Gale (Buck) Cleven, 100th Bomb Group

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The following was written by Major Gale (Buck) Cleven, 350 sqd commander, 100th bomb group, shortly after arriving at Stalag Luft 3 in late October 43.

Take off and assembly of the group was routine on the morning of October 8, 1943 for a bombing raid on Bremen, Germany.  The component parts of the Eighth Air Force gradually combined to string out in a line towards the enemy coast.  As the groups closed in battle formation, a steady climb was begun to enable the units to be at altitude before reaching enemy territory.    Before reaching the IP (Initial Point), the door panel on the Ball Turret sprung causing malfunction, hence necessitating stowing of the guns.  Flak over the target was intense, which caused the high Squadron of which we were leading, to break up leaving our wingmen.  The leader of the group at this time made a violent turn to the left releasing his bombs in that attitude, then turning sharply to the right, aborted down and out of the group, with number three engine smoking.  We flew straight ahead firing flares to reassemble the group, but during the confusion, the remaining ships had flown down to the low group thus leaving us alone.  Turning to the right as briefed, three fighters at 10:00 high, out of the sun, attacked immediately causing considerable damage.  20 mm. shells hit number two engine forcing it to freeze, and throw oil over the left side of the plane.  A gas line was ruptured permitting a large flow to whip under the left wing.  The controls to number three were shot away leaving a loss in power and no way to vary that power.  The cowling and lower cylinders were shot away on number four putting it on the inoperative list.  Information from the radio gunner disclosed that the Dorsal Fin and Rudder was split open vertically by exploding shells, and that the air flow was widening the opening rapidly.  The horizontal stabilizers were punched thoroughly by the same cause. Many control cables including all the trim tab controls were severed; in the waist position, the lines were hanging limp, thus hampering the movements of the gunners.  By this same attack approximately eight to ten feet of the left wing was blown off, and small caliber shells ripped through the left side of the nose continuing on to underneath the co-pilots seat causing a fire in the blankets stowed there.  The plane was cleared of all loose articles and ammunition to lighten the load in a futile attempt to fly,(Buck was trying to get to the boarder and into Holland before they bailed out) but as descent was gradually forced, hovering fighters set number one engine afire thus forcing bail-out immediately.  The Navigator set the hour to be at this time approximately 3:15 p.m.  I left the ship at about two thousand feet landing approximately five to ten miles North East of Osnabruck surrounded by irate farmers.  (Buck left the ship via the nose hatch and pulled his rip cord after he saw the tail go by over his head.  Buck remembered swinging two or three times in his chute then going right through the front door of a German farm house ending up in the kitchen and ruining the stove.  The Mama was crying and calling Buck a Luftgangster and a Terrorflieger.  The Papa had Buck lying on his back with a pitchfork up against his chest.  Buck was trying to explain in his High School German that he was really a helluva nice fella but wasn’t getting very far.) Since Benny (Capt. DeMarco) and I fell close together we were promptly taken to a Luftwaffe station just west of the city where our crew gradually filtered in.  We stayed overnight under guard and at noon boarded a train going south traveling through Munster, Essen and Dusseldorf to Koln, changing trains at that point, we continued on to Frankfurt arriving at 1:00 A.M. Oct. 10.  Slept in the station until 7:00 A.M. at which time we traveled via train to Quackenbruck in the outskirts of Frankfurt.  Transferred to a street car and at 10:00A.M. came into Dulag Luft at Uberossel.  Remained in solitary overnight and was interrogated by the Germans the morning of Oct. 11.  Left there at 4:00 P.M. and walked a short distance to another section where personal articles were returned; then were moved to the center of Frankfurt that evening.   Oct. 11 – Oct. 20 at Dulag and at 6:P.M.on the latter was transported via street cars to the railroad station where we boarded freight cars.   Forty-three men to a car plus three guards.  Spent three nights and two days going by the way of Erfurt and Leipzig to Sagan.  Arrived at Stalag Luft 3 on Sunday morning the 23rd of Oct. at 9:00A.M.

 

Crew:

 

Major Gale Cleven – Commanding Officer           S/Sgt Jerome Ferrioggiaro – Top Turret

Pilot position

                                                                             T/Sgt Thorton Stringfellow – Radio
Capt. Bernard Demarco – Pilot                               S/Sgt William Woodbury – Waist

Co-pilot position

                                                                               T/Sgt James Barr – Waist
Flight Officer James Thayer – Co-pilot                  S/Sgt William Williams – Ball Turret

Nose gun position

                                                                               S/Sgt Harry Calhoun – Tail
Lt. John Downs – Navigator
Lt. Francis Harper – Bombardier

I first met Buck Cleven in the Spring of 2003.  I had done a painting of George Ott and his role as Deputy Lead in the 2nd Schweinfurt strike of 14 Oct. 1943 when his B-17 was hit.  George and his crew had to bail out over Germany and became POWs.  George was coming down to the Ranch to see the new painting.  A news reporter of KFYR TV (Cliff Naylor) was also coming to record the event.  George asked if he could bring a friend along to view the painting.  He was an old war buddy that he had met while he was at Stalag Luft III, a POW camp, and was presently living in Dickinson.  I said sure, the more the merrier!  When George and his friend pulled in I was introduced to an unassuming slight gentleman with white hair and an eye patch, Gale Cleven, who went by the name “Buck”.  Cliff Naylor started to interview George about the painting and George’s role in the air war and specifically the Schweinfurt raid also known as Black Thursday.  Somewhere along in the interview, George mentioned that Buck had been shot down just a week before he had and his story was one to be told.  Buck had even escaped his German captors toward the end of the war.  Mr. Naylor tried to get Buck’s story but he would have nothing of it.  It was George’s day and Buck was content with being silent in the background.  Buck did, however, mention that he had been in the 100th Bomb Group and had participated in the first Schweinfurt raid where they had also hit Regensburg.  After the interview all parties went on their merry way and I went back to my business of calving cows and didn’t think any more about the potential story Buck may have. 

Several days later I happened to be at another Veteran’s home in Mandan ND. (Dick Baron, P-47 pilot) Several books were laying on Dick’s coffee table and I casually picked one up.  The title was “Double Strike” The Epic Air Raids on Regensburg/Schweinfurt by Edward Jablonski.  I opened up the book to the center pages where the pictures were located and my eyes fell on a picture with the caption:  Gale Cleven, 100th Bomb Group, outstanding pilot and leader.  With a shocked expression, I turned to Dick and blurted out, “I just met this man!  He was at my house a couple days ago!!”  I borrowed the book from Dick and read it over the next few days.  Several pages told the story of Cleven on this raid.  Buck had been with the Regensburg force and his plane had sustained severe battle damage and his radio operator was killed.  The damage was such that the crew was preparing to bail out but Cleven calmed them and managed control of the B-17, going on to successfully bomb the aircraft plants at Regensburg then continuing on to a successful landing in North Africa.  I was bowled over!!  I obtained Buck’s phone number from George and gave him a call.  I told Buck about the book I had found by chance and he reluctantly admitted that he was in fact the man in the book but played down the whole thing and said the author had spread it on a bit thick.  (Found our later, Cleven’s superiors had put him in for the Medal of Honor for this raid.  It was reported that Buck’s response was, “Medal hell, I needed an aspirin!”)     

This started my friendship with Buck.  Every few weeks I would drive to Dickinson ND to visit with George and Buck.  We would often go out to eat at a local restaurant, linger over the meal and visit.  I would set back and listen as Buck and George would reminisce about their time at Stalag Luft 3, mostly about the humorous things that happened there.  Eventually Buck shared with me the story about the day he was shot down.

 It was Oct. 8, 1943.  A raid on Bremen, Germany.  Flak over the target was intense, causing the Group to break up, leaving Buck’s plane unprotected.  German fighters pounced, riddling the bomber with machine gun and cannon fire.  Buck’s plane took extreme damage, Number 2 engine was off line, number four engine was literally blown away, #3s controls were shot away.  The vertical stabilizer was blown open and the horizontal tail was thoroughly holed.  6 to 10 feet of the left wing was gone and number one engine eventually caught fire.  Buck tried to reach the Netherlands as they steadily lost altitude and continued attacks by fighters did more damage.  When the bomber descended to 2000 feet, Cleven ordered the crew to bail out as more altitude was lost.  He stayed at the controls as the last of the crew jumped, then jumped himself and pulled his rip cord as the tail went over his head.  The chute had just barely opened when Buck went through the back door of a German farm house, hitting with such force that he totally destroyed the little stove in the small room.  Buck was scrambling around on the floor trying to get his feet under him.  The lady of the house was hysterical, screaming and calling Buck a ‘luftgangster’ and ‘terrorflieger’.  Buck was still trying to get off the floor and struggling with the chute harness when the old farmer came and pressed the tines of a hay fork against his chest.  Cleven was desperately trying to remember some phrases of his High School German to explain what a nice guy he was but wasn’t having much luck.  About the time Buck thought he would be run through, a German policeman showed up and took him in custody.  Cleven and his crew were all captured and Buck eventually ended up at Stalag Luft 3.

 I had mentioned doing a painting of this event and Buck eventually agreed.  Buck gave me as much information as he had.  He knew the plane’s name was “Our Baby” and was a B-17F but not much else.  This was not a plane Buck had flown before.  As a squadron commander, Cleven was always flying different planes within the squadron.  I contacted the historian of the 100th Bomb Group and he suppled me with information on the plane, its tail number, code letters and paint scheme.  No pictures were available of this plane.  Supposedly there was nose art but without photographic evidence, it could only be guessed at.  I took the information I had and painted a picture of a B-17F with the battle damage Buck had mentioned.  The weathered green/olive drab paint job was correct.  It sported the iconic 100th BG square D on the tail, LN Sqd. Identifier on the side, ahead of the star n bar and plane identifier R on the rear of the fuselage and tail.  The plane was flying low over the German country side pursued by several FW-190s.  Buck can be seen at the controls and the rest of the crew are hitting the silk.

When finally finished I took the painting to Dickinson to show Buck and he seemed very pleased with the result.  He signed the painting:  Buck Cleven, Major, US Army AC, Oct. 8th 43.  After some discussion with George and Buck, it was decided to have prints made of the painting and in about a month I was back with a large box of prints.  I had planned on having Buck sign the around 400 prints.  After signing 10 or so prints, Buck declared he was done and would sign no more.  I was disappointed but felt lucky he had been such a help with the painting and that he signed what he did.  I thanked him and took the prints home.  I was surprised several days later when Buck called, saying, “Bring the rest of the prints, I’ll sign em all.”  To this day I don’t know what changed his mind but am very happy that he signed all 400.  I gave Buck about 20 of the prints and I guess he sent them all over the country to friends and family.  Time passed and I still would visit George and Buck when I could.  Eventually Buck moved to Sheridan WY so I didn’t get to see him as often.  Every 6 months or so Buck would drive back to Dickinson and He and George would run down to the Veterans hospital in Fargo.  I would meet them in Bismarck for a meal and visit when they would pass through.  The spring of 2006, George, my son and I drove to Wyoming to see Buck.  We were treated like kings!  Buck put us up in a suite at a nearby hotel and insisted in buying all our meals.  We had a great time.  It was the last time we would see him, he passed away later that fall.    

All the while I had been getting to know Buck, I had been coming across his name and pictures in numerous books and publications about the air war in Europe.  After Buck’s passing I found out about another book that had just been published, “Masters of the Air” by Donald Miller.  The book was full of Cleven’s exploits as he served with the 100th Bomb Group and his time in captivity.  Unbeknownst to me, at the same time I had been painting his picture he had been in contact with Mr. Miller doing a number of interviews.  Buck had not said a thing.  The book actually had come out before his death but he never mentioned it to George, me or anyone else.  I was so pleased his time in the service was documented.   

Postscript:  Jump ahead 10 years.  Was contacted by author, Donald Miller, and learned that the book “Masters of the Air” was being made into an  miniseries produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. (similar to Band of Brothers) Mr. Miller informed me that Gale “Buck” Cleven, the man that stood in my living room and that I had enjoyed visiting with for so many countless hours would be one of the main characters!!  Filming is proceeding in England and release is hoped for 2020 or2021.

  

SOURCES:  Personal interview with Gale (Bucky) Cleven and access to his personal records.  Also much thanks to Mike Faley for information about the plane and crew, Mike is the 100th Bomb Group Historian and web site manager:  www100thbg.com

Print measures 23″ by 16.5″,  Signed by the Pilot and the artist,  350 S/N – $100 plus shipping  50 Artist Proofs – $200 plus Shipping.  Artist proofs include a Remarque.          Contact the artist