Sunday, December 16, 2007

An Overdue Wyoming Tribute

As a former resident of the great state of Wyoming, which remains the best place I've ever lived, I was saddened to receive a letter a few weeks ago from Scott Nelson, a farmer/rancher/aviation artist from North Dakota, who became friends with the late Gale 'Buck' Cleven, of the 100th Bomb Group.

Scott wrote me: "When Buck passed away in Sheridan, Wyoming, I tried to get the papaer there to run an obituary on him--Buck always considered himself as a Wyoming native and I thought it would be nice if the state would recognize him. No luck. Guess they figured he wasn't 'important' enough.

I then contacted the small Lemmon, South Dakota paper and they thought it was very important and they ran it, with some errors. This is the only obituary run of Buck that I know of--unfortunately, this small paper is not on the AP wire so the story went no further."

Time to rectify that situation, Scott. What follows is the obituary for Dr. Gale W. 'Buck' Cleven in its entirety, though it may take me a while to type it all. Because, Buck, you were and are an American hero and you deserve it.

'Dr. Gale W. 'Buck' Cleven passed from this life on November 17, 2006. Born December 27, 1919 in the Lemmon (SD) area, he moved to the Casper, Wyoming area where he worked on drilling crews and worked his way through the University of Wyoming. Dr. Cleven received degrees from Harvard and his geological doctorate degree at George Washington University. Dr. Cleven led a very accomplished life including fighting in three wars (WWII, Korea, and Vietnam), held a post at the Petnagon and was in charge of EDP information at Hughes Aircraft. Later, Dr. Cleven reorganized staffing and leadership at Webber University in Florida. Dr. Cleven retired in Dickinson, North Dakota and later at the Sugarland Ridge Retirement Center in Sheridan, Wyoming, where he resided until his death.

There are several books and web site postings of Buck's service in WWII including Masters of the Air: America's Bomber Boys who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany. In Masters of the Air, author Donald Miller credits Cleven, Eighth Air Force Squadron Commander, for giging the 100th Bomb Group its personality. Miller's book retells Major Cleven's story: 'On October 8, 1943, Major Buck Clevens (sic) was shot down over Bremen by three Luftwaffe fighters when they flew out of the sun and tore into his fortress, knocking out three engines, blowing holes in the tail and nose, sheering of a good part of the left wing. The situation hopeless, Cleven ordered the crew to jump. He was the last man out of the plane. When he jumped the bomber was only about 2,000 feet from the ground. Hanging from his parachute, Cleven saw he was going to land near a small farm house. He spun out of control and went flying through the open back door and into the kitchen, knocking over furniture and a small iron stove. The farmer's wife and daughter began screaming hysterically and, in a flash, the farmer had a pitchfork pressed against Cleven's chest. 'In my pitiful high school German I tried to convince him I was a good guy. But he wasn't buying it.'

Buck was taken to a prison camp where he spent about 18 months before escaping to Allied lines. Cleven escaped while being marched to Moosburg's Stalag VIIA. Among his many accomplishments during his time of service, Buck earned a Distinguished Service Cross, and Silver Star, Bronze Star. The DFC was for his heroic participation in the 'double-strike' of Regensburg and Schweinfurt on August 17, 1943. Sixty bombers and almost 600 men were lost. The aircraft factories and ball bearing plants were being guarded by the most formidable aerial defenses in the world at the time. Cleven was in the vulnerable low squadron--so called the Coffin Corner, the last and lowest group in the bomber stream. Cleven's plane was being shredded by enemy fighters. Cleven's co-pilot panicked and prepared to bail out. Cleven ordered his co-pilot to stay put. His words were heard over the interphone and had a magical effect on the rest of the crew. They stuck to their guns. His actions that day at Regensburg were said to 'electrify the base'. Lt. Col. Bierne Lay (who would later write the famous 'Twelve O'Clock High) recommended Cleven for a Medal of Honor. This was downgraded to a DFC, but Cleven never went to pick up the medal, claiming he didn't deserve it. He was quoted as saying, "Medal, hell, I needed an aspirin".

More history of Dr. Cleven's leadership at Hughes Aircraft is detailed in The King and the Seven Dwarfs, by Barney Oldfield.

Dr. Cleven is survived by his wife Lee Cleven of Ooltwah, TN, his sister Doris Shaw and one nephew of Dallas, TX. He was proceeded in death by his first wife Marge Cleven. His remains were laid to rest in Sante Fe, New Mexico."

Rest in peace, Buck. Wyoming honors you.

No comments: