Early Life, Enlistment and Training

A New Ship and a Small Miracle

From the Atlantic to the Pacific

Undisclosed Suicide Mission

Introspection

Getting on With the Job

Borneo, War’s End and Postwar Life

Reflections

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Clem Thrift was born in January 1927 in Thomasville, North Carolina. He never knew his father, who died in an accident. Thrift lived with his mother in Greensboro, North Carolina throughout his young life. They were very poor during the Great Depression, his mother sewing overalls to make a living. He said she ran a tight ship, and, in fact, later moved to the North Carolina coast to work in a shipyard. Thrift said that because he was poor, he didn't have too many choices, but when the country declared war, he felt he needed to help protect and support his mother and his country. He asked his mother to lie about his age so he could enlist. Thrift loved the ocean and the sea, and said his inner sense of purpose directed his decision to join the Navy. At 16 and a half he was off to recruit training at Bainbridge, Maryland. It was the first time he crossed the Mason-Dixon Line. While at a receiving station, his chief recommended Thrift train to be an electrician's mate, because it was the best racket aboard ship. Thrift became a Fireman 1st Class.

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Clem Thrift went to Norfolk, Virginia for turboelectric training. The ship he helped commission, and on which he remained until it was decommissioned, the USS Holt (DE-706), had turboelectric drive generators, and Thrift's job was to stand watch on this equipment. The vessel was a destroyer escort, purpose built for antisubmarine patrols, put in service at Algiers, Louisiana. It was a whole new life for Thrift; he had never been around so many people. The ship's shakedown cruise was to Bermuda. Thrift remembered an extraordinary event while he was on this journey. Every morning he would go up on the fo'c'sle [Annotator's Note: raised deck at the bow of the ship; the word is a contraction of "forecastle"] to look for the flying fish that landed on the deck overnight. One morning, he spied a rainbow, and he raised his arms out. The ship sailed right through the rainbow. It was a great experience he has always enjoyed recalling.

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Clem Thrift said the United States was suffering under the threat of German submarine attacks, so the destroyer escorts were built to convoy with and protect the merchant marine ships. The USS Holt (DE-706) carried depth charges, K-guns [Annotator's Note: Mark VI depth charge projector], and hedgehogs [Annotator's Note: a forward firing antisubmarine weapon that could be shot out to cover a large area]. In September 1943, the Holt got caught in the Great Atlantic Hurricane while trying to protect the cargo ship SS George Ade from attack by a German u-boat [Annotator's Note: submarine]. Two Coast Guard cutters and the USS Warrington (DD-343) were sunk with all hand lost during that storm. Thrift remembers looking out of the hatch at a wall of water, then jumping back and dogging the hatch down. He said Ernie Pyle had a quote about destroyer escort sailors deserving sea pay and submarine pay. The Holt was eventually attached to MacArthur's [Annotator's Note: US Army General Douglas MacArthur] 7th fleet, and went through the Panama Canal to reach the Pacific. Thrift said he had liberty both entering and exiting the canal, and had to grow up real fast, but he enjoyed it. On the way to New Guinea, the Holt stopped at Pearl Harbor, where Thrift got his five points of honor tattoo. They moved on to the Society Islands, where they were met by boatloads of beautiful natives. The Holt then sailed on to Leyte.

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The Army had not yet finished on Leyte because of bad weather, and Clem Thrift said that in the process of readying to land on Mindoro, the USS Holt (DE-706) was assigned to a group of ships whose purpose was to draw the Japanese out, thereby determining just where their strongholds were. Thrift said it was unspoken, but understood, that this was a suicide mission. The so-called "slow-tow convoy" of barges, tugs and small oilers moved along the coast from Leyte to Mindoro, circled by the faster destroyer escorts and destroyers, and the Kamikazes started coming out. Fortunately, Mindoro, the site planned for the next American airfield, didn't have a large contingent of Japanese defending it. The main body of the Navy passed the Holt's mission both going and coming from the invasion of Leyte. Thrift noted that they could tell the nature of an attack by which guns were being fired. He remembers opening a hatch when a 40mm went off, and feeling a vibration so intense that it brought tears to his eyes. The Kamikaze the gun was targeting missed the Holt, but turned and took the pilot house off a nearby tug before breaking up. [Annotator's Note: Thrift reads a passage on the mission from a book.] Thrift maintains that the maneuver, a deliberate attempt to attract Kamikaze attacks, cannot be viewed as anything less than a suicide mission.

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Clem Thrift thought the destroyer escort he served on [Annotator's Note: the USS Holt (DE-706)] was a great ship. It gave him the opportunity to grow up, and he was able to learn many things from older crew members, like the value of establishing his credit. He had a lot of experiences he would not have otherwise had. It gave him male influences in his life that he missed by being fatherless. He became a man, and not just physically, but intellectually as well. He is very proud of the fact that he was in the Navy. Because the Holt was turboelectric, Thrift worked controlling the throttle. During battle station mode, he had to maintain the engine room and the electric shop. He made Electrician's Mate 3rd Class while he was aboard ship. Thrift considers himself an introspective man.

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Still in the Philippines, Clem Thrift's ship [Annotator's Note: the USS Holt (DE-706)] moved on to bombarding the beaches and helping with the landings. The Holt made a couple of trips to Okinawa, and even replaced a ship in a picket line while it went off to be refueled. The Holt was just doing whatever was required. Thrift said MacArthur's [Annotator's Note: US Army General Douglas MacArthur] Navy was an attack force, and invasion was their major effort. It kept them really busy; invasion was an everyday affair. Being topside, Thrift was in a position to see a lot of things. It was truly a "Tin Can Navy", and what bothered Thrift most were the things he couldn't see that could still destroy him. When asked what affect the Kamikazes had on morale, Thrift said the sailors always knew it was possible they would be sunk or killed, and exposed as they were to the action; they were all willing to lay down their lives. He never got seasick, and never really thought about dying. He felt he was under oath to do the job. Thrift recognized there were times when he had to clench his teeth, and go on with his duty. He said first you must understand what your duty is, then you act accordingly; train, then do what you can do. Thrift doesn't fear dying, his fear is not living.

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Clem Thrift's last combat assignment was off of Borneo. There was concern because Japanese soldiers were swimming out and attaching explosives to the hulls of the ships. After Okinawa was secured, most of the fighting around Borneo was being done by the Australians and New Zealanders. Thrift didn't even know where Borneo was geographically until he was sent there. When the war ended, the USS Holt (DE-706) was carrying mail between the islands, and accepting sailors who didn't have enough points to go home. When he got back to the United States, the Navy put his ship in mothballs. Thrift was transferred to the USS Scania (AKA-40), doing trips to Guam, Japan and Korea. Thrift said they were trying to shanghai him because they needed electricians. They kept stalling his release, so he went to the beach and talked to the chaplain. He was finally discharged in Seattle in January 1947 at the rank of Electrician's Mate 3rd Class. He didn't join the active reserves. He went to work for Rockford Iron Works, shipwrights. He used the G.I. Bill for additional electrical training, and went on to earn an associate's degree from his community college at his own expense. Thrift has always had an appetite for learning.

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Clem Thrift's most memorable experience of the war was finding out he had joined the regular Navy, learning a trade, serving on a destroyer escort [Annotator's Note: USS Holt (DE-706)] from commissioning to decommissioning, and serving in the Atlantic and the Pacific; the entire experience was worthwhile and fulfilling. He said there is nothing about it he regrets. He was not as fond of his last ship or its captain, but he relaxed and worked through it. He thinks the program at The National WWII Museum is very worthwhile, because it gives those willing to participate the opportunity to share their feelings. People who listen to the stories may hear the clarion call and discover how they can best serve their country - good lessons that can be beneficial. The veterans did their job for a good reason.

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