Sunday, December 6, 2009

‘Stubby’ Clapper Had Right Build to be an Air Corps Turret Gunner

Daily American Staff Writer
Sunday, December 6, 2009 10:52 PM EST

At 5-feet, 4-inches, Earl G. “Stubby” Clapper was the perfect height for the U.S. Army Air Corps. When he was in basic training, his superior officers “pretty much” looked at 107-pound Clapper and said he was to become a turret gunner.

That was fine with him.

“I enlisted because I didn’t want to be a foot soldier,” Clapper said. “And I always loved airplanes.”

More than 18,000 B-24 Liberators were built. That is even more than the other famous World War II bomber, the B-17 Flying Fortress. The B-24 had an aluminum and Plexiglas ball turret on top of the aircraft in addition to a tail turret. Smaller men were needed to fit into the turrets. They staffed twin 50-caliber machine guns and were radiomen.

Clapper, Meyersdale, enlisted in October of 1942. After basic training, he was sent to radio school in Scottfield, Ill., then aerial gunnery school at Ft. Meyers, Fla. The 10-man crew was formed. They were sent to Salt Lake City, Texas, for phase training. (The practice missions.) The crew picked up the airplane in Topeka, Kansas. It was named The Jane Lee for pilot Herschel Mahon’s wife.

“It wasn’t scary (sitting in the ball turret),” Clapper said. “It was better to be above than to be the tail gunner, who was more vulnerable because attacks came from the back.”

The crew of The Jane Lee flew the southern route through Brazil across the ocean to Dekar, North Africa, then across the Mediterranean to Italy. The flight took seven days. The Jane Lee was in the 451st bombardment group of the 727 squadron. The aircraft attacked targets including oil refineries, aircraft factories, yards, bridges and airfields. The targets were in Italy, France, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria, Albania and Greece.

The Jane Lee was damaged several times by enemy fighter and anti-aircraft fire. A letter that Clapper still keeps from squadron surgeon Joe W. King stated that a few times the aircraft was so badly damaged that The Jane Lee had to land at airfields not its own, including once when it landed in Corsica with 187 flak holes in the aircraft.

“We wore electric suits because it got to 20 below zero when you flew at 20,000 feet,” Clapper said. “We carried hankies to stuff in burned parts of the suit from hot spots when it shorted out. If I had known that before I enlisted, I would have looked for a typewriter.”

The airmen carried escape kits in case they were shot down. Kits included morphine, pills to make water drinkable, a map and money.

“But you were on your own if that happened,” Clapper said. “We had only one confirmed kill. People don’t understand - we couldn’t come back and say we shot down someone unless another crew saw it to confirm it. The next day we were ready to go again. All we (veterans) want is respect. We didn’t like what we did, but it had to be done. It was very nerve-racking. We didn’t know if we’d come back. We went down the runway at 130 miles per hour, sitting on 10 tons of bombs and over 3,600 gallons of fuel.”

Clapper was a technical sergeant. His major awards included three battle stars and four air medals. He flew 35 missions and had 900 hours of flying time when he was discharged in August of 1944. Later, the Jane Lee went missing in action on its 180th mission. The aircraft was over Vienna when it disappeared.

“I’m glad I served,” he said. “I’m proud I served.”

Earl G. Clapper, Meyersdale, and a model of the B-24 Liberator. He was a ball turret gunner on The Jane Lee in World War ll. (Photo by Vicki Rock)
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