Aviator recalls WW II missions in South Pacific
November 10, 2012 7:30PM
World War II veteran Clancy Hess shows pictures and talks about his service as a pilot Thursday, November 8, 2012 at the Historic Fitzpatrick House in Romeoville. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media
Updated: January 15, 2013 4:23PM
Even after 70 years, Clancy Hess clearly remembers the battles in the South Pacific.
But besides loading thousands of the photos Hess took or appears in onto an iPad, his daughter recently gave the veteran a hardcover book she made of “The Aviator’s” pictures.
And almost every image has a fascinating story behind it. The 91-year-old Lockport resident and Illinois Aviation Hall of Fame member certainly got around.
Hess was 10 years old when he made his first solo flight (“There was no FAA office back then,” he said, chuckling) and his experience was eagerly sought after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“I enlisted in the Navy and was then transferred into the Marine Corps. That’s how they did it back then,” Hess recalled.
As a flier, Hess put three Japanese torpedo bombers in the water, one of which still probably is lying on a reef off Bougainville near the Solomon Islands.
“I flew for American Airlines for 32 years and could see it when I ran the routes from the West Coast to Sydney,” Hess said.
Besides dogfights, bombing runs, surveillance runs and every other aspect of war, Hess’ interest in photography led to organizing how efforts in the Pacific campaign were documented.
“I took a lot of photos, so I hit up all the camera shops up and down the California coast and bought every camera I could get,” Hess said.
Hess’ book contains images of fighters and bombers he shot from another plane, Marines throwing grenades on the frontlines and Jack Benny visiting for a USO performance.
But in the middle of the photos Clancy took during the war are two of him taken by his turret gunner, Murphy.
“I don’t remember his first name and I don’t know why. Big Irish guy from Pittsburgh. Enlisted when he was 14 because he had a fight with his girlfriend and lied about his age,” Hess offered as other identifiers.
After a nighttime battle on Guadalcanal, Gen. William O. Brice ordered Hess to get some pictures. They flew out at dawn and landed near “hundreds” of dead Japanese soldiers.
“In the middle of all of (the devastation), something moved and I looked down to see a puppy wiggling between two soldiers’ bodies,” Hess said.
Hess picked up the dog, who soon would be called “Nipper” after the Australian soldiers. Murphy couldn’t help smiling when they landed back at the base and shot a photo of a war pilot sitting in his cockpit while cradling a small puppy.
(Unfortunately, several months later, another member of the unit watched Nipper fall victim to a fate most dog owners don’t have to be concerned about. He was eaten by a crocodile.)
But while Nipper ran around his new base, Hess and Murphy got in the jeep and headed back to their tent to clean up before developing their film.
“I jumped out and Murphy said, ‘Clancy, I got one frame left, Pose for it,’ ” Hess remembered.
Instead of walking inside, Hess stood and smiled as Murphy clicked the shutter. A split second later, the ammo dump 100 feet away blew up.
Hess was knocked flat on his smiling face, but the tent he’d about to enter was destroyed.
“I never posed for pictures, and if he hadn’t had one left I would’ve been killed,” Hess said. “It was a hell of a day.”
I believe Clancy Hess’ final
“mission” of World War II deserves a column of its own, which will appear next week.