Bob Clemens, B-17 Navigator

 
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Robert J. Clemens, Navigator, B-17 Flying Fortress, United States Army Air Forces, Fifteenth Air Force, 463rd Bomb Group, 773rd Bomb Squadron, Foggia, Italy. Enlisted November 1942. Flew 50 missions from June 16, 1944 through September 12, 1944 including missions to Germany; Austria; Budapest, Hungary; and five missions to Ploesti, Romania. Past President of the Eighth Air Force Historical Society of Minnesota
 
 
 
Bob Clemens tells a joke (Duration 55 sec.) 4-27-2011
 An Interview with Bob Clemens in front of the B-17 Aluminum Overcast for Cable TV, July 21, 2011.
Bob getting a ride to his car in a beautifully restored WWII Jeep. Blaine-Anoka Airport, July 21, 2011.

(Above) Bob Clemens at the 8th AFHS-Mn table at Blaine Aviation Days 2012

Robert J. Clemens, Navigator, Boeing B-17, United States Army Air Forces, Fifteenth Air Force, 463rd Bomb Group, 773rd Bomb Squadron, Foggia, Italy. Enlisted November 1942. Flew 50 missions from June 16, 1944 through September 12, 1944 including missions to Germany; Austria; Budapest, Hungary; and five missions to Ploesti, Romania.

Training

Bob Clemens was inducted at Fort Snelling, in Minnesota. He did his Basic training at Jefferson Barracks outside of St. Louis, Missouri. His College Training Detachment training was at Washington University in St. Louis and Piper Cub flying at an airport on the St. Louis side of the Mississippi. Classification was at San Antonio Aviation Cadet Center where he scored 9, 9, and 9 on his tests which qualified him to chose being a pilot, navigator, or bombardier. He liked math, so he chose navigator training. He then traveled to Hondo, Texas for Navigator school and did his crew assignment and crew flying training with bomb runs at Sioux City, Iowa. His crew had already been training before he arrived and he was the last to join. They needed the navigator. After crew training his crew went to Nebraska to pick up a B-17, but they didn’t have one available. The crew then traveled to Virginia and crossed the Atlantic on a troop ship with several escort ships. He remembered them using depth charges at one point. They arrived at Oran, Algeria and then went on to Foggia, Italy where his Bomb Wing was based. After his 50 combat missions in Italy he returned to the U.S. on an unescorted troop ship, (which zig zagged to avoid subs--the war was not over,) to Virginia and then took a very old dusty troop train and eventually taught navigation at Hondo, Texas while taking the Cruise Control School coursework. Hondo was the B-29 Advanced Flight Engineering school for B-29 aircrew who were learning how to monitor and control fuel usage on long flights.

1. From a Presentation on DVD. Video Replay December 29, 2010, Eighth Air Force Historical Society of Minnesota meeting.

“I was born March 11, 1924. I lived in Little Canada, Minnesota, which is a suburb just north of downtown Saint Paul. I graduated from White Bear High School in May of 1942, and I enlisted in November of ‘42, [at age 18] mainly because I wanted to fly. In the Depression most kids, most boys at least, wanted to to fly, and we knew we never could because we didn’t have enough money because all of us were so poor, but we thought, boy, now with the war on, we’d get a chance to maybe fly.

In February of ‘44 at age 19 I had my wings and my commission as a second lieutenant, and I flew my bombing missions out of Foggia, Italy. I think by far the most important thing was the discipline. I had been disciplined very thoroughly at home and I think the discipline that we got was very important as we flew our bombing missions because we had to work together as a crew of all ten of us.”

2. From “Bob Clemens Stories” Eighth Air Force Historical Society of Minnesota website:


Bob Clemens, B-17 Navigator, 463rd BG, 773rd Squadron, Foggia, Italy.

I enlisted in the Army Air Forces in November 1942 at the age of 18, received my wings and commission [at age 19] in February 1944, and completed 50 missions [age 20] on 12 September 1944 without a scratch. My first mission was to Wiener Neustadt, Austria, 16 June 1944. During July 1944 the Fifteenth Air Force lost 318 heavy bombers, and another 330 bombers were lost in August. When I returned to the USA in October 1944, only 150 of the 400 crew members who arrived in Italy in June 1944 could be accounted for.


27 June 1944. Our target was the marshaling yards in Budapest, Hungary. The purpose was to disrupt railroad traffic, especially trains carrying arms to the Russian front and oil from the Ploesti, Romania, fields. The assigned bombing altitude was 21,000 feet, but our actual altitude was 13,000 feet. Either is too low. The temperature at altitude was -19° F. Twenty-seven bombers flew the mission.

We took off at 6:50 AM. We made our bomb run at 21,000 feet in heavy flak. The target was clouded over, so we didn't drop our bombs. Instead we circled over Budapest while another group made their run. We finally made our run and were on the bomb run 10 minutes before we dropped our bombs from 13,000 feet. We were in flak for 22 minutes and were literally shot all to hell. JU 88s were dropping bombs on us from above. As we came off the target, we were down to 8,000 feet and were all by ourselves. The crew checked in: Cliff had a light flak wound.

About that time Willie spotted a speck in the sky at 7 o'clock high. He hollered, "Shoot." It was an FW 190. The leading edge of the fighter's wing lit up as he fired his 20-mm cannon. Willie, Klug, Louie, and Fritz all shot at him. They thought they had gotten him, and this was later confirmed by some P-38 escorts. But he had also gotten us.

One of the 20-mm shells blew a patch of hide off Fritz's calf and exploded in his radio equipment, moments after he had put out a call for fighter escort help. We spotted what we thought were a dozen P-51s at 9 o'clock. P-51s and ME 109s look a lot alike. These were 109s. Fortunately, a bunch of P-38s appeared at about 4 o'clock high and came on in.

A 20-mm cannon shell had put a hole in one blade of the #2 engine, throwing it out of balance, so it had to be feathered. Another prop had a big nick out of it. Because of the flak and cannon damage, we had only two engines running. We were alone and more than 500 miles from our base. So we started to strip the plane of anything heavy. We threw out machine guns, ammunition, flak suits, armor plate, and even the bombsight. The latter was my addition and an action for which I was later reprimanded. The Norden bombsight was considered "secret," but the Germans must have had thousands of them from wrecked bombers. We were ready to drop the ball turret if necessary to make it back over the Balkan Mountains, but we didn't have to.

We made it back, but we never heard of another bomber making it from that far away with two engines out and as badly crippled and shot up as we were. Our total time in the air was 6 hours 40 minutes. The ground crew counted 350 flak holes and 37 cannon holes and gave up counting. German pilots are reported to have said that in their experience, 14 or 15 hits from a 20-mm cannon would usually bring down a bomber. Only seven of our B-17s returned with all engines turning. Our plane required three new engines, three new props, and all new radio equipment.

After we landed, we were congratulated on a job well done, and we congratulated each other. Silently, as we reflected on what we had just experienced, we wondered how many of us would finish 50 missions. For me, there were 42 more to go.


31 July 1944. The target was the Xenia oil field in Ploesti, Romania, one of my five missions over Ploesti. We bombed from 23,400 feet, where the temperature was -20° F. Twenty-five planes flew the mission. We were briefed to expect 15 ME 109s from Nis, Yugoslavia, and maybe 40 more from the Russian front. There were 201 heavy guns within range of us at the target.

At 11:14 AM we feathered the #3 engine and dropped behind the group. Black smoke was rising everywhere--from previous bombing and from our bombs. Two planes blew up over the target. When #5 in Able Squadron blew up, it showered us with debris. One chunk of flak flew through the astrodome and put a dent the size of a fist in my flak helmet. Flak also shattered the windshield in front of the pilot, and broken glass hit the copilot. No wounds. We limped home alone on three engines. We lost two bombers and their crews on that mission. Time in the air: 7 hours 45 minutes.


Lighter moments.

In early September 1944, I flew 5th Wing lead with Col. Frank Kurtz, who had met Axis Sally at the 1935 Olympics, where Kurtz was a diver. We listened to her broadcasts because she played all the latest popular music of that era. That day she broadcast that the Germans knew where we were going to bomb (Budapest) and they would shoot down Frank Kurtz and "that young, pink-faced navigator from Minnesota."

Another light moment occurred in October 1998, just before I had my left knee replaced at the Mayo Clinic. The anesthesiologist asked me to buy some lottery tickets for him because he thought that I must be lucky, having flown all those bombing missions without getting a scratch!

3. From “Minnesota’s Greatest Generation.” The Minnesota Historical Society website.

Flying Bombing Missions in the ETO

Written by:

MGG Project Team (Connection To Main Character: Submitted on behalf of Bob Clemens)

Location of Story: Italy, Hungary, Romania
Time of Story: 1944

Main Character: Bob Clemens
Age During Story: 20
Ethnicity: American
Gender: Male
Hometown: White Bear Lake, Minnesota

Editor's Note: The following stories are excerpted from an oral history interview conducted with Mr. Bob Clemens at the Harold C. Deutsch World War II History Roundtable held at Fort Snelling on February 9, 20

I graduated from White Bear Lake High School in May of 1942, and in November of 1942 I enlisted in the Army Air Force. I went through my training, and I got my commission as an aerial navigator with my wings and second lieutenant's commission in February of 1944, at age 19. I then went on and took training at Sioux City, Iowa in a B-17 and met my crew there. There were ten of us, and we took our training and went overseas and were attached to the 15th Air Force, the 463rd Bomb Group, the 773rd Bomb Squadron. I flew fifty bombing missions from June 16th of 1944 to September 12th of 1944, and then I returned back to the United States and was a navigator instructor until they put me in the training program for B-29 cruise control officers, and was scheduled to go overseas in late September of 1945. Of course the war was over – thankfully – in August of 1945 in the Pacific.

While I flew with the 15th Air Force in Italy, I had many unusual experiences. First of all, I had a wonderful crew. There were ten of us. On a typical crew on a B-17 there were ten men. Six of them were enlisted men and four of them were officers, and we had learned at Sioux City, Iowa where we took our training to work together as a unit, and we did function very well. We fortunately had a pilot that was 28 years old – eight years older than me – and he was a very steadying influence on our crew.

We had many harrowing experiences on every mission, [such as] flak, which was fire from the ground by German 88- and 105-mm guns, and very often we would encounter German fighter planes, the ME-109s and FW-190s.

Probably several of the most interesting missions were the scariest ones. We went to Budapest, Hungary to bomb...where they put trains together that were hauling freight for the German war effort. When we got to Budapest on that day in late June of 1944, there was a level of clouds above us and a cloud cover below us. We were at 23,000 feet and the group commander decided to circle the target and go in below the cloud cover below us. We got down to 13,000 feet, which was very, very low to bomb in a heavy bomber B-17 at that time. While we circled the target, we were in ground fire and flak for 20 minutes. We dropped our bombs and went over the target. We lost Number 3 engine. The engines are numbered on a bomber from left to right as you face forward in the airplane. The number 3 engine had been shot out, and they feathered the prop, which means they turned the propeller so that it did not turn at all, and as we left the target, four German fighter planes attacked us – one ME-109, and three FW-190s. They shot out the Number 2 engine, and so we had two engines left. We didn't know if we'd be able to get over the mountain going back to Italy, so we threw out a lot of the equipment on the airplane. We did make it back to the base. It was unusual, the airplane had about 350 holes in it from ground fire, which were probably about the size of a silver dollar, and it had about 35 holes from the German fighter planes, [which] had 20 mm cannons, and those holes were as big as six inches across. What was very unusual is that the ground crew put two new engines on that airplane and patched up all those holes in less than a week, and had that airplane back in the air. The ground crew, I am told, worked on that airplane for 56 hours without going to bed. They were sensational people, the men that kept our airplanes flying.

Another famous target that we went to was Ploesti, Romania where the Germans got about 60% of their oil, and that target was bombed constantly by the 15th Air Force out of Italy. The 15th bombed it I think seventeen times. I was on five of those missions, and in one of them, in late July of 1944 the ground fire, as we got to the target, was terrific – planes were going down all around us. As I stood up in the nose of the B-17 – there was an astrodome in the top of the nose – that's where we took shots on stars and the moon if we were flying at night. I was sanding up there [when] a piece of flak from the ground fire about as big as your index finger hit my steel helmet, and made a dent in it as big as my fist, knocked me down to the floor, but did not injure me. That same explosion of flak broke the windshield in front of the pilot and co-pilot, but no one was hurt. We always wore sunglasses because we were at such high altitudes and the sun was so bright, so they probably protected us from getting hurt in our eyes. On that mission we also lost two engines, and we flew home by [ourselves] but the whole bomb group followed us home. We set the way for them, and it was wonderful that they stayed with us because they protected us from the German fighters.

Pioneer Press article about Bob Clemens' 90th Birthday and his Prison Ministry.

This project has been made possible by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on November 4, 2008. Administered by the Minnesota Historical Society.

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Star Tribune Obituary

Robert J. Clemens

  • Robert J. Clemens

Clemens, Robert J. Age 92, of White Bear Lake, went to his eternal home on June 6, 2016. Preceded in death by daughter, Carol. Surviv-ed by wife, Mary Nell; children, Bruce (Jean) and Carla Birchem (Gary); 4 grandchildren and 7 great-grandchildren. A celebration of Bob's life will be Friday, 11:00 A.M. at FIRST LUTHERAN CHURCH, 4000 Linden Street, White Bear Lake. Visitation Thursday 4:00-7:00 P.M. and also one hour prior to the service ALL AT THE CHURCH. Private interment Fort Snelling National Cemetery. Memorials are preferred. Bradshaw - 651-407-8300 bradshawfuneral.com

Published on June 7, 2016


 I digitized an audio recording Vince Parker made of an interview that Stan Turner did with him and Bob Jasperson about Bob Clemens. It must have been recorded just before Air Expo during the summer of 2016. The link is at
You may need to launch or download an audio plugin or software program to listen to the Mpg file inside your web browser. Its about 60 Mb in size if you want to download it to your computer. 
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K Callahan,
Apr 27, 2011, 12:52 PM
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