we headed for Cluntoe, North Ireland - on the western
shore of Lough Neagh. Here, we underwent a couple of weeks of orientation
by combat veterans and bootlegged hardboiled eggs from the local farmers
who seemed to be almost part of the base. When the time was ripe, about
three ten-man crews were stuffed into a stripped B-17, and we were flown
to our respective combat stations. Finally, we rode a mode of transport
different than a train. We were dropped at Station #365 near Halesworth,
Suffolk - the home of the 489th Bomb Group commanded by Col. Zeke Napier.
My First "Trial By Fire"
Starting off in the 845th Squadron, my own first "trial-by-fire" to break
me in was as copilot with Ralph "Rudy" Hoerr's experienced crew. This
was a no ball "milk run" just across the channel. No flak, no fighters.
My Own Crew
I then completed 9 missions with my own crew. All of these missions were
fairly uneventful except for the fighter swarm and engine loss we ran
into over Ascherlieben, Germany. For the most part, we flew B-24H #42-94900.
Called "Rum Runner", it was flown to England by Flight Officer Loughren.
Following our ninth mission, I had the bittersweet experience of being
assigned to take over Bob Mitchell's 846th Squadron visual lead crew.
His aircraft, B-24H #42-94816, was called "Tiger's Revenge." It was named
for his fighter pilot brother, Tiger Mitchell, who had been lost in combat.
It was great to have the promotion in rank as well as responsibility,
but tough to leave the men I had trained with, grown close to, and become
used to. I was soon to find, however, a fine professional bunch on my
A Slower Pace
Lead crew duty was interesting and also slower paced. From flying one
combat mission every other day, it went to one per week or so, with lots
of "blue bomb" practice in between. From completing my first ten missions
within a month (July 1944), we went through the next thirteen in three
and one half months. One side benefit of this was more trips to London
and all that it offered from the Regent Park Zoo to Piccadilli to buzz
bombs. We used to stay at a small hotel called the Esplanade, I believe
in Warrington Crescent. The proprietor was accommodating and the food
was great - breakfast in bed and live lobster when you wanted it. What
a way to fight a war! The East Anglian City of Norwich being closer offered
shorter term recreation breaks.
My first crew had finished their tour and gone home. We were still there
in mid-November, 1944, when the 489th was stood down to prepare for return
to the United States. The plan was to recycle us to rejoin the war in
the Pacific. We boarded the Victory Ship Marine Robin at Liverpool around
December 1 for the heaving two-week convoy trip back to Boston and Bradley
After a welcome and joyous thirty-day Christmas leave in New Jersey, the
489th rallied at Topeka, Kansas. Rumor had it that we were going to pick
up brand new B-24Ms in Tucson, Arizona and head for antisubmarine duty
out of Hawaii. But by the time the train (again) got us to Tucson's Davis-Monthan
Field, there was one, ONE war weary B24D left on the station which we
all took turns flying. As it turned out, the entire group was to be dispersed
to various specialty-training bases to learn how to operate the B-29.
We would then be shipped to Okinawa to rejoin the relocated 8th Air Force
to help finish the war in the Pacific. Pilots and copilots proceeded to
Maxwell Field, Alabama for flight transition.
My Wedding with Ann Laird
The highlight of this assignment was my marriage to Ann Laird of Matawan,
New Jersey on February 22, 1945 in Chapel No. 1. Due to prevailing conditions,
there were about four men to every woman in attendance. In spite of it
all, though, it was a happy occasion. A major factor in making it so was
my father-in-law, a distiller of Lairds Applejack Brandy. The Matron of
Honor was Georgia Underwood, wife of fellow pilot Lt. Mack Underwood.
Carl Clader, my copilot and former flying school classmate, did the best
man honors. Carl was always a good steady man under any circumstances.
This occasion was no different.
Since I could get no time off for a honeymoon (war on, you know) all
I could do was cut ground school classes the next day. I'd have gotten
away with it, too, if when the roll was called, only my copilot answered
"Here". Instead, some of my eager friends joined him and about four of
them answered the call!
Upon completion of school, we returned to Davis-Monthan and rejoined the
rest of our crew for crew training. During this period, President Roosevelt
died in his third term, on April 12. Hitler ended his life on April 30,
and Germany surrendered creating V-E Day on May 7, 1945. Shortly thereafter,
the 489th moved to Fairmont Army AirField, Geneva, Nebraska for operational
training. It was there I made Captain. Then, with our forward echelon
already embarked for Okinawa, V-J Day occurred on August 9 when Japan
knuckled under to the intimidating power of the atomic bombs dropped in
close succession at Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 8 respectively.
The 489th was deactivated on October 17, 1945.
After WW II
The end of WW II saw rapid changes in the established might of our armed
forces. There were wholesale discharges of those who wanted to get home.
Others of us who wanted military careers were sent to relocation and reassignment
depots. The adjustment to peacetime status was wrenching and lasted well
into 1946. During that period, I enjoyed a brief assignment to the 444th
Bomb Group at Castle Field, California, followed by a three-year stint
in New Jersey. There, I flew with a flight test unit dedicated to the
U. S. Army Signal Corps. Our mission was to provide test beds for airborne
weather equipment being developed by the Signal Corps Fort Monmouth Laboratories.
One effort, Project Cirrus, inaugurated the military study of weather
control. General Electric's Nobel Prize winning Dr. Irving Langmuir and
his associate, Vince Schaefer, had discovered the technique of dissipating
super cooled clouds using carbon dioxide or dry ice, as a triggering agent.
Piloting The First Cloud-Seeding Mission
I was pilot on the first crew to successfully seed an overcast using this
concept. Later, I spent two and one-half years as Air Force representative
on the joint Army/Navy project based in Schenectady, NY. While so assigned,
our first son C. N. Chamberlain III, was born on April 8, 1946 in Long
Branch, NJ. The second, Dana H., joined us in Schenectady, NY on September
26, 1949, while we were assigned to the 509th Bomb Group in Roswell, New
The Rest of my Career
The remainder of my career paraded me through a variety of interesting
and challenging operational, technical and staff assignments from B-29
weather reconnaissance in Alaska, where I flew over the North Pole and
was promoted to major, to California, where we flew out over the Pacific
Ocean, to the Air University's Air Force Institute of Technology in Dayton,
Ohio for completion of my aeronautical engineering education. This was
followed by a series of R&D postings up to and including the Pentagon
and the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force where I received my last
two promotions and retired on August 1, 1970. This ended a major phase
of my life and placed me on the threshold of a brand new one which is
yet another story!