This week saw the passing of another great American, Clarence Dart, 91. Mr. Dart was one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, and visited our school on numerous occasions to tell his story. I published his account on my other website in 2007. He was a great storyteller, not only of the war but particularly about growing up in the Depression. Since the Albany NY Times Union newspaper has published the story of his passing drawing on this interview but has not provided the proper link, I’ll republish it here for the benefit of those who would like to read the entire interview. God bless you Mr. Dart. In this interview he is speaking to about 20 high school seniors; he talked nonstop and the kids loved it so much that they invited him back for the following class. I will publish that also in the near future.
interview conducted at Hudson Falls High School, December, 2003.
[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 in1941, 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.
As a kid I always built model airplanes because I was an airplane fanatic. It was after I saw the first airplane fly then they started selling these kits. First, it was mostly these little gliders you can throw around. There were a lot at fairs, not nowadays. Then I graduated to building replicas of real airplanes. I can remember being angry with my mother because when I was a kid they use to have these hobby shows; kids would get prizes by being judged on their workmanship. I had built this model of a Curtis Goshawk, a Navy fighter. There were a few mistakes in the thing, so, I didn’t want it exhibited, but my mother, she was so proud of it [laughs] she took it to the show and put it in there. I didn’t win anything, but she was proud enough that she wanted it exhibited. Anyway, I was always fascinated with flying.
When the war started and after a lot of pressure started from politicians, Mrs. Roosevelt and other people decided they would train black pilots. I have commentary on this because in spite of what black soldiers and sailors have done in the history of this country, it was always convenient just to forget what they did from the Revolution right on up until this day. They fight in Albany about giving the Congressional Medal of Honor for [Henry] Johnson. It shouldn’t have happened. He did as much as what’s-his-name [Sergeant York] did in World War I. I guess he killed about ten German soldiers that had attacked his group. At the end he was fighting with a knife. He used up all of his ammunition and saved a lot of his squad.
But when they decided to train black pilots, the assessment team came through, well, let me back up…
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.
I guess they didn’t believe me because I was around for almost six months and next thing I knew I got “greetings from Uncle Sam”. Have any of you heard your parents or father, grandfather talk about greetings from Uncle Sam? Well, that’s what the letter said, “Greetings,” [laughs] next thing I knew I was on a train to Fort Niagara, which was the classification center for our part of the state where they decided where you were going to go. The first thing they told us was, “Well, we don’t know what you can do, just tell us what you would like to do,” and so on and so forth. I put down all the things I had learned; airplane mechanics, machinist, and radio operator.
I didn’t get to go any place I asked. Next thing I knew I was on a train to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, for field artillery. I said, “Oh my goodness, I’m not going to learn how to fly.” But [then] I did a cardinal sin in the military. I didn’t go through channels. See, in the military, if you’re one of the lower ranks and you want to do something, you go to your squad commander and he passes it on to the company commander and if the company commander sees fit, he will forward it. I wrote this letter to the commanding general of the Air Corps. That’s against the law, [laughs] I bypassed everybody and in headquarters I think they realized I made a mistake. They wrote my father, but not me. He told me that they had said not to worry, because they knew where I was. When the field school was finished and my class was called, they would cut orders and have me sent to Tuskegee. Well, meanwhile, I didn’t mind the field artillery because it was fun shooting those big guns,155 (mm) howitzers… I think I shot every gun type that the military had at the time, at least the ground troops, all kinds of machine guns. They had pistols from the cavalry, the kind that you see, those long barreled pistols, in the movies. We had those kinds of pistols, and shotguns, tank weapons. When my orders came through, they came through on a Friday evening, no, I think they came during the day. But my company commander didn’t tell me until after retreat on that Friday. I think he was kind of angry with me because I had taken a lot of math in high school; I used to aim in my section, my howitzer section. They aim those big guns, they have what they call an aiming stick which is behind the gun. There was a periscope type thing on the breech of the gun. You look through that periscope back at the aiming stick to traverse the gun. They called down the elevation that they wanted you to fire the gun at. I was made chief of section because I had pretty good math background and didn’t have any trouble with triangulating a gun.
I turned him down [becoming second lieutenant] because through the scuttlebutt I had heard what had happened to second lieutenants in the field artillery. They made them forward observers. They sent them to places especially over the Pacific. The Japanese would figure out who was calling down fire on them. They search out the forward observers and naturally they didn’t last long. So we knew all this stuff and I turned him down. And he was disappointed because he thought I would jump at the chance to become an officer and second lieutenant. I told him, “No, I am going into the Air Corps.” Well he didn’t believe me, but I did get my orders. He waited until after retreat on a Friday, and I had to go to Oklahoma City to catch a train to go to Tuskegee. I had a lot of friends. They said, “Oh, we will help you out.” They of course could have gotten court marshaled for it. They went up to the office and forged signatures and got me transportation [laughs]…to get to Oklahoma City to catch a train to Tuskegee. I arrived at a little town called Cheaha at about two o-clock in the morning. It was way out in the boonies. There was a telephone pole with one little light that looked like a sixty watt bulb. [laughs] It was raining and not a train station, but out in the boonies. Pretty soon there came about 3 six-by-six trucks. They put us in the trucks and took us out to the field.
Before I left Fort Sill I tried to give my over coat back. I told the quartermaster, or the guy that worked in the quarter master’s section, that I didn’t need it anymore because I was going to Southern Alabama where it was nice and warm. I learned about the South that it can get just as cold down there as it does up in the north. He made me keep my overcoat. When we got to the field there was nobody who had been designated to start a fire in the furnace in the barracks. They were brand new barracks. So we had to sleep in our clothes the first night. The next morning we woke up they had these big water barrels at the corner of each barrack. There was ice about an inch thick on the water of those barrels. I guess they were supposed to be in case of a fire to help put a fire out. I was glad I had that coat.
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 Steerman company. It was the thrill of my life!
When I was going to the ground school, I used to work at Harris Hill during the summer. They used to have the world gliding contests. But I had never been off the ground. My first flight, there was nothing like it. My instructor says to me, “You know the way back to the field?” “Oh yes!” And hotshot me, I pointed and he laughed. He turned the plane up in a vertical and he pointed right over to the home field. I was really embarrassed. [laughs] Eventually I went through training and the day came when we taxied … out in the middle of the field. He says, “Okay, take it around and don’t break up the airplane.” That was when I soloed. First time in the air by myself and the greatest thrill I ever had! The people that even learn to fly today, the first time you are turned loose, you fly by yourself, it is a big thrill. I went through primary training in the PT-17s.
Then they transferred us to Army Air Corps field for basic and advanced training. Our basic trainers were BT-13s, Vultee Vibratorsas they were called, where we learned instrument flying and night flying. I had a little trouble in my basic training because learning to fly instruments, its like learning to walk blind folded. You had to navigate and control the airplane solely by yourinstruments. One particular day I couldn’t do anything right. I couldn’t hold a heading and I couldn’t hold an altitude. When we came back I had tears in my eyes because I knew that I was washed out. I told the instructor what he could do with his airplane, which wasn’t nice [laughs]. When you come back with your instructor, you usually have to stand there and you critique your flight. You have to salute him and then go back to the ready room. I didn’t even give him the benefit of that. I just turned on my heel and like I said, I told him what he could do with his airplane. I went back up to the barracks and started packing my clothes because I knew I had washed out. The next day my name was on the board and I went back and had a good day. I advanced to advanced training in T-6’s
My kids gave me a ride in a T-6 last year. Remember the airplanes that were advertised that were flying out of the field down in Ballston? They had T-6s down there. I forgot how much it cost, but it must have cost them three or four hundred dollars. My kids gave me a ride in a T-6 after all those years. I appreciated it. The airplane I was in I guess had to have been air worthy, otherwise the FAA wouldn’t have licensed it. It was a raggedy, beat up airplane. It flew and I got to do a few aerobatics and what-not. I got to do rolls and loops and what not. It was fun and I appreciated it.
When I first got to advanced training, the instructor I had was a real short guy. He was just a little over 5 feet and 6 inches. He was demonstrating how safe the airplane was. He rolled it on its back. The T-6′s didn’t have an inverted fuel system, so the engine quit. I’m looking strapped in this seat and the ground is coming up. He is gliding this thing upside down. I see the trees coming up! Pretty soon he flips the airplane back over. He restarts the engine and said, “See, you had nothing to worry about, because the airplane is safe.”[laughs] For about five minutes I was questioning his method of teaching me to fly. He was a good instructor and in fact our training group was the only one to do formation aerobatics, nothing exotic like you see at air shows, but loops and formations.
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.
Then we were sent to Selfridge Field outside of Detroit, Michigan for overseas training. From there every day we used to fly up to a field called Oscoda, which is north of Detroit, in the winter time. That was an experience because they didn’t have very good snow removal systems up there. Sometimes coming into land it was really an experience if you weren’t lined up, you were a little off line, next thing you know you would be going down the runway round and round like the cars do on the Northway [laughs] and it was fun. But a lot of times we’d fly back in snowstorms, so our instrument training was very valuable to us.
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.
Nothing else happened until I think it was, … it was May of ’43 [editor's note: 1944], we had another mission. The Germans had this big railway going, I don’t know if you ever heard of it, it’s on display down at, I forget that place in Maryland, just outside of Washington, where they have all these exhibits of WWII [the US Army Ordnance Museum]… But anyway it’s a big railway gun, and the Germans would hide it at night in this railway tunnel, which was up over thebeach head at Anzio and our job was to try to collapse the tunnel and keep this gun bottled up in there. So we started on our run because this was going to be not a dive, it was going to be to try to skip the bomb into the mouth of the tunnel… Just as we got about half way there I heard a “bang” and I didn’t know what it was, but I found out pretty shortly afterwards, because the next thing I know, I could see flames coming out from under the cowling. Then I said, “Uh-oh, I better put this down on the emergency field”, back at beachhead there, on the beach. I could see this big black cloud trailing behind me as I made my turn and the guys were yelling at me to get out, but I couldn’t, it was too low to jump out. So I made one circle and I figured I’d put it down in a bunch of saplings, I thought to cushion my impact, but just as I was approaching, all of a sudden I looked and I saw these 155 “Long Toms” [British artillery] in the midst of the saplings-they were using that sort of as a camouflage spot-and I had to drop my bombs safe (I didn’t pull the arming wires which would have… there’s a wire that goes in the little propeller on the end of the bomb that sets up the firing mechanism-when the bomb impacts, it’s pin pulls and the bomb explodes-) well, I dropped them safe, but I think the guys thought that I was going to bomb them [laughs], but the bombs didn’t hit them. I found a little dirt road… going east of there. I put this thing down on the road. I thought the fire had died down enough, but as soon as I hit, the fire flared up. Also, I had rolled the canopy back and locked it into a detent, that’s the way you hold the canopy open on a P-40, but the impact, I guess, dislodged the handle. The canopy slammed forward and jammed and I said “Uh-oh, I’m in trouble”. But I managed, I got out of my harness, got my feet under me, and with my back I popped that canopy off the airplane and I was down the road about an eighth of a mile before it blew up. Again I was rescued, so to speak, by some GI’s and they came out with a six-by-six truck. They took me to the beachhead where the Americans were using this big granary, that the Italians used to use I guess to store their crops when they harvested them, but they were keeping their trucks inside. That dog-gone gun came out that night and fired at the ships in the harbor. We were supposed to have [destroyed it], I don’t know why the guys didn’t finish the mission but, that gun was firing that night. Every time one of those shells went off, the truck would jump about six feet off the floor because those shells [were] about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle and that’s the kind of shells that that gun was firing. They were firing at the ships that were supporting the beachhead. So the next day, of course, the gun wasn’t firing… because they pull it back into that tunnel.
… they had a beat up P- 40 that had landed there before and they tried to get started and they couldn’t get it started. They gave me a ride back to my base that was about oh…about 50 miles down the [coast]… So I got back to base, I wasn’t too banged up this time and I was back flying the next day.
Then in June they had brought over three other squadrons. Colonel Davishad gone back to the States, meanwhile, because he was my commanding officer early, but they brought him back …because there was a lot of criticism about us, of course it was all made up, just like it was before we got trained because one senator said he had done a study and he found out that black peoples’ cranial cavity was too small to hold the knowledge to fly an airplane. But see he didn’t know that black people had been flying ever since everybody else had, because there was two schools in the country, one in Chicago and one in Los Angeles. But anyway I got back through Rome,
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-51’s 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-51’s. 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.
INTERVIEW CONDUCTED BY MATTHEW ROZELL ON DEC. 19TH 2003.