Chester Van Cleave
The WWII recollections and stories of Chester Van Cleave, Engineering Section, as told to his sons Donald and Joe Van Cleave
Chester T. Van Cleave was born to Otto and Laura Van Cleave on August 8, 1917, at the family ranch, located on the east mesa of Albuquerque, near what is now the intersection of Zuni Road and Wyoming Blvd. He had four sisters.
Chet attended Albuquerque High School in the 1930s, though he didn’t graduate. He had to quit school in the 11th grade so he could get a job to help support the family. In 1936, he worked as a clerk at Pierce’s Food Store. From 1940 to 1941, he was a stockman at the F. W. Woolworth Co. His job at Woolworth’s was interrupted by the war in 1941, the year he entered the army.
Chester Thomas Van Cleave served in the United States Army Air Corp during World War II. Originally, he wanted to go into the Navy, but they turned him down because he was color-blind and had a slight heart murmur. Apparently, the Army Air Corp’s entrance requirements weren’t as stringent as the Navy’s. Chet enlisted in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on October 14th, 1941, and arrived at the Fort Bliss Reception Center, at Fort Bliss, Texas, on October 21st. He entered into active service on October 30th. His father, Otto, was working as a carpenter at Fort Bliss at the time. At the recruiter’s office, he had a choice to go to Biloxi, Mississippi; Wichita Falls, Texas; or Jefferson Barracks, near St. Louis, Missouri. He had heard that the people of Biloxi were not friendly towards sailors and soldiers, so he didn’t want to go there. He didn’t like Texas either, so he chose to go to St. Louis, Missouri.
Chet took the train from El Paso to Texarkana, and on up through Arkansas into Missouri. It took 24 hours just to travel through Texas. Chet underwent basic training at Jefferson Barracks. Because he was interested in becoming an airplane mechanic, he took the exam to see if he qualified to go to the Air Corp Technical School. Of course, he passed the exam, and so his ambition to become an airplane mechanic was closer to fulfillment. He had a chance to go to school at Ft. Leonard Wood, in Missouri, but he wanted to go to school at Chanute Field, near Rantoul, Illinois, instead. In December 1941, after completing army basic training, he traveled by train to Rantoul, Illinois, to begin his courses of study at the technical school. Chet remembers that they left St. Louis in the early morning and got to Chanute Field by dark. There were about 100 other servicemen on the train heading to Illinois. Along the way, someone on Chet’s train car got sick, but it wasn’t until the day after their arrival at Chanute Field that it was determined that the sick soldier had contracted scarlet fever. This meant that everybody who had been on that train would have to be quarantined. Everyone in Chet’s barracks had been on the train, so he and all of his companions were quarantined. It was cold at that time of the year. All of the quarantined men at Chanute Field had to strip down to their underwear, and wearing coats, they marched over to the dispensary, where army doctors checked them for spots. Then they had to march back to their barracks in the cold.
The quarantined men had to stay in their barracks except when they went to the mess hall to eat. (Of course, they didn’t go to the mess hall until everyone else was out of there.) On Sunday morning, December 7th, while listening to the radio in the barracks, Chet and his fellow servicemen heard the shocking news about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The quarantine was lifted by the time school started at Chanute Field.
At this point in his military service, Chet was only a private, the lowest rank. He was identified by his army serial number, 38013367. He was member of “Flite C”, 4th School Squadron. At Schanute Field, besides pursuing his technical studies, he had to do KP duty in the kitchen a few times. He had a friend named Waters who was supposed to begin KP duty one night, but Waters had other plans off-base. He asked Chet if he would take his place, and Chet agreed. In bed that night, Chet had to remember to awaken when the name “Waters” was called. At 2 a. m., somebody came into the bunk room and called out, “Waters!” Chet awoke, dressed quickly and, pretending to be Waters and wearing his friend’s name tag, went to the mess hall and worked the full KP shift.
When Dad first told Donald the story about his impersonation of Waters, he asked, “But wouldn’t they notice your face? Wouldn’t they see that you weren’t Waters?” Dad replied, “They didn’t care as long as they had a body.”
On nights when Chet and his fellow soldiers were given furlough, they would go down to Champaign, Illinois, to see the USO show there. Since 1941, the United Service Organization has given support to American servicemen and provided them with entertainment and recreational opportunities. A nonprofit organization, the USO is funded by the Department of Defense and by private donations.
Chet completed his courses of study at the school of mechanics and received a certificate of completion, thereby becoming a certified airplane mechanic. He was sent to Connecticut, where he was stationed for a time. Finally, in September 1942, he received a 10-day furlough, and he returned to Albuquerque to see his parents. He traveled by train to Chicago, and from there he took the Santa Fe Railroad to Belen, New Mexico. He caught a shuttle bus from Belen to Albuquerque. It took him three days to get to Albuquerque from Connecticut.
At the time, Otto was working up at Camp Hale, near Pando, Colorado, but Laura contacted him to let him know that their son was home on leave. I believe Otto came home during the week.
On his third day of furlough, Chet received a telegram ordering him to return to his unit immediately. However, that was impractical. He couldn’t have returned immediately, because traveling to the east coast would take at least three days. So he ignored the orders and stayed in Albuquerque for three more days. He got to visit with his father when Otto returned to Albuquerque from Colorado. However, Chet did return to his unit before the end of his furlough, so the army couldn’t charge him with being AWOL. On the way back to Connecticut, his troop train passed Washington, D. C., and he got to see the Pentagon (which was still under construction) and other famous sights from a distance.
When he arrived in Connecticut, he discovered that his unit had gone on to Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania. Two other soldiers had missed joining their unit. Chet learned that his unit would be going overseas soon to serve in the North African campaign, and his commanding officer asked him if he wanted to go overseas, too. Chet said “yes”, because he figured he would have to go eventually, and he preferred going over with people he knew and liked. So the commanding officer gave the three late-comers thirty dollars to take a train to Pennsylvania. The tickets cost $7.50 apiece. Chet and the other two soldiers finally rejoined their unit in Indiantown Gap. From there, they took another train to Newport News, Virginia.
In October 1942, at Newport News, Chet’s unit boarded the Mauritania and began the long ocean voyage to Egypt. They traveled south, following the South American coast to Rio de Janeiro, where the ship stopped for a short time. None of the men were allowed to leave the ship, though. The ship lay at anchor in the harbor, away from shore, so that potential deserters couldn’t go ashore. Potential deserters could walk back to the United States from there.
From Rio de Janeiro, Chet and his fellow soldiers crossed the South Atlantic, skirting the Arctic Ocean. They were heading toward the Indian Ocean and would be rounding the southern cape of Africa. They had already crossed the Equator once, and before arriving at their journey’s end, they would cross the Equator again.
Originally, the Mauritania had been a British luxury passenger liner until it was put into mothballs in the 1930s. With the advent of World War II, the British military refurbished it and outfitted it for the war effort. Now it was serving as a troop ship. Chet said of the Mauritania, “It was the largest ship I’ve ever been on.” The large swimming pool that had once catered to transatlantic passengers was now as dry as a bone and was used by the military to store jeeps and other vehicles needed for wartime. The Mauritania also had an anti-aircraft gun mounted on the back, with a crew to man it.
Some of the soldiers baited fishing lines and hung them from the back of the ship to catch albatrosses. Albatrosses are sea birds that follow ships and are often seen diving into the water to catch fish. Although Chet didn’t actually see the soldiers catching the birds, he did hear that after the soldiers caught them, they released the birds unharmed. They caught the birds merely for sport. Chet said when he was up on deck, he liked to watch the flying fish jumping out of the water.
Crossing the ocean in wartime meant that the Mauritania, as was the case with other troop ships, had to take special precautions to prevent German subs from finding it and sinking it with torpedoes. Although the Mauritania was faster than U-boats, there could be U-boats waiting ahead to destroy it. To avoid detection, the ship had to maintain radio silence (except in an emergency). Nobody on board the ship was allowed to smoke cigarettes above deck at night, because the glow of lit cigarettes could be seen in the blackness of the night and would signal the Mauritania’s presence to the enemy. (At night, below deck, the men could smoke all the cigarettes they wanted.) The ship was only allowed to dump garbage into the sea once a day, because the Germans could track the Mauritania’s route by following the trail of refuse. Another method used to avoid enemy subs was to have the ship travel along a zigzag course. Chet says the ship zigzagged all the way to North Africa.
Because the Mauritania was a British ship staffed by the British army, the fare on board was British. In Chet’s opinion, the food wasn’t good at all. Cooks in the galley kept the cabbages and certain other food items on the floor, and bilge water sometimes flooded the floor and ran in among the food. Chet said it wasn’t appetizing to think about eating it. He also said they served mutton, which he hated. He called it “sheep dip”. It was unfortunate for him that mutton and cabbage was the main fare served on the Mauritania. Generally, however, Chet managed to avoid eating that awful food. For most of the voyage to North Africa, he subsisted mainly on candy bars and cookies.
The ship had a three-day layover at Durban, South Africa. The men were allowed off the ship because there was no chance of deserters swimming back to the United States. In Durban, Chet ate at a British restaurant, H. Salt. That was the first time he had ever eaten fish and chips. To him, this was real food, and he enjoyed it immensely.
The Mauritania passed the island of Madagascar, where those on board could see anti-aircraft gunfire streaking into the sky. The last battle of Madagascar was being fought there in front of their eyes. The ship entered the Red Sea and traveled up toward the Suez Canal. In November 1942, after having spent 31 days on the Mauritania, the American and British troops finally disembarked at Port Tufic, Egypt.
Before his unit left Port Tufic, Chet walked along the Suez Canal and passed through a little village, where he had his first look at the natives. He saw all of the women of the village washing clothes in the irrigation ditch.
“They must drink, bathe and wash in the same water,” he said to me. “No wonder they don’t live long.”
What he remembers most about that place were the flies. He had never seen so many flies as he saw there. “Flies were thicker than ants,” he told me. “They were the darnedest flies I ever saw. You couldn’t scare them away. You had to knock them off.”
Later, Chet and his fellow soldiers took the train from Port Tufic to Alexandria (called El Iskandariya in the Egyptian language, or El Isk for short). He described the train as having metal rings that connected one train car to another. He remembers how slowly the train traveled.
Chet was a member of the 87th Fighter Squadron, one of four squadrons making up the 79th Fighter Group. The other three squadrons of the 79th were the 85th, 86th and 99th squadrons. The 79th Fighter Group, a part of the Desert Air Task Force of the Ninth U. S. Air Force, was attached to the British 8th Army, giving direct support to the British in the Middle East Theater of the North Africa campaign. Chet, using his training as an aircraft mechanic, worked as a crew chief with the dedicated men who kept their squadron’s airplanes in good flying condition. His crew member number was 750.
While he was stationed at Alexandria, Egypt, Chet was promoted to the rank of staff sergeant. Another Albuquerquean, Bernardino (Dino) Lommori, was also a staff sergeant. Chet and Dino were good friends during the war. Dino’s immediate family – which included himself, his parents and his siblings – originally lived in Albuquerque, but then they moved to El Paso, Texas, where they lived for some years before returning to Albuquerque for good. Dino’s parents were Augusto Lommori and Filomena Toti. Dino had a brother Joe and two sisters, Thelma and Palmira. Dino’s maternal grandfather, Gaudenzio Toti, was the proprietor of a grocery and liquor store at 317 N. 3rd Street, in Albuquerque. Gaudenzio’s wife was Albina Papini. Dino’s ancestors on both sides of his family emigrated to America from Italy in the nineteenth century.
When Chet and Dino got a three-day pass, they hitched a ride to Cairo. Chet remembered that there were a lot of army vehicles going back and forth on the road to the Egyptian capital. Chet and Dino visited a “nice zoo” in Cairo and also a museum run by the Egyptian government. Dino bought a scarab at the museum, but Chet didn’t have enough money to buy one. The scarab was one of a number of “excess” items dug up by archaeologists. Dad explained to me that some ancient Egyptian relics were sent to museums, and the excess items were sold to tourists. Dino’s scarab came with a certificate of authenticity.
While in Cairo, Dino and Chet had a picture taken with camels and an Egyptian Arab. The photograph shows Dino, in uniform on the left, sitting on a camel, and Chet, also in uniform, sitting on another camel. Behind them, in the background, is a view of the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Sphinx. The Egyptian Arab, in a long white robe and turban, is shown standing between the two camels. Chet and Dino paid for the pictures, but they had to leave before they were developed because they had to get back to their unit in Alexandria. At the time, Dino and Chet didn’t know how they turned out. Chet paid the photographer to mail the picture home to his parents in Albuquerque.
“We took a gamble,” Dad told me. “We didn’t know if the photographer would really mail it. But we had to have the picture taken then, as we wouldn’t be in Cairo again.”
As it turned out, Laura and Otto (Chester’s parents) didn’t receive the photograph until six or eight months later. Mail service was slow during the war. After Chet returned home from overseas, he found out that the picture had arrived safely. This photograph still remains in our family’s possession today. During the war, the photograph was published in one of Albuquerque’s newspapers.
A story has been told about an incident that happened in North Africa. Donald remembers Dad telling him about it, and he thought he’d jotted down the details in his notes at the time but hasn’t been able to locate the notes, so has had to reconstruct it from memory. He doesn’t know if he remembered the details correctly, and his brother Joe has told a different version of the story. Thus are presented both versions here:
Version One (Donald’s reconstruction):
While Chet was stationed in North Africa, a German plane crashed onto a salt flat. He was sent to check it out and to do what he could. He went [alone?] and found that some German soldiers had survived the crash, but there were others who had died. Chet was not armed, but the Germans didn’t know that. He took the survivors prisoner and had the bodies of the dead Germans wrapped in a parachute. Then he marched the prisoners away from the plane wreckage and on across the salt flat. He had the prisoners hold on to the chute’s lines and help pull the parachute and bodies across the salt flat. Chet remembered the bad smell of the bodies and how the Germans complained. I can’t remember where Dad took them. Perhaps he took them back to his outfit.
Version Two (Joe’s account):
Chet was given the assignment of retrieving the body of an American pilot who had died in the crash of his plane on a swampy salt flat. The pilot had been dead for some time. Chet was given a group of German prisoners to go with him to help him retrieve the dead pilot. When they got to the plane, Chet could smell the awful stench of the decaying body. He stayed back and had the prisoners go into the crashed plane and bring out the body. Dad had a gun, but it was not loaded, and he had no ammo. Joe seems to think that someone in his company, for some reason, didn’t want him to carry any ammo. The German prisoners with him, however, didn’t know that his gun was unloaded. They wrapped the pilot’s body in a parachute and dragged it across the salt flat. The prisoners’ shoes were not in good condition, so their feet were bleeding and sore rubbed raw from having to walk across chunks of salt.
* * *
Dad told Donald that once during his squadron’s service in the North African campaign, he briefly passed through Khartoum (in Sudan, south of Egypt) and was present at Tobruk, Libya, during the Libyan campaign. Unfortunately, he didn’t share any details of these two experiences. Now, after his passing in February of 2008, it’s too late to ask him about them.
Joe remembers Dad telling several other stories from the North African Campaign. One related to the British soldiers constructing a rudimentary pinball machine, made from an elevated wooden board, with holes representing various points, that using aircraft ball bearings and a spring to shoot the ball bearings up the board.
Another story he told was while in the Libyan desert their unit got “lost” and spent several weeks in the desert, eventually finding out they were behind enemy lines. He also said that at one point, for weeks or months perhaps, they subsisted on beer and pretzels, from the British soldiers.
Yet another story he told was that for some time their airfield was located in the most unlikely location, an area with a thin crust of hard-packed soil atop a goopy mess of mud underneath. Barrels had been placed along the taxiways and runways, indicating safe areas for aircraft to taxi, lest they wander off and their wheels break through the thin crust to the mud underneath. The location for this airfield was purposefully picked, he said, because the Germans never thought anyone would be stupid enough to locate an airfield there, making it harder for them to determine its location.
Dad also told the story of their unit capturing a virtually intact Stuka aircraft. They repaired it, painted it in American colors and flew it against the Germans. One detail stands out, the difference in design between the American P40s and the German Stuka. The P40s required hours and hours to replace a damaged wing, necessitating dozens of bolts be arduously removed; whereas the Stukas were designed with a simple pin and slot arrangement, making changing a wing a simple 30 minute job.
* * *
The allied forces eventually captured North Africa from the Germans, and then the focus of the war shifted to the Sicilian, Italian and French campaigns.
After serving in North Africa for almost a year, Chet’s squadron moved on to Sicily and Italy, where they were involved in the Italian campaigns. The 87th Squadron eventually went into the south of France, but by that time. Chet was in a hospital in Naples and so wasn’t involved in the French campaign.
When Chet’s squadron was sent to Sicily with the British 8th Army in May or July of 1943, they initially bivouacked in an almond orchard on the island. Because the Germans had not built any airstrips or airfields on Sicily, Chet’s squadron had to wait while the British cleared out an area of trees, vegetation and grape vines with bulldozers and proceeded to build an airfield. The squadron’s planes were still carrying out air missions in North Africa and would be coming to Sicily after completion of the airstrip there. One day Chet and Dino Lommori were away from camp, exploring some old ruins, and while they were “scrounging around”, to use Dad’s words, they found some flares. It was Dino’s idea to shoot off one of the flares. He pulled a string, and the flare shot up into the sky. As the flare drifted down on a parachute, a shower of sparks and fire dripped down from the flare, catching a field on fire. The field was full of dry stalks left over after a crop of corn or wheat had been harvested. The fire got out of control. If it wasn’t put out, the fire probably would burn up part of the island. Chet and Dino tried to beat out the fire. There were British soldiers encamped nearby. The fire was closer to the British camp than to the American camp, so the British soldiers came to Chet’s and Dino’s aid and helped them extinguish the fire. Needless to say, Chet and Dino didn’t tell the British soldiers how the fire started.
During the time that the 87th Squadron was on the island of Sicily, Chet and Dino had the opportunity to climb Mt. Etna, the volcano on the east end of the island. Chet said the volcanic soil of Mt. Etna was very loose as they climbed up the steep ascent. They managed to reach the top, where they could see the crater.
Donald isn’t sure this is remembered correctly, but thinks Dad said his unit didn’t meet up with other Americans until they arrived on Sicily. Dad said he was at Syracuse, which is located on Sicily’s eastern coast.
The Americans and their allies successfully captured Sicily from the Germans and then moved on to the Italian campaign.
In August or September 1943, Chet’s squadron and fighter group moved on to Italy. They were involved in the Naples-Foggia campaigns from September 1943 to January 1944, and in the Rome-Arno campaigns from January to September 1944. Chet said he was at or near Anzio, south of Rome.
In a Statement of Personal History that he filled out for his Civil Service job, dated 11 November 1974, Chet was asked if he had ever been detained, held, arrested, indicted or summoned into court as a defendant in a criminal proceeding. The answer that he typed on the statement reveals a surprising detail of his World War II experience: “[I] went on leave in Naples, Italy, in 1944 without my dog tags. I was given a summary Court Martial and fined $10.00.”
Back in 1940, after the Germans had invaded northern France and occupied Paris, France had been forced to surrender in June of that year. Now, in the late spring of 1944, the Americans and their allies were preparing to invade France in a push to drive the Germans out. As a part of the invasion force, troops from the Italian campaigns would be sailing northwest to France’s southern coast and then moving inland to fight the Germans on French soil. Chet’s unit would be participating in this military action.
From Italy, Chet’s unit went to the island of Corsica, a French Department, located halfway between Rome and southern France. That’s as far as Chet got. By then, he was experiencing some medical problems. In August 1944, he was troubled by a “rectal fistula”, as he called it. At first, he was still ambulatory and had no trouble walking. Later on, he got pleurisy and was confined to a hospital bed. One of his lungs filled up with vfluid. The field hospital on Corsica where Chet was a patient consisted of tents like the field hospital depicted on the MASH television show.
When the time came for his unit to leave Corsica, the field hospital moved with them. However, Chet and the other sick soldiers were not allowed to go to France with their unit. Instead, the army transferred them to a military hospital in Naples, Italy. Chet was there for some time. From his hospital room window, he could see Naples Harbor and the hospital ships anchored there. These hospital ships were painted white with big red crosses on the side. (The enemy wasn’t supposed to attack hospital ships, so clearly identified, but sometimes German submarines and planes torpedoed and bombed them anyway.) Chet languished in a hospital bed in Naples, as his medical condition prevented him from participating further in the war. Finally he got a “ZI” on his release papers. “ZI” meant “Zone of Interior”, indicating that he would be sent back to the States for convalescence. Dad told me, “Everybody wanted to get a ‘ZI’.” Chet got his as a result of getting sick rather than from being wounded in any military action. Although he got his “ZI” in August, he had to wait till early October before he could leave.
Dad told me that he saw Mt. Vesuvius erupting at night from the harbor at Naples. He remembers the volcano ejecting rocks and chunks of lava, some as big as trucks.
When he finally did leave the Naples hospital in October 1944, Chet was carried on a stretcher to a waiting ambulance (as were his fellow hospitalized soldiers) and transported to the ship sitting in Naples Harbor. Chet was going home to the States at last. Dad commented on the difference between this ship and the one that had taken him overseas in 1942. On this ship, he got fresh vegetables, good food, pies, cakes and other things that he hadn’t gotten on the Mauritania. For the first time in two years, he didn’t have to eat dehydrated food. Another difference between this ship and the Mauritania was the time it took to cross the ocean. The new ship followed a more direct route to the United States, so the ocean voyage this time took only 12 or 13 days instead of 31 days.
Chet bade farewell to the Mediterranean as his ship passed the Rock of Gibraltar and entered the Atlantic. The ship was heading to Charleston, South Carolina, but the captain and crew were receiving reports of a hurricane that was moving down the east coast of the United States. By the time the ship approached South Carolina, however, the winds had subsided, though the water was very choppy. The ship had to weigh anchor outside the mouth of the James River till morning because submarine nets had been placed to prevent enemy subs from entering the river from the ocean. The ship had to sit out on the ocean, along the coast, all night long.
“We bounced around like a cork,” Dad recalled. “That’s the closest I’ve ever been to a hurricane. The tail end just suits me fine. If the hurricane hadn’t moved on, we’d have had to go someplace else.”
The James River was choppy when the ship entered it in the morning and headed on up to Charleston.
Chet spent a week in Charleston’s Stark General Hospital. He was able to telephone his folks from there. The military hadn’t told him yet when he would be leaving Charleston, or where he would be going from there.
The military decided at last to send him to a hospital in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with fifteen other soldiers. Chet sent his folks a telegram, telling them about his transfer to Santa Fe. From Charleston, they flew to Jackson, Mississippi, to refuel. They spent one night in Wichita Falls, Texas.
It was raining too hard for them to land in Santa Fe (the airstrip there was not very good), so they landed at Kirtland Field, in Albuquerque. The government had taken over a girls’ school and converted it into a military hospital off base. The hospital was located just beyond the northern boundary of Kirtland, on the north side of Gibson Boulevard. That is where the military took Chet and the other sick men. (Years later, the government converted this hospital into an officers’ club.)
Eventually, the army sent four ambulances down from Santa Fe to transport Chet and his fellow soldiers up to Bruns General Hospital. They arrived there on the 4th of November, Election Day 1944. Chet was allowed to go home for Christmas, but he wasn’t released from Bruns General Hospital until January 27th, 1945, when he was also discharged from the United States Army. From Santa Fe, he was transferred to the Veterans Administration Hospital in Albuquerque, where he exchanged army pajamas for V. A. Hospital Pjs. The government kept him there for three months until he was well enough to be discharged from the hospital. His sister Patricia Ann, who was fifteen years old, was still living at home then. Thus ended Chet’s military service and the last of his stays in a military hospital.
* * *
The war raged on in the Pacific Theater, while Chet recuperated in his 2nd floor room at his parent’s home at 112 Edith St, NE in Albuquerque during the summer of 1945. At 05:30 on the morning of July 16, Chet was tossed out of bed from the seismic shock of what he later learned was the Trinity atomic test, some 110 miles south of Albuquerque.
This literal “wake-up call” would prove to be a harbinger of his future career, that started with the Sandia Base Engineer’s Office and his job as warehouse manager at the underground Manzano Base in 1949 (initially named Site Able and part of the larger Sandia Base, which in 1971 was combined into Kirtland AFB), then progressing into a federal career with DASA (Defense Atomic Support Agency, later renamed DNA — Defense Nuclear Agency), where he worked in the Cataloging Department of Field Command to help create and maintain the system of parts for the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile.
Chester Van Cleave retired from civil service in 1976, and passed away in February of 2008 at age 90.