While a student at The Citadel in the late 1930s, Harold Clinge volunteered to take flying lessons at the expense of the U.S. Army Air Corps. He quickly realized he was part of a nationwide college plan to develop airplane pilots to be called to active duty in the event of World War II.
All of Clinge’s instructional flying hours were gained at Orangeburg’s Jennings Airport. He drove up from Charleston to Orangeburg several times a week to participate in the government-sponsored flying program.
Two days after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, 19-year-old Clinge received a telegram from the U.S. Army ordering him to report to active duty at Columbia’s Fort Jackson. After flight physicals and administrative induction into the Army Air Corps, he was off to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for bi-wing pilot training. Mono-wing schooling at Bainbridge, Georgia, and advanced training at Tallahassee, Florida, followed before he became a fighter pilot with the rank of second lieutenant.
After a brief stint of training with the Navy as a dive bomber pilot, he was assigned to the newly activated 325th Fighter Group of the 15th Air Force which was scheduled to travel via Navy convoy to North Africa.
Clinge, his fellow pilots and ground crews were amazed at how their new model P-40 fighters were transported from the Navy air station at Norfolk, Virginia. to the coast of North Africa for launching into the air.
The pilots taxied their planes through the streets of Norfolk with the aid of wing walkers, Navy personnel who manually provided steerage of the airplanes to the docked aircraft carrier, USS Ranger. The 40 or so planes were hoisted and strapped to the Ranger’s flight deck. Off the coast of Casablanca eight days later, the pilots flew the fighters from the aircraft carrier’s deck to an airfield at Tafaraoui, Algeria.
They went into combat in April 1943 and began escorting medium bombers and flying strafing missions supporting Allied ground troops. The P-40 fighters were instrumental in clearing the way to establish airfields for American bombers in Libya and Algeria. A captured Italian air base, Foggia, in Southern Italy near the Adriatic Sea, became the main base for the fighters. Most of the U.S. bombers were based at Benghazi, Libya.
In its move to Foggia, the 325th was equipped with new fighters, the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. With four .50-caliber machine guns on each wing, they were the largest and heaviest fighters in the American arsenal. The P-47 was built primarily for attacking ground targets with machine guns and light bombs. In May 1944, pilots of the 325th welcomed another new fighter, the P-51 Mustang, a high-altitude fighter-bomber that could escort heavy bombers during long-range missions to attack targets as far away as the outskirts of Berlin.
Clinge recalls an unusual mission flown about 30 days after the squadron had converted to the new P-47s. He estimated that more than 300 German fighter planes were parked on the air strip near Udine, Italy.
“Each time we went up to attack the base, the planes had already been flown elsewhere. They knew we were coming. To escape exposure by German radar, we flew most of the 300 miles to their base at an altitude just above the ocean waves of the Adriatic Sea. We destroyed most of the planes that were there,” he said.
For Clinge and his fellow pilots, there was little time for rest. Supporting the American ground forces as they fought their way up the Italian peninsula was a constant mission, as well as eight-hour missions providing protection for bombers on their way to bomb the Ploesti Oil Fields in Romania. The oil fields supplied more than 30 percent of the petrol that fueled Hitler’s tanks, battleships, submarines and aircraft. For more than two years, Ploesti was a prime target of U.S. bombers. The flow of oil was not entirely cut off until the oil fields were captured by Russian ground forces in the latter days of the war.
As it is with all American airmen who flew in raids on the oil fields of Ploesti, Harold Clinge braced himself in recalling some terrible memories of the 20 missions he had while escorting formations of B-24 and B-17 bombers to an initial point to start their low-level bombing runs over the 30-mile long, 10-mile wide corridor of the oil fields.
“The oil fields were surrounded by several hundred 88 mm anti-aircraft gun emplacements and were protected by about 500 German fighters stationed within close range of Ploesti. The German anti-aircraft guns exploded tons of black shrapnel into the atmosphere. It was like turning day into night. We (the escorts) had to break away to allow the bombers to proceed on their established bombing paths that were always in the middle of towering flak,” Clinge explained.
Clinge made page one of The Times and Democrat on March 20, 1944. In an Associated Press story from Allied Headquarters in Naples, Italy, the Orangeburg native was praised for shooting down one of the more than 150 German fighters which was attacking American bombers on a bombing run over Romania.
The newspaper article continued: “Clinge flew 50 combat missions as a fighter escort to protect American bombers on long range missions. On his 50th mission, he was wounded while he engaged German fighters that had come up to intercept a bombing run over Romania. Clinge’s P-51 canopy was shot off, and shrapnel entered his body. Although wounded and flying in subzero freezing weather, Clinge managed to return to his home base. He was hospitalized and returned to the United States after that mission.”
Upon returning to Orangeburg, he was employed by the U.S. Postal Service for 34 years. After retirement from the postal service, for nine years he held an administrative position with the Methodist Oaks. He and his wife resided at The Oaks at the time of his death on Dec. 4.
His 90th birthday was celebrated on Oct. 11, 2010. At age 10, after his father had passed away, he moved with his mother from Charleston to Orangeburg.
Survivors include his wife of 67 years, the former Omega Pace, and two daughters, Mrs. John F. Shuler of Orangeburg and Mrs. John Alexander of Mobile, Alabama.
Dean Livingston is the retired publisher of The Times and Democrat and author of the book, “Yesteryears, A newsman’s look back at the events and people who have influenced the histories of Orangeburg and Calhoun counties.”