|Oral history interview with Clyde G. Stephenson conducted by Dr. Peter H. Liddle at the EAA Museum and donated by Adam Smith, Director at EAA, for the World War II project. He discusses his experiences in the Marine Corps onboard the USS California and as a radio operator and radar technician for Marine Aviation OPS in the Pacific. A transcript is on file in the computer in the archives.
INTERVIEW OF CLYDE G. STEPHENSON GIVEN BY DR. P. H. LIDDLE
DECEMBER 1, 2001
It is December 2001, this is Peter Liddle at the Second World War Experience Center talking with Clyde G. Stephenson, 2217 Sunrise Drive, Appleton Wisconsin 54914 USA though in fact the interview is taking place in Oshkosh at the EAA Museum. I'm talking with Clyde with regard to his service as a US Marine in the Second World War and most particularly about his experience with USS California, though he was not aboard her at Pearl Harbor. But first please tell me where and when you were born.
CS: I was born in Milwaukee Wisconsin.
PL: In what year?
CS: In 1920 on May 28th.
PL: And your father, what sort of work?
CS: My father was an electrical engineer.
PL: Your schooling?
CS: My schooling, I went through high school and I went one year to college before going in the service.
PL: Though in fact your service was the US Marines, an elite corps and one presumes with very demanding training for proving fitness for the corp.
CS: Well I was sent to San Diego. The Marine Corps had two training places, one on the East Coast and one on the West and I was in San Diego on the West Coast at what they called boot camp and boot camp consisted of just learning to be a soldier you might say. Including…There was a lot of drilling and hikes and camping and particularly the rifle range was more or less the high point. You had to qualify on the rifle range, and they had three different qualifications. Then um…Boot camp was about three months. After boot camp, they had a sea school, which some of them went to and I went to the sea school and the sea school only was two weeks and the reason it was so short was the fleet was positioned in Long Beach California, about a hundred miles from where we were and they had orders for the whole fleet to move to Pearl Harbor as the new home base so…They replaced… The duty aboard ship was two years for a Marine.
PL: Perhaps you should explain to the listener the particular responsibility of Marines on a ship.
CS: Yeah the marines aboard ship, while it was in port were basically guard duty and Marines had the gangly guard and the general guard aboard ship. The marines also were orderlies for the captain and the executive officers of the ship and we had…The California was the finest ship of the fleet, we had a nice admiral and the admiral had a staff of I think about a hundred and fifty to two hundred people. The Admiral and his Chief of Staff also had orderlies, which the Marines furnished. When we were at sea, besides the orderly duties, we manned the…They had five inch broad side guns. On the port side they had five guns that the Marines manned, they were five-inch caliber guns. Each gun crew took about; oh I'd say thirteen or fourteen men to operate that gun. So it took a Marine compliment without the people who were attached to the flag, it was around seventy people and there was around fifteen to twenty people attached to the flag part of the ship.
PL: Relations between the sailors and the Marines?
CS: Well, I'd say the relations basically were good. They did a lot of kidding and that. The young Marines would come aboard and were kind of cocky, they learned…It didn't take them long to learn where their place was and uh, we never had problems aboard our ship from what I can recall.
PL: Now, one thing you haven't told me about is the impact of your first sight of this great big capital ship.
CS: Well when we went aboard the ship, uh…We went aboard on a Saturday, from San Diego to Long Beach it was a hundred miles and they took us up on some big six by six trucks, and we went aboard on a Saturday morning and uh, the fleet was to leave Monday morning for a cruise and end up at Pearl Harbor. One incident I had…We lived in what they called a case mates on the deck where the five inch broad side guns were and we had lunch that noon. I hadn't been on board the ship more than an hour or two and I had a cup of coffee, which was black coffee and I didn't care about it so I walked over and I threw it overboard and it just happened that the chief master of arms came along and he was like God on the ship. He grabbed me and I didn't know what to say, I didn't say anything but it kind of burned me up and I thought, jeez here's a sailor who's on my back, and I told one of my sergeants about it and he said "Don't ever give that guy any garbage, he's the top man next to the captain aboard ship" and he was the senior non commissioned officer on the ship. He was a little Irishman, but uh…I learned that in a hurry and I always got along with the guy.
PL: But your Battlestation?
CS: Yeah, well the battlestation was those five inch broad side guns and it took about thirteen guys to man a gun and we manned five guns which took up pretty well the whole Marine compliment aboard ship to man those five inch guns when we're out to sea.
PL: Which one was yours?
CS: I was on gun number two which was the first gun on the port side. My job on the gun, I was the first shellman and the shells were five inch diameter shells and it was about fourteen inches long. A shell weighed about fifty pounds and my job was to heat that shell in the barrel and the powder came in a separate bag and they had two lines. One line was the fella with the shells and the other line was the fella with the bag, so…And they had two people what they had for the position a barrel when they shot it and they had one guy on each side of the gun. When you're aboard ship and the ships rolling, to get that thing on target, one guy takes it up and down, the other one sideways and then the one guy that takes it up and down, he also has the trigger to shoot it. Then there's the gun captain that opens and closes the breach and also, he wears like a carpenter's apron and he carries the primers that set the ignition off and so each time they shoot. he puts a new primer and closes the breach and they always holler FIRE and it's already to go and the fella's lining it up for the target and when it's on target the guy who's in charge fires it. To get that shell up there, there's about three or four guys in line and the same way with the powder and the shells and the powder come up on an elevator, like on a chain from way down where the magazine is. So they have to have a guy to run the elevator, so that he controls the shells and the powder as they come up. So it takes quite a crew to run each gun and like I say they had five broad side guns.
PL: Tell me about the…Once you got to Pearl Harbor, the daily routine in Pearl Harbor.
CS: Well, when we were in Pearl Harbor the only routine was pretty much, uh…They had two gangways on the ship, one was for service and that and the other was for people coming on and off the ship. Of course they had a Marine at the bottom of each of the gangways to check that the people coming aboard had the right passes. There was a Corporal of the Guard, a Sergeant of the Guard they changed the Guards every four hours. That was our main job and other jobs they did, you know, they had to keep their compartments clean and in shape and they had what they called a loading machine on the deck with like a practice gun. The guys would go out and work on that loading machine every day to be sure to get their time and everything right. With the Marines aboard ship, it was a sin if the…If every ship didn't get an E on it for Excellence. If you got an E on it, you got an extra…I think it was an extra two or three dollars a month bonus each guy on the crew got and every single one of the Marine ships I was on got an E on em. A lot of the sailors didn't but if one gun didn't get an E on it, why they would be out working on the loading machines for forever it seemed like.
PL: Now remembering that we are dealing with your story without any hindsight at all, would you say that it was a completely relaxed atmosphere amongst service personnel at the end of November, beginning of December, or were there any apprehensions within in your vision?
CS: Well I remember the crew…We were out about on a maneuver in the middle of November of "41" and we were on night maneuvers and we got uh…The word got…There were some submarines spotted that were not American submarines in the area. We got orders to put live ammunition on all the guns and that was the first time when I was aboard ship that we had live ammunition on the guns, when we weren't having shooting practice. We kept live ammunition on the guns till we returned to port and then they secured it back in the magazines. So they were starting to think about, you know…They knew there were problems with the Japanese just by reading the paper.
PL: Well lets come to December the seventh, the earliest hours in the morning, what you're doing and precisely how you saw, you experienced the day of infamy.
CS: Well I was out at the rifle range the whole previous week to Pearl Harbor. What happened is all the battleships in port had sent a crew of Marines out to the rifle range at Fort Weaver and it was right on the ocean beach at the entrance to the harbor. They would send boatloads of sailors to the battleships and we would instruct them on rifle and machine gun fire that whole week before Pearl Harbor, including Saturday. The instructors we requested got permission …We knew the fleet wasn't going out that weekend, so we got permission to stay out there until Monday morning, otherwise we would have been back to Pearl Harbor, which was about a mile from where we were. So, we were at the rifle range there and living in some large tents, they were about eight man tents. It was what is called normal positions, and uh, we certainly weren't thinking about any Japanese raid or anything like that. I had got up and eaten breakfast and returned to the tent at the time that the action started. I got a paper here with me that I had written up about everything that happened, about five pages and I brought a copy along if you were interested.
PL: Indeed, I would be delighted to look at it.
CS: It pretty well tells the whole action for the time there.
PL: Well that's good of you and we appreciate it but I would still like to hear with some spontaneity your description of how the airplane attack was viewed by you and whether you were able to do anything what so ever about it.
CS: Well yeah, well…What happened was, me and the other fellas that returned to the tent after breakfast sat down and started playing cards. We heard a lot of airplanes above but we were in an area, a position between Ford Island, which had a landing field and Hickam was right across from us and Ewa Marina was on the other side of us. We were right in the middle of three landing fields so it was not unusual to hear airplanes going over. All of a sudden we heard these large explosions and uh, went outside and looked and right overhead was a squadron of torpedo bombers, probably about five hundred feet overhead. We were right on the route that comes in to turn in to drop their torpedoes toward the battleships. So, we went over to the armory which was right…I'd say about a hundred yards from where we were and we got rifles and, they had a machine gun set up there and uh, I had got a rifle which had the old Auxiliary Springfield, went down to the Butts, the Butts was where the targets were for the rifle range which was right on the beach so when they were using the rifle range for the shells that went through the targets and out in the ocean. So we went down to the Butts and set up down there and fired away at the Japs on all the planes that come over until the action was done. Which lasted probably a total of two hours. It was kind of a good experience for a Marine because, here we spent two we…Or a week out at the range instructing these fellas on how to shoot the things and along comes the real thing, so we had a chance to practice what we were preaching I guess you'd say.
PL: But I would imagine, completely ineffectually.
CS: Well, it's hard to say, you know firing these small arms and there was a lot of anti-aircraft fire from the ships and everywheres else and we saw planes go down, in fact, the Japanese lost twenty-nine planes. We saw planes go down here, there and everywhere. You didn't know if you hit it, or the guy next to you or a guy down in Pearl Harbor or who, but there was, in some of those pictures I showed when I gave my talk, you could see the sky was full of ant-aircraft fire.
PL: What about emotion?
CS: Well, you know you're a young guy, it is very emotional, but I think we were thinking what we could do to help the situation and of course we wondered, I mean it's just a surprise, we didn't have the least idea, uh…Everybody seemed to feel that there'd be a good chance that they'd have some couth to land on the island and of course, we didn't have any radio contact with anybody out there so we didn't know what was going on, except what we saw go on. After it was over with, we just sat around, waiting to see if anything happened and in the evening we patrolled whoever was in charge there set up patrols on the roadways there and on the beach and had guys take turns patrolling all night.
PL: Had you got any information at this stage as to what had happened to California?
CS: No, not really.
PL: How did you learn about California's fate?
CS: Well, I don't remember exactly, I know that it must have been about two days after, that they sent some boats out to take us back to the ships. When we got back to the ships, of course we saw the condition.
PL: What was California's condition?
CS: California was sunk, it sat on the bottom and it had quite a list to it, but it went down, the bow was completely under water, uh, the back end was out of the water and the top was out of the water. It had taken two torpedoes and one direct bomb hit and it was right alongside the Ford Island, where it was tied up. So when we got back they loaded off on the Ford Island and they had an outside sort-of set up so you could check in so they'd know who was dead and who was alive. So I checked in and as I remember they give us each a blanket and uh, there were some burned out hangers' right there on Ford Island they had a few seaplanes and of course, they blew them things up and they raised heck with the hangers. But we kind of lived out of those hangers, just sleeping on the floor. They put us to work cleaning the ship up, the ship was all oil and that, and uh…One of the first things they did, they removed…The ship had ten anti-aircraft, ten five-inch anti-aircraft guns on it. They removed those anti-aircraft guns and put some concrete bases over what they called Wet Slide, it's another little channel in Pearl Harbor. They mounted these ten five-inch anti-aircraft guns, and the Marines they built some tents and that and we lived out there and we manned those anti-aircraft guns. We were out there from the time, I think it was a couple weeks or a month before they actually got em set up, and we manned those guns until I think it was June when the ship…they had painted it in dry dock, and they got it in good enough shape. It had four, four props on the ship, they're electric motors and it had two main generators and of course everything was submerged in water. When they took it in dry dock they rewound one of the generators and two of the props of the four props and that's the way it went back on it's own power to Bremerton. So then, when it was ready to go, the Marines went back aboard the ship and we went back to Bremerton with it and of course it was put in dry dock in Bremerton and was completely gutted and redone, uh…Put all new modern anti-aircraft guns…They did away with the broadside guns, they were obsolete, they had the big fourteen inch guns and so they put a bunch of some turrets…I don't know exactly what size the guns were, but they put lots of anti-aircraft guns on.
PL: Now in fact your career was to take a different route now because instead of going back to sea, you were to go through a series of college and university courses, which was to develop within you expertise in…
PL: Radio and radar. And ultimately that was to see you appointed to which vessel, which warship?
CS: Oh no, I didn't go back to the warship. After I finished school, when I finished at Washington DC Naval Research Lab, I was shipped right overseas out of transport and I was put in this Marine…What they call it is a MAG 11, it stands for Marine Air Group 11 and I was in a Corsairs squadron of a VMF 114. The MAG 11 had five squadrons, they had two Corsairs, one jet the F6, F1, The Wildcat with F4 and F1, and the Dive-Bomber Squadron, the Douglas Dive-Bomber.
PL: It was based where?
CS: It was on Peleliu. Peleliu is an island down on the Palau. It's about four hundred miles east of the Philippines and four or five hundred miles north of New Guinea.
PL: What memories have you got of service there?
CS: Well I went in as a replacement. Peleliu is one of the worst battles the Marines had; they had tremendous losses there. But I went in as a replacement and I went in also as a radio mechanic. So I didn't get in to the real bad part of the thing. Peleliu had been a fortress for the Japanese. When the Marines took that island, there was 13,500 Japanese on the island and when the battle was done there was no Japanese on the island. That isn't exactly right…The island had, kind of like a coral island right in the center of it, full of caves and there was quite a few…Not quite a few…There was a certain amount of Japs who were still up in the caves. We had a barbed wire fence and we probably had fifty to a hundred Jap prisoners in it. There was a certain amount in the caves but they never bothered us anymore because they'd come down at night and steal food was about the only thing. Where we were, there was another island north, a large island north of there called Babelthuap and there was still forty thousand Japs on that island. By that time, we had control of the sea and the air and so it was just a matter of keeping those guys neutralized, so they would bomb that island every day and they used a lot of Napalm bombs. We lost a number of pilots during the bombing, cuz they had a lot of anti-aircraft guns up there. But that was continuous until the war ended.
PL: Where you to stay in the Corp, or not?
PL: Well might I ask you, if you look back at your service from 1940 to 1945 or 1946, in any way did it shape you as a man for your future?
CS: Oh yeah the war shaped me as a man, definitely. The discipline was really number one in the Corp. One thing they taught you…The Marine Corp always said there's no such word as can't. So you didn't give your superiors any excuses and if you were told to do something, you had to figure out some way of doin it, and uh…Whether you liked it or not.
PL: Now you're saying that in civilian life this is a precept that you followed.
CS: Yeah, and I was the kind of fella that most jobs…I always took the attitude that most jobs, you got about three ways you could do em. So by matter of elimination you kind of figure our what's the best way. You don't just take one idea and jump at it. The other thing I learned in life, whenever…I was a business man and when you have business setbacks and that, I always figured, Hell, this is nothing compared to what I went through in the service. I'll figure out a way of overcoming it.
PL: Clyde, you've been generous the way, after quite a demanding two days here in Oshkosh, you've come up, yet again from Appleton to be interviewed this morning by me. I'm very grateful to you and you've done a thoroughly good job. Thank you very much indeed.
Oral History Interview with Clyde G. Stephenson, U. S. Marine Corps
-WORLD WAR II
-Copyright Oshkosh Public Museum
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