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 Ott, my son, Levi, 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 phone 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. (Third instalment following “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific”.) 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
Update: Due to the pandemic, filming didn’t start tell the summer and fall of 2021 with release due sometime in 2022 or early 2023 on Apple TV.
SOURCES: Personal interview with Buck 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