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Mairzy Doats

First plane he shot down

Becoming an Ace

Shot down by rifle fire

Flying P47s

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Clayton Kelly Gross was born in Walla Walla, Washington, a town so pretty they named it twice. Gross remarks it is famous for onions now, but it was famous for him too. He came by his military service naturally because his father was an infantry officer in World War I. His uncle commanded the 161st Infantry of the Washington National Guard. Gross joined the Civil Military Training when he was about 15 years old and had a few years in that and then joined the National Guard at the urging of his uncle who wanted him in his unit. His uncle put him battalion headquarters and Gross was there during his three year enlistment during which he rose to Private First Class or maybe Corporal. War in Europe was brewing and his enlistment was ending with the National Guard and he decided he wanted to be a pilot so had taken both the Army Air Corps and Naval Air Corps tests as they came through Spokane Washington where they lived. He passed both tests and they told him he had to decide which one he Clayton Kelly Gross was born in Walla Walla, Washington, a town so pretty they named it twice. Gross remarks it is famous for onions now, but it was famous for him too. He came by his military service naturally because his father was an infantry officer in World War I. His uncle commanded the 161st Infantry of the Washington National Guard. Gross joined the Civil Military Training when he was about 15 years old and had a few years in that and then joined the National Guard at the urging of his uncle, who wanted him in his unit. His uncle put him in battalion headquarters and Gross was there during his three year enlistment during which he rose to Private First Class or maybe Corporal. War in Europe was brewing and his enlistment was ending with the National Guard and he decided he wanted to be a pilot so had taken both the Army Air Corps and Naval Air Corps tests as they came through Spokane, Washington where they lived. He passed both tests and they told him he had to decide which one he wanted. He chose Army with the reasoning that if he went to war and took off on a mission in the Navy, then you did not know if your landing field was going to be there or not when you get back because it might be on the bottom of the ocean. With the Army he knew it may have holes in it but at least it would be there. They put him on a waiting list and his uncle was unhappy with him and wanted him to reenlist. Gross told him he just could not do it and it was a good thing, because the war started and he got a telegram a week later telling him to report and the National Guard unit got sent to Okinawa, so he would have ended up on Okinawa as an infantryman. He was very happy and his training went well. He already had a pilot’s license through civil pilot training so the flying was no problem for him. He went to Randolph and Kelly Fields and graduated with a large class of 156. They picked two people and sent them to fly fighters. Everyone wanted to fly fighters and he got it. He got sent to a P-39 [Annotator’s Note: Bell P-39 Airacobra] training replacement training group. He flew P-39s for months and months. They knew they would not fly them in the war, but it was good training and he could whip anything the Navy had by the time they flew some six months. Then a very lucky think happened to him. They came to the group and told them that half of the group would be sent to fly P-38s [Annotator’s Note: Lockheed P-38 Lightning] and the government had really pushed the P-38 because they did not have anything else worth pushing. He did not get to go and stayed with the group flying P-39s. This worked out great because they took 12 of those men including Gross and formed the 354th Fighter Group which was the best fighter group in the war if you count it by aerial victories—the best one in the European theater at least. So that is how he ended up in the 354th. He was a flight leader to start with as C Flight Commander in the 355th Squadron and that’s the way they went to war. Gross recalls leaving for war in September of 1943 and landed in England in around November of 1943 and were sent to Greenham Common [Annotator’s Note: Royal Air Force Station Greenham Common in Berkshire, England]. They took three pilots out of the group and Gross was one of them. Jack Bradley was another and Bob Stephens was another. They were sent to an English base where they checked out in a brand new airplane they had never heard of called the P-51 [Annotator’s Note: North American P-51 Mustang]. Actually the version they checked out in was the dive bomber version called the A-36[Annotator’s Note: North American A-36 Apache]. They checked out in that and were supposed to go back and check out the rest of the group. Typical of the Army Air Corps, of course, when the men got back the unit was being checked out at another base, so their trip was not really for anything except they were the first ones to do it. They got the B model P-51 before they first went into combat. They moved from Greenham Common to Boxted [Annotator’s Note: Royal Air Force Station Boxted in Essex, England], a better base to fly to Europe from. They flew from there on their first mission on December 11th or 12th led by Don Blakeslee, who had commanded the 4th Fighter Group. The 354th had nobody with any combat training, so Blakeslee was sent down to help out. The only exception of that in the 354th Fighter Group was Jim Howard who had been a “Flying Tiger,” who was already an Ace in Japan with five Japanese victories. So Don Blakeslee checked them out. From there they started and became the greatest group in the whole war. Gross says when he goes to an air show now and sees various aircraft from the World War II era, the one that he really wants to get into and fly is the P-39. It had the engine behind the pilot and if you hit the ground you got an awful nudge in the back. He became the Assistant Operations Officer and one of his jobs was to investigate crashes. He did that several times on P-39 crashes. There was a saying that if you lived through the first hundred hours in the P-39, then you loved it. The reason was because there were different flight characteristics and they lost a lot of pilots who did not master that and were lost early. He flew 500 hours in the P-39 and he loved the plane. He says he would taxi it with the nose wheel on the ground like a hot pilot would, then shut the power off about a block off of the parking spot and coast in just to show you knew what you were doing. Gross recalled having a lot of cockpit time when they got the P-51 and talking with people about the characteristics. The A-36 was the first model of the P-51 and it had an Allison engine and three bladed prop [Annotator’s Note: propeller]. It was a pretty airplane and he recalled flying over England thinking about how the Battle of Britain took place in these skies and he would look around to make sure it was not starting again. He would have taken after the Germans with his A-36. When they got the P-51 B Model it had the Rolls Royce Merlin engine with the four bladed prop. It was gorgeous and it gave them a little of an advantage against anything they fought against. Gross thinks it was hard to judge if it was the airplane or their own skill that was better. He fought one guy that he thought was the reincarnation of the Red Baron [Annotator’s Note: German top ace of World War I, Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen]. He was a tremendous pilot and Gross got on his tail and hit him pretty good and the German made an evasive maneuver and Gross was overrunning him and started coming back down and when he did the German was coming up at him and wound up on his tail. Gross went into a Lufbery circle [Annotator’s Note: defensive air tactic from World War I] as tight as he could turn and he guesses they made 150 circles. The first 50 the German was aiming square at Gross in the cockpit area. Every time Gross looked he would see the 20 millimeter cannon firing, but the shells went behind him. It took Gross 50 to 70 turns to start gaining on him and the German knows he is about to have Gross on his tail. Whether that was because of his skill or the airplane he does not know. Gross remembers him being a great pilot. He fought some people who were not great pilots and he is not sure if they even knew how to fly. He wishes he could have had more of those as his score would have been better. Now he does not want that. Nowadays, as he gets closer to getting his great reward, he does not want people killed. He has friends in Germany and has been to their meetings six times now.

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Clayton Kelly Gross should have been on the first combat mission, but when it happened he was in the hospital with a strep throat infection. They flew two missions before he got back. He flew the third one. The first mission they just crossed the Channel into enemy territory so they could say it was done. The second was not much more. The third mission which was his first was the first one where they actually had something happen. What happened was not good. They were attacked by German fighters and Stud Hall [Annotator’s Note: uncertain on the name, as it may be Hull] from the 356th Squadron was shot down. The weather in December in that area was terrible too; terrible in England most of the time. Gross recalls being in a fairly strange aircraft and you are crossing the English Channel in freezing cold weather and you are going to enemy territory where there are people who want to kill you and the weather is so bad they have trouble seeing each other. Then to have someone say, “Break left,” then your heart beats pretty fast. You eventually get back and find out it was not much. On his first mission he cannot remember if it was the group or squadron that went up. They usually flew four plane flights and a squadron was two or more flights but they always flew three or four, so there were always 12 or 16 in a squadron and three squadrons would make it 36 to 48 depending on how many they had. There was one mission of note. They always maintained radio silence and you were not allowed to say anything because the enemy could track you. Jack Bradley led the mission and the only way you could talk on the radio was to push the button. When you did, you transmitted your voice but you could not hear anything else. When they did somebody’s button had been stuck. When they were crossing the channel and entering France or Germany, the guy was singing a popular song from the day that was popular as hell. It was “Mairzy Doats.” This kid was singing out loud and Bradley shouted, “Turn off your radio!” Of course the guy could not hear it and goes on singing. So Bradley tried something else and said, “Everybody who can hear me, rock your wings and everybody rocked their wings. Of course the guy that’s sitting there doesn’t know what is going on, so he does it too. So Bradley didn’t learn anything. So they crossed the Ruhr Valley where there was tremendous anti-aircraft fire and it started to burst around them. The singing stopped immediately and you could hear heavy breathing from the guy. Bradley shouted at him, “Sing now you son of a bitch!” Gross does not remember much else about the mission; that was all he remembers, but when they finished the mission, Bradley said, “When we land, I want every pilot lined up and I want to talk to you.” Of course when they landed and got everybody lined up he went down the line and asked, “Was that you on the radio?” Of course the guy doesn’t know anything, but he isn’t going to admit it. Gross does not think that Jack ever found out anything about it. Nobody knew who it was, including Kelly. It was not him, although he knew the song. When Gross was in the hospital, they got a request for a pilot to come and speak to the aircraft factories. Nobody wanted to be a public speaker and him number one. He did not want to be one. But he was the only one not there, so they voted him to be the guy. It turned out to be kind of fun and he met some great people, but he had to talk to three factories, one each day. He was so nervous that he would rather fight an enemy aircraft than talk to people. Nowadays, he is a ham, but not back then and now he has had 23 years of Toastmaster training since then. Gross recalls the P-51 B model had four 50-caliber machine guns and it was already a long range fighter compared to others, but to make it longer they had the possibility of carrying extra fuel tanks of 75 gallons, with one under each wing. If they were not doing that or were dive bombing or something, they could carry three bombs, with one under the belly and one under each wing. He can’t remember if they carried three bombs on the P-51 for certain, but he knows they did when they had the P-47 [Annotator’s Note: Republic P-47 Thunderbolt]. The 50 caliber machine guns were adequate. When they finally added two more it was even more adequate. When they first started with the P-51 with four guns they would get into a tight turn pulling Gs [Annotator’s Note: G-force acceleration] and it would cause the guns to stop firing. He thinks one of the crews invented something that fed the guns better. Your shooting depended on how much you did. Possibly because of his 500 hours of combat training in the P-39 he developed a habit of firing from very close and not from long distance. He thinks some people started firing before they got within a half of a mile of the target. Because of that he does not think he ever finished a mission with no guns. He knows he never ran out of ammunition even when they had just the four guns. Short bursts from close distance worked better. When Gross was first designated a plane of his on with the P-39, he had the chance to name it anything he wanted to name it, so he used the secret nickname of his wife, “Lil Pigeon.” And it worked fine for him. But they had more pilots than they had planes, so when somebody else flew his plane and he had two or three crash, he had to paint a new name on them. He was still deciding when he went overseas what to name his plane. It was on an early mission when he was coming home that he was separated from the group which happens a lot in combat. He wound up with one other pilot and they were flying home in mutual support so they could watch each other. They were cruising along and the pilot told Gross to stay there and he was going to go up into the sun and see if they can draw some action. Gross asked the pilot, “What do you think I am live bait?” And the pilot said, “Yes.” Gross does not remember who it was, but he thinks he was outranked by the man, because he did what he said. They did not draw any action, but when they got back Gross told Smitty, his crew chief, to paint “Live Bait” on his airplane. Smitty and an artist came up with the design and Gross used it the rest of the war. He had maybe six or seven airplanes that all were named “Live Bait” and all were beautiful.

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Clayton Kelly Gross recalls the first mission he shot any airplanes down was when he was flying with a wingman named Billy D. Harris and they called him “Bucky” after the baseball player [Annotator’s Note: Bucky Harris]. They were on the right side of a bunch of bombers, B-17 [Annotator’s Note: Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress] bombers and someone said there were bogeys [Annotator’s Note: unknown aircraft] at two o’clock. Gross looked at the two o’clock area and there were a large group, estimated at 35 Messerschmitt 109s, cruising parallel to the bombers and up above them. Gross and Harris turned over and started up underneath them to get to them. Like all live fighter pilots in combat you check six [Annotator’s Note: six o’clock direction] to make sure nobody is coming up behind you. Gross looked back and a group of about 35 more starting to come in behind them. So they held their distance and throttled back a little to let them pass over the top of them. Nobody seemed to notice Harris and Gross. They let them pass over and checked their six again before pulling up behind the last poor “Tail End Charlie [Annotator’s Note: flying last in formation]. They started shooting and spread out. Billy got one burning and Gross got one burning and they damaged a few others. Meanwhile the tracers going through the group and probably their radio talk let them know they were under attack. The whole group of about 70 planes was going in every direction. To attack 70 from behind is one thing, but to attack them head on at 68 to two of them was tough. Gross and Harris dove down and they spotted another plane by himself. Gross hit him and the pilot bailed out and Gross looked to be sure nobody else was around and flew by the German to show him the name of his plane so he could go back tell them who got him. It was one of the most exciting missions he ever had. He has a painting in his room of shooting one down off a B-17. Gross was coming back from a mission and spotted one wounded B-17 all by himself down low. Coming in on his tail was a Messerschmitt. That was the one time he started shooting from over 75 to 100 yards. He had to because the German was starting to shoot at the B-17. Fortunately Gross hit him and knocked him down and saved a B-17. Gross recalls he was a good shot. He was on the rifle team at Lewis and Clark High School in Spokane. They finished in the top three in the nation of rifle shooting. You used to be able to carry a rifle to school and put it in your locker until after school when you had rifle shooting. They don’t do that anymore, he doesn’t think. He recalls having great competitions. Gross recalls flying along the side of the B-17 and waving at them and they waved back thanks. They were going too slow and Gross would have been out of gas before they got back, so he flew with them for a while and then had to leave them. That story reminds him of another mission. They were on a mission to Berlin escorting B-17s when they were attacked by bundles of 109s and everybody was separated in this battle. A dogfight can be 10,000 feet high and 10,000 feet wide. Gross found himself on the tail of a 109 and checked his six to make sure he was clear, because he was all alone. He found two P-47s coming in on his tail and he thought, “Great, I got help!” He went back to the 109 and had some great hits on him and does not know what happened to him and he may have gone down. The next thing Gross knew, the world exploded and he did an involuntary snap roll and went into a spin and had a blow on the back of his neck he thought was a baseball bat. As he went in the spin he put his hand on the back of his head and it was red which turned out to be hydraulic fluid. He realized he was alive for the moment and went through a spin recovery and looked back and saw the P-47s coming up on him and he waved his wings and the P-47s came up right alongside him. When he looked over they realized what they had done and he could read the code on his airplane that said “HV” which was Gabby Gabreski’s squadron which is in the 56th Fighter Group. Gross had lost a big piece of his canopy and had over 100 holes in his airplane, but the engine worked and the radio worked. He was all alone, because the P-47s peeled off and left him instead of escorting him home. Gross was all alone and saw the B-17s still heading for Berlin. He contacted the B-17s and said he was all shot up and asked if he could come up and get near them. The leader said he had Gross in sight and told him to come up and get on his wing. As he sat under the B-17’s wing a group of about 20 or more Messerschmitt 109s made a vertical pass on this group of bombers but did not shoot anything down. He sat there thinking about whether or not he should go after them but did not know if his plane would keep flying or not. So he did not do anything but he kept calling and got Lowell K. Brueland to fly alongside the bombers until he found Gross and escorted him home. He got a new plane immediately and flew up to the 56th Fighter Group to talk to them about everything. Incidentally behind the pilot is a cutout of a man right behind the pilot [Annotators Note: part of the seat] and one shell had hit the neck area of that steel that was about a half inch or more thick. It had moved out four inches but did not go through. Evidently it was what hit him in the back of the neck. He got back and talked to Gabby and he denied everything. Gabby and Gross became good friends later through the Aces Association and used to go to church together, but he would never admit who ever did it. He thinks he introduced Gross to a guy who thought he shot at a Mustang but didn’t hit it. Gross told him he was the best shot they had in the group. After he left Gabby and thanked him and shook hands with the guy and told him to be careful. He walked out of Gabby’s office and got about ten steps down the hall and thought about the gun camera film and what a souvenir it would be. He went back in without knocking and Gabby was standing there talking to this pilot. Gross asked if he could have the gun camera footage and Gabby told him it was accidentally exposed when the crew chief dropped it and the cap popped off.

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Clayton Kelly Gross cannot recall if the Messerschmitt he shot down off of the B-17 was his third or fourth kill. He cannot forget five [Annotator’s Note: his fifth kill] since it made him an ace, or six which was the jet [Annotator’s Note: Me262]. Gross had a 30-day leave at home after he finished his first 200 combat hours. He got back after two and half months, including travel time. When he got back he got into the Mustang and had not flown in a couple months. He flew one flight and felt right at home. He went on a combat mission the next day and nothing happened, but the second mission after that, he got into combat with a bunch of Me109s. He was separated from everyone else. While looking for somebody he spotted two P-51s in front of him, side by side and headed for home, so he tried to catch up with them. They had solid clouds underneath them at about a 2,000 foot top. They were cruising right above that when up out of the clouds came a 109 [Annotator’s Note: Me109] and he pulled in right behind them, but he did not look back and see Gross behind him. Gross remembers it did not take much to turn into him and fire and he hit him very well. The German did a slow roll and started down through the clouds. Gross had to go see what happened to him because it was number five and he wanted number five very much. Gross got down through the clouds not knowing if there was a mountain or anything, but he was about to find out. When he got down there, he saw there was a hole where the plane crashed and apparently the pilot did not get out. Gross says that is one of the penalties for not checking your six [Annotator’s Note: checking behind you]. They got suckered one day and lost two airplanes. They were in a long range mission and why they were separated he does not know and he cannot recall any air battles, but he and his wingman Tony Radidich were joined by another element from another squadron. Jack Turk was the wingman. They were flying mutual support. Gross was on the right, with Tony on his right, and they spotted a lone 109 on the clouds and they made a race to go after him. Just as they were diving at him, the Me109 ducked down into the clouds. They watched for a while and when he did not come back up, they pulled up. In the meantime, he came popping up again and they made another run at him. He ducked into the clouds again and they should have known somebody was telling him when they were leaving. They started climbing up again and looking for him and Gross checks his left side and suddenly spots four Focke Wolf [Annotator’s Note: Focke Wolf 190] on Dalglish’s tail and Jack Kirk’s plane was already on fire and slowly turning. Gross yelled, “Break left,” and Dalglish broke left and Gross turned to get behind the 190s and as he did, he hollered, “Tony, stick with me” and got no answer. Gross looked back and he had four on his tail too. They shot Tony down and Jack. Tony lived and was captured, but Jack did not. Gross felt bad about that. He told Dalglish he was going down and Dalglish said he was going up. Dalglish climbed as fast as he could and Gross dove as fast as he could. He pushed it through war emergency, which there is a little extra half inch of power on the throttle. There is a sign that says, “Do not exceed for more than five minutes.” He pushed it through that to get down and went through the clouds and he is not sure how fast he was going. He leveled out at ground area and crossed Germany and shot up a train and a building. He crossed a German airfield with about ten airplanes in the air. As they were getting ready to land, he crossed over the center of the field. Nobody was able to catch him as he headed for the English Channel. He thought then that he had made it and as he crossed the Channel and was still at about ten feet off the water when the engine quit. He pulled up immediately and realized his gas tank was empty. He changed tanks and thanked God it caught again. When he landed, he found that he had been in War Emergency for about 45 minutes instead of five. Packard who was building the Merlin engine sent representatives over and they took the engine apart to see how much damage there had been, but they could find no damage to it. It was a great engine. Gross took his leave after D-Day [Annotator’s Note: 6 June 1944]. He recalled D-Day was a big day and they knew it was coming and they had been confined to the base for about two weeks which meant it was very difficult to sneak over the fence to the pub. He thinks the statute of limitations was gone but they did go to the pub every now and then. They had the men put planes out on the runway with pilots in the cockpits with the engine warmed up for immediate takeoff. The first few days they did that, they had all the veteran pilots in the planes because they did not want to miss the action. After several days of sitting there with nothing happening, they started putting the rookies in the cockpit. Then on the night of June 5th, it happened. They finished dinner and went to the club and ordered a beer. They were drinking beer when Bowers Espy, the Executive Officer of the group, came in and yelled to close the bar. He said, “Close the bar, they are going to fly.” Gross said he thought he was out of his mind since the weather was terrible with about a 1,500 to 2,000 foot maximum ceiling and you could not see your hand in front of your face. They were ordered to briefing and they were told they were escorting gliders in with the airborne troops. They got ready and had three squadrons of 12 planes each. They took off and met the C-47s [Annotator’s Note: Douglass C-47 Skytrain] towing gliders. The only way they could see anybody was by the exhaust stacks on the engines. It was brutal, but they made it to the French coast. When they got to the French coast they saw an absolute wall of fire coming up from the Omaha Beach area. He recalled the C-47s had to fly right through that. How many made it he does not know, but he knows it was absolutely brutal. Gross recalled his group turned around and came back, but their base was closed in, the weather was so bad, so they landed at another base that was an empty RAF base with nothing on it. Colonel Bickell got on the phone to find out what they were going to do. It is 1:00am on 6 June and he came back and said they were going to takeoff on a second mission because they could not get the planes back for the replacement pilots. They tried to sleep for a couple of hours and at about 3:30am, they had a briefing again and took off about 4:00am. They met more gliders and C-47s, but this time was a sight he would never forget. Down below them on the Channel as the light of dawn was coming up there were so many ships he could see that you could not imagine it. They were over them and watched the gliders go in again and the ships were headed to the beach. Gross and the others could do nothing but see that no enemy aircraft came in to disrupt it. They headed back, and this time, were able to get back to their base. When they got back King Peter of Yugoslavia was in their briefing room to congratulate them because eventually his country would be freed again. Gross remembered telling somebody not to worry if they went down in the Channel because they could walk back to England on the ships, there were so many of them.

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Clayton Kelly Gross remarks that a fighter pilot cannot talk without using his hands. He recalled getting to England and the bombing going on from there. They were assigned to the 9th Air Force and he recalls getting to Greenham Common and having to put their bunks together because nobody would do it for them. He was rooming with Brueland and Emerson [Annotator’s Note: Lowell K. Brueland and Wallace Emerson] who were men who became aces in the unit along with Gross. They were in the middle of putting the cots together. Brueland and Emerson were on their knees trying to put them together and Gross was tired and standing at the moment when someone knocked on the door and then it opened and a gentleman stepped in and said hello and that his name was Pete Quesada and he wanted to introduce himself. Gross introduced himself and as he stuck out his hand he noticed the star on the gentleman’s collar as he extended his hand. Gross called for the others in the room to come to attention. They looked up and Quesada said to stay where they were and don’t get up. He said he was commanding the 19th Tactical Air Force and “You are part of my unit and the first fighter group in my unit and I have great plans and feelings about how you are going to do.” He was right; they turned out to be number one. That night he said hello to everyone in the squadron one at a time. They were assigned to the 8th Air Force for escort duty and did that on a regular basis to start with. But eventually they were going to get to their own job of supporting the ground troops with doing dive bombing and strafing. They had done a little of that before, but they started carrying bombs. They usually carried 500 pound bombs, one under each wing, and they could do great damage if you hit what you were aiming at. They had practiced in the P-39 throwing garbage sacks out the window and it was not the same. They had to experiment to see how to get the bomb on the right place. He recalled one mission in the Omaha Beach area and was given the job of breaking rail lines. He found a little station area with cross tracks that was a good place to do it. There was a little house nearby and so he went down and dropped his bomb and pulled up and looked back and the little white house disappeared and not the train tracks. He hoped that it was a German headquarters and not a French family living there. He did better later. He did one, dive bombing on a little village where they had some tanks held up and he dropped a bomb that went right through the roof of the building he was in. He came back and in debriefing he told them he hit it right on the button. He was Operations Officer at the time and about a week later he was sitting at his desk and he picked up the latest issue of “Stars and Stripes” and he looks at the article on the front page that says “Pilot Claims Hole in One” and then it said the pilot says the bomb went down the chimney and he thought, “Well, isn’t that stupid? How in the hell can you tell if it went down the chimney or not.” Then he read the next line and it said Lieutenant Clayton K. Gross. He called Browning and asked what he was doing to him. They had another thing they dropped that was a wicked weapon called napalm. You usually ran those to skip bomb to the target and then pull up and away. He would hate to be in the middle of it and was sorry about it. He feels sorry about a lot of things now, but also feels like they just did what they had to do though. He also notes he is not anti-military now and he is anything but. Gross recalled if you hung around London long enough, you got to where you really did not like it at all. In fact when they were stationed there they would go spend two or three days and it was plenty and you would get fed up with it. Once they got to the Continent they felt it would be nice to have people to talk to who were speaking their language instead of French. It became kind of a job to get a job to go back to England every now and then which they could do. They could go back and spend a couple of days in London. London during the war was blacked out and the people were accepting of what was happening. They had their bomb shelters if the sirens went off. He was in London a couple of times when there was a siren. He did not know where to go, so he just stood there and waited and thankfully it did not land anywhere close. Gross feels somebody up above was watching out for him the whole war. Besides that he was very lucky. Gross recalls the greatest entertainment was to go down to Piccadilly Circus at night and see the life and the people—the newspaper men selling “London Times” and condoms. The ladies seemed a little loose, in fact too loose for him, so he ignored them. They had a lady join a friend of his and he and she got between them and hooked both their arms. She said, “You know what I like about you Yanks?” They said they did not know. She told them they had silk shorts and patted them both on the rear. Gross told her if he had a spare pair then he would give them to her but he did not. He recalls it was an education in life to be there. He happened to fly back to England in a Mustang with a back seat on it. It was called a two-seater because it was designed to carry Eisenhower to look over the bridge holding them up in Normandy. Pete Quesada flew Eisenhower in it and they kept the plane. The name of it was “Stars Looked Down.” They asked Gross to fly a sergeant to London on 8 May to be married the next day and so Gross put him in the back seat and flew from the Munich area to London and it took about three hours including sightseeing. Gross showed him some of the damage to the German cities by circling over them. In one small village where there was a road coming in from each direction and in the center, there was nothing but a pile of bricks. There was nothing and that was what was left of the city. They flew to London and landed at a big airport and a big air field but nobody came out. He taxied around looking for someone to talk to and, “Where is he supposed to park?” and, “What is he supposed to do?” He even taxied with his tail wheel up, going about 90 miles an hour, just to get around the field a little bit. They finally found a place with several buildings, so they stopped and parked their own airplane. They went into the building and in the building they could hear sounds in the distance. They followed the sounds and it turned out to be a party because the war had ended while they were in the air. It took them about five hours to get downtown and all the offices were closed and he could not get a license and Gross does not know if he found his intended bride as he did not end up seeing him again. He did recall being in London when they cut the lights back on and he enjoyed being there to watch it. There were great stories about parties at the end of the war. He talked about hearing one about a pilot that survived the war and then got drunk with a bunch of his buddies and they all piled in a jeep and he sat on the hood and the driver was drunk and ran into a wall and cut the pilots wings off at the knee. He also heard of a B-17 group where they were firing their guns in the air and then leveled their guns across the field and that went back and forth until they probably wrecked two or three B-17s. It was a great day for people who had been fighting it.

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Clayton Kelly Gross says the 354th Fighter Group was so proud of the 701 kills from the air that they had and in finishing on the top. They went over with some 90 pilots and had 187 pilots killed or captured during the war. Gross recalled the first time he saw the V-1 rocket [Annotator’s Note: German V-1 flying bomb] was at night. They had gone to bed and they were sound asleep and the noise of these going over and the antiaircraft opened up on them and that was what really woke them up. Every 20 minutes or so, a new bomb would come putt, putt, putting about 1,500 feet over their field on its way to London. Gross says the people running the anti-aircraft around their base knew nothing about shooting and knew nothing about leading a moving target. They stood there and watched the men with braces of four 20-millimeter cannons and would start firing on one end and follow the target to the other instead of leading it and would never get close to hitting the target. By the time it had gone from one end to the other they had burned out the barrels and you could see the shells no longer going in a straight line. Some of the pilots went over and tried to tell the guys how to shoot and change the barrels out faster but the crew turned the guns to them and said if you want to learn about it we will show you. Gross remembered they let them go and just not get close to hitting one. The next day one of their pilots, Gross thinks it was Joe Power, went up and knocked one down and it blew up and blew a hole near the field. They did not want that, so they just let them go. Gross was in the air the day the V-2 [Annotator’s Note: German V-2 rocket] came off. He was flying and knew they were cruising along headed north. All of the sudden he saw a tail of smoke go straight up and then turn over and head toward England. It was the first time he had seen or heard of it. They could not do anything about it other than report where it came from so it could be bombed. When Gross went home for his 30 day leave, he was married to a beautiful girl and he will never forget how it took about two weeks to get a ship, then it took another two weeks to get home to New York and then it took him a week on the train to get across the country. When he got across the country, she met him and he thought she was absolutely beautiful. He had left a beautiful girl and came back to a beautiful woman. They were married 53 and a half years before she died. Then he married another beautiful woman. Gross was sent back to Atlantic City {Annotator’s Note: Atlantic City, New Jersey] where he was supposed to get two weeks of rest and rehabilitation. He was rooming with Gil Talbot and they sent for their wives since they had a beautiful hotel and would be there for two weeks. They told them to get the first transportation out there. About two days later a hurricane hit Atlantic City and they evacuated their hotel and had to look for something else. The water was about four or six feet deep in their lobby. They grabbed what they could and got another room and their wives finally showed up and they only had 36 hours together before Gross and Talbot got orders to transfer out. They took a physical, which is normal in the service. That means you take off all your clothes but your shorts and go from one station to another while the doctors test everything. He got to one he had never been to before and it was a psychologist. He was not out in the open like everyone else. He had little canvas walls around the area. When it was his turn, he went in and he had a hangover from drinking the night before with their wives. Gross walked in trying to look as calm as he could and the doctor looked at him and asked if he wanted to go back to combat. Gross said, “Hell no.” The doctor said you are normal and send the next guy in. It’s normal not to want to go back especially if you are married. Gross knows when it came to Korea he left the service when WWII ended and he did everything he could to get back in, but he did not make it. He went back to school instead.

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Clayton Kelly Gross had to make an emergency landing on Omaha Beach before he went home. He flew a mission over the beach area. He dropped bombs and strafed and started back for England and he got out over the Channel and his engine was running a little rough. The English Channel is pretty big like a big ocean. He started out over it and did not want to try flying over the Channel with that engine, so he turned back over land and it seemed to smooth out. When he turned back toward the Channel, it seemed to start again. He circled a field called A1 which was Advance Landing Ground 1, dug out near the beach for emergencies. He went down and landed there and his wingman followed him. They spent the night with the infantry. They radioed home to the base and they flew a mechanic over the next day and he worked on the plane until they got it ready and they took off the next day. It was interesting to spend the night there. They gave Gross and his wingman a tent to stay in and a cover. They slept in their uniform and were given an extra mess kit the next day and they ate with them. They were the first ones to land across the Channel in their group. About a week or so later the 354th Fighter Group moved over to France. [Annotator’s Note: There is a break in the interview where his wife needed to talk to him]. He was in about 30 dogfights and he was undefeated, which is the subtitle of his book. He has to admit he made one more combat take off than he did landing. Just to show you how strange war is, a rifleman in the German infantry got credit for shooting him down. He did not get credit, because he does not even know it, but he shot him down. They went out on a mission called “Search and Destroy.” The job is finding something to shoot at and get rid of it. They started with eight planes, but he sent four off in a different direction. They went after six trucks they saw parked on the road. They went down and burned four of them on the first pass. They did not get any action, so they made a circle and came back to get the other two. He had a wingman who was brand new and had never fired his guns in combat before. He was on the right and got excited and got out in front of Gross. They went across and burned the last two trucks and they cannot turn right and are ten feet off the ground. He cannot turn left either because “Tail End Charlie” may hit the ground. Gross and the pilots following him cross a big field with about 100 German soldiers in the field with rifles aiming at the planes. The soldiers were firing at them and the pilots laughed at them. They counted bullet holes in their airplanes later and Gross had one round through the motor that evidently cut the coolant line. Without that the engine cannot run, so Gross climbed up to 8,000 feet and they set a course for home. His engine froze up and stopped and it began to get hot in the cockpit. Gross told his flight he would have to get out of there after calling “Mayday”and finding out he had 40 miles to go to the line. He pulled the handle to release the canopy and then made three efforts to get out of the airplane. Each time something stopped him. First time, it was the shoulder straps on his shoulders, second was his radio, and third was the goggles had pulled away from his head. Eventually, he threw his helmet down on the floor. Each time he tried, he said goodbye to his group again and then he went down. He jumped out at probably about 2,500 feet. If you have not been in a parachute, it is the quietest place in the world with no wind and no sound except for below him he could hear a battle going on with heavy artillery and machine gun fire and small arms fire. He is floating down in the middle of it, so he hit the ground in a big field very close to a road and immediately rolled his chute up and hid it under a bush and hid trying to decide what to do. There was a village nearby but he did not want to go that way because he had been told not to get caught by the civilians because they had lost people in the war and may kill you. He was told it was best to get captured by the military if you are going to get caught. He had not decided which way to go when he heard a rumbling and suddenly saw a German halftrack. There were two soldiers with rifles pointed in his direction. They knew he was there, so he put his hands up and started walking toward them. As he got about halfway there he saw an Iron Cross with a crudely painted white star. They were American soldiers in a captured German halftrack. He dropped his hands and started to run at them but the GIs raised their rifles at him. He knew they were about to shoot at him and is not sure how close they were, but he skidded to a stop and said not to shoot and said he was American. Both soldiers were from New York. As Gross got closer to them they asked where he was from. He told them Spokane, Washington and then they asked what the capital of Washington was and he told them Olympia. One turned to the other and asked if it was right. The other guy says how the hell would he know, so he asked Gross, “Who are the Brooklyn Dodgers?” Gross told them they were in the National League and said his team was the Cardinals and he could tell them the starting lineup. The GI said to get in. They dropped him off with a Colonel in an armored jeep and they stopped at a German farmhouse, which he made his headquarters for the night. He spent the night with them and had his parachute and they gave him a small German blanket, but between the two he was able to doze a little until the middle of the night when he heard some talking and woke up to see the Colonel talking to a Frenchman in a black outfit with blackface and a black beret and a belt with more weapons on it than he had ever seen on one man and with knives stuck in his boots. And he talked to this Colonel for a while and finally left. Gross asked the Colonel who that was and the Colonel told him it was a Free French man that they drop behind the lines every night and he disrupts things as much as he can and kills and comes back to US lines and rests to go back out. It was the first time in the world that Gross felt bad for the Germans. The next day they flew Gross back to his base and he had his parachute on his lap. When he got out there were a bunch of pilots there and his parachute lasted maybe three minutes before they started cutting it up for white scarves. He wanted his wife to know he had been missing, but he had not even been reported missing yet while he was gone over night. That bothered him a little and she never even knew it, so he never got any sympathy, but it may have shaken his mother and father up, so it is probably good that they did not.

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When Clayton Kelly Gross returned to his unit after his 30 day leave, they were flying the Mustang and he flew it long enough to shoot down his fifth plane. He flew a C model on the bailout mission. When he got back they were changing planes. The 8th Air Force decided they needed all the Mustangs. They were changing from P-47s to Mustangs. The P-47 was a pretty good fighter, but those that had flown the Mustang hated it. He did get shot down by rifle fire in a P-51, but at Bastogne he took a 20-millimeter cannon shell in the engine of his P-47 and it blew two cylinders out of his radial engine and he did not know he had been hit until he had landed. There were people running alongside the airplane pointing at it. There was oil running down the bottom side of his airplane. It did not even run rugged. To him it was: Would you rather fly a plane that would take punishment, which may mean you have to take it because it was not as fast or maneuverable as a P-51 or as fast? Or would you rather fly one that gets you out of trouble and gives you gambling with it? They had the P-47s for about two and a half months. He was flying one on 1 January 1945, when the Germans made their last big attack. First time they attacked their airfields and they did it with hundreds of fighters and Gross was in the air. They were on their way to dive bomb Belgium and the controller said they have bandits in the area. Gross asked, “Where?” And the controller said he could not give the direction. They went three different directions and each time they did not see anything. They were told to go on their mission and drop their bombs. When they got back they found out there were hundreds of Germans that had bombed their fields, but did not attack the 354th field. They did attack a lot of them and Gross thinks they could have had some great shooting since the Germans were below the clouds and he and his men were up above them. It was one of his great disappointments. Gross never shot a plane down with the P-47, but he did a lot of ground shooting. He turned a train over on its side by shooting at it from the side. It did not blow up, but impact turned it over. He can guarantee after being shot up by a P-47 that the impact is terrible and it is great. Gross recalled the first P-47 ride he ever had was a terrible experience. He had been shot down and bailed out. He used to have horses and the old axiom was if you get bucked off the horse, then you get right back on and ride before you get scared, so he wanted to go back in the air, but they had a different airplane so he waited a couple of days. When he did, they had an airplane that they said needed a 100 hour check, so to take it up. He did his cockpit check to be sure he knew where everything was. They were on a field in France with a wire mat for a runway on a pasture and with a Mustang you could take it off in half the distance. With a P-47, it took the entire length of the field. In fact there were five or six trees at the end of the runway that had had at least one guy fly into them and knock them down trying to take off. When they told him to take it, he ran pushed it wide open and was waiting for it to get up, but it did not seem to want to go. They got to the end and he is either going to go through the trees or get it off. He pulled back on it with all of his strength and got it up and just barely cleared the trees. He got up there and now the problem was to hold it there. It did not want to stay there. Any pilot knows if you have trouble staying there, you roll the trim tab back. He rolled it back and it went down instead of up, so he rolled it forward and it made it go and he finally came up. From that moment on he hated it. He did fly it for two and a half months. It was rugged and he did a lot of damage, but he did not get any airplanes. The rumor was General Quesada was very proud of the record they had in aerial victories over the 56th and 4th Fighter Group. When they had the P-47s, the margin was going down, so he gave them back their P-51s in February or March of 1945 and they flew them the rest of the war. Gross recalled the first time he saw the jet was like seeing the V-2 or V-1 rocket. Somebody said bogey at two o’clock and he turned and said he had them. As he was halfway through his turn, this plane goes by him and through the bomber box. They found out right away it was a jet and they were at least 100 miles an hour faster or more. He had another incident with one when he saw one try to attack them while they were dive bombing, but they could not hurt them. They could see them coming and you could just pull off and they would go a mile by you. On this particular day he was cruising on a search and destroy mission and he spotted movement down below him. He was at 12,000 feet and he spotted movement at 2,000 feet and he checked and it was a silhouette of a Messerschmitt 262 and he was so intent on getting him that he rolled over and went down and might have even used power to start with. By the time he got halfway down, he was in compressibility meaning he was going so fast that the air was going over his wings without following the flow, so there was no control. He forgot all about the jet and all he wanted to do was live through this dive. As he got lower and lower he began to get a little feel and started leveling out. When he did the jet was right in front of him and he almost ran over him. He hit him immediately and he does not think he changed more than two degrees. He set his left jet on fire and part of his left wing came off. Gross overran him so he pulled off and when he turned back, the jet was going straight up. Jets would go straight up, but not propeller aircraft. He tried to follow him and thought he was going to get away, but he started sliding back down and then the pilot ejected and jumped out. He got a jet. Gross recalled it was so exciting and at that moment he felt he could whip the whole German air force all by himself and he thought for a minute they had a chance. He got his flight back together again. They had been able to see it and saw what happened. They joined up and started back for the base. They started climbing and he spotted 30 or 40 radial engine airplanes that he thought were Focke-Wulf 190s and if they are going to fight 40 of them they need altitude. The 190s went under them without even noticing Gross and his men above. But Gross recognized the aircraft as P-47s, but they were hoping they would be German so they could take care of them. Gross met the pilot of the jet in 1995. In 1977, he was president of the American Fighter Aces and he was invited to Germany to the German fighter meeting. He had so much fun talking to the people he had been fighting against that he went back five more times over the years. In 1995, he met the pilot of the jet they had shot down. The reason he had not met him earlier is that he was wounded in the shoot down and his story was exactly the same as Gross. He was wounded in the left side and did not have to fly anymore and went to the hospital for treatment and said there were so many wounded from armored battles from Americans coming from the west and Russians from the east that nobody had time to look at him, so he put a towel over his wound and climbed out the window and hitchhiked back to his base and stole a light plane and flew it to Czechoslovakia, where he checked himself into a hospital. Shortly after that, the Russians lowered the Iron Curtain and he could not get back out until Reagan brought the wall down and he was able to get out and be with his pilots that he flew with. He had 16 victories over the US and Gross was hoping he would be one of their 200 victory aces, but he wasn’t.

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Clayton Kelly Gross recalled the date he shot the jet down was in April of 1945. The last month of the war they could not find anything to shoot at. The day he went to London [Annotator’s Note: 8 May 1945] with the sergeant that was to get married, he was on the runway ready to take off when eight P-51s came out, led by Fred Fehsenfeld. The tower told him the mission takes priority over Gross so that he needed to get out of their way and let them take off. He talked to Fred later and found out that they were dropping leaflets telling the Germans to surrender. That is all that they were doing. No shooting or anything. The opposition from the air got less and less as they went through and it was very understandable. Gross recalled a two-man mission that he and Brueland went on to raise their score. Once you got into shooting people down, you wanted to raise your numbers and get more. It was March or April of 1945 they decided that the Germans were hiding their planes and moving them back at night, so they went to the commanding officer and said the Germans were obviously waiting until the Americans were out of contact and pulling their planes out. Gross and Brueland wanted to take off at dusk to find where the Germans were so they could shoot them down. The fields were temporary with mat and no lighting, so how would they land in the dark? So they got every vehicle on the base and lined them up with their headlights on so they could see where they were. They had the radio to bring them back. They went out and it worked out exactly the way that they had planned. They cruised along and there were broken clouds at 2,500 feet or so. They were at 3,000 above and they looked down through them and saw maybe 60 German Messerschmitts in formation in what they used to call a “gaggle.” Gross and Brueland were going to attack them from above. They did not know they were there. They were separated and Gross picked out three or four and figured he would get three or four or maybe more before they know they are there. They start down and Brueland pulls up and Gross asks what’s the matter and pulls up with him. Brueland says he has oil all over his windshield and could not see anything. He told Gross he will have to lead. They made a circle and look for them again and are trying to find them. Gross looks over at Brueland and here comes a Messerschmitt on his tail and he screamed, “Break! Break!” They find out they are under attack instead of attacking, but they managed to get out of there without firing a shot. Those poor German boys that would have died lived through it. They got back and when they checked Brueland’s plane to see why it had oil on the windshield they could not find one single thing wrong. Gross happens to think God intervenes now and then and he may have done that, because how stupid was it to kill a few more German boys when it was not going to affect the war, but would have just raised their numbers. But their numbers were already there. Gross roomed, starting with the beginning of the war, with two of his flight mates, Warren Red Emerson and Lowell K. Brueland. Brueland was a very quiet guy from Calendar, Iowa, who he used to call the only ace from Calendar, Iowa with 12 and a half victories. Red was also from Midwest country. After the war he went back to school and became a dentist. Gross did not hear from him for years until they both became dentists and finally got back together again. Red was wounded by a Messerschmitt 210 when a shell went through his canopy. One fragment went across his chest and cut the parachute straps and burned his chest as it went by. At the same time a fragment went through his neck and went in one side and out the other, about a half inch from his spinal column. He had no permanent injuries from either one of them. If it had been a little ahead of him one fragment wound have killed him and if the one in front had been a little further back it would have killed him. He spent some time in the hospital and had six victories. Brueland was such a quiet guy you would never know what he was doing. He was a great pilot and Gross recognized it when he first got to his squadron. He was very good and it turned out in combat he was even better. He had 12 and a half victories in Europe and had two more in Korea. He retired a Lieutenant Colonel, but Red and Gross left the service after the war. Bob Stephens joined the 355th Fighter Squadron after Gross did. He was a good pilot and great leader. He and Gross did not hit it off quite so well. Gross was leading a flight one day and he started telling Gross what he did wrong after he did not do what he told him to. Gross reminded him when he was leading, then Stephens will do what he says. When Stephens was leading, then Gross would do what he says. Evidently, he went to Bickell and from that time on Bickell and he were closer than Bickell and Gross. But he was a good pilot and turned out to be squadron leader and did a good job, but he did not last long after the war. He made it through the war and then he was killed when an F-80 [Annotator’s Note: Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star] flamed out on takeoff after the war. His daughter was the first one that the Aces Association made a scholarship recipient from the Aces Association. “Cousin” Lasko was a Clark Gable type. He looked like him and had the mustache—good guy and they were all jealous of how he looked to the ladies. Although Gross was married and did not care, he swears. He eventually was transferred to another group to take command of a squadron. Ken Martin, their first commander, was a go-by-the-book type of guy which was a good way to be. Sometimes Gross thought he was a little too so. He went one day and they called him, “Never Break Martin.” They really did not, but he has a reputation now of being called that. When Don Blakeslee came down to lead the group, the first two times Gross was sitting on the front row to listen to every word. Blakeslee said in the case of a head-on pass, the guy who breaks first is at a disadvantage. If I see you break first, I will come after you and shoot you down myself. Gross thought what an ass because that’s not what you do to your people if they make a mistake. Martin got up on the stage and said, if that is the way it is done, then that is the way we will do it. Martin led the group one day from the 355th Squadron. Gross was his element leader, so he was number three in his flight. They were attacked by a bunch of Focke-Wulf 190s as they crossed the coast. They dropped their gas tanks and when Gross made a move with his controls, he found out he was not under control. He was flying an airplane that was not his own. The control cables had been left slack. When he moved them, nothing happened for a while. He went into a spin and dropped 12,000, maybe 15,000, feet and he was attacked by eight Focke Wulf 190s and was all alone and screamed for help. Martin said, do not formation and that we have a formation to run. Gross had nothing to do except he could not control it so he just started climbing as steep as he could under full power and the Germans made passes at his side, but never hit him at all. He got back up to the group level and then somebody who had another minor problem said they would escort him home. That was the mission where Martin ran into a Messerschmitt 109 on an open pass. Gross personally had another deal where he would not break, but would flick his wing to let the German know which way he is going when he does break. He never ran into anybody. Martin wound up spending the war in a prisoner of war camp. He escaped, but it was just before the war ended. Jack Bradley was in the 353rd Squadron to start with and Gross was in 355th. He was very good and was the leader. He and Gross turned out to be good friends after the war. Bradley had a battle with Glenn Eagleston who was another friend of Gross. Gross says the 353rd Squadron was a lot like the New York Yankees. Everyone else in the group disliked them because they would draft people out of other squadrons if somebody big came along in another one. They would beg to be in the 353rd. It was like the Yankees collecting all the best players. They did have the best record from squadrons and it was a team game but the 355th Squadron also had some good records. But Eagleston and Bradley had a great race to see who would be the leading 9th Air Force Ace. Eagleston finaly won it and the story Gross heard was not denied by either one of them. They were almost neck and neck and Bradley was scheduled to lead the mission on a very early mission and Eagleston told the chief [Annotator’s Note: Crew Chief] that Jack was not feeling too well, so I am going to take the mission, so do not wake him. So Bradley woke up and found out the mission went off and Eagleston led it and shot up three planes and wound up the leading ace in the 9th Air Force. How did that play out? They were great friends it looked like. But the three of them with Gross and one other pilot went home together as the first pilots to go home after the first tour. The first tour was 200 combat hours and Gil Talbot and Gross were the first two in their squadron. Bradley and Eagleston the first in the 353rd Squadron and 356th Squadron was Earl Dapner and Harry Fiske and they went home together. To get home you go back to England and sit on the base waiting and you were supposed to be confined to base. They went over the fence as usual to get to town. They got whiskey and bought all they could get a hold of, two bottles of whiskey for four people and were drinking it pretty straight. Gross does not think anybody felt any pain. Eagleston lay down on the top bunk in a room with two double bunks. Gross was sitting on the top of a wall locker up above both of them and Eagleston was laying there and Bradley came over and patted him on the head and then put his arms around his neck and threw h
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