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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 pilotâ€™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 [Annotatorâ€™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 [Annotatorâ€™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 victoriesâ€”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 thatâ€™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 [Annotatorâ€™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 [Annotatorâ€™s Note: North American P-51 Mustang]. Actually the version they checked out in was the dive bomber version called the A-36[Annotatorâ€™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 [Annotatorâ€™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 â€œFlying Tiger,â€ 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 [Annotatorâ€™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 [Annotatorâ€™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 [Annotatorâ€™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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