Interview with Lt. Col. Clarence Dart-a former Tuskegee Airman, August 13th, 2003:
Jeeves: When did you sign up with the Army Air Force and what caused you to do it?
Lt. Col. Dart: In1941, I went to Elmira Aviation ground school and did well, but failed the depth perception test. I went through and took it again and passed. At the time, they said to head home and wait for them to call. While waiting, I was getting a bit anxious and soon got a call to report in 1942 to Fort Niagara and ended up in the field artillery. It wasn’t until January of 1943 that they realized their mistake and transferred me to the AAF in Tuskegee.....
Jeeves: What aircraft did you train on?
Lt. Col. Dart: We started our primary training in the PT -17 Stearmans...and then moved onto the BT-13 Vultees and in advanced training in the AT-6 Texan. After graduating from the advanced training, we were shipped to Selfridge Field in Detroit where we trained on some war-weary P-40Ns. We also trained in a field north of Selfridge called Oskota where we did our gunnery/strafing and dive-bombing training. I was commissioned in November of 1943.
Jeeves: When did you leave for Europe and how did you get there?
Lt. Col. Dart: We left in January of 1944 and were shipped on a converted French luxury liner. I remember we had to zig-zag quite a bit to try to avoid being a target for German submarines. We first landed in Oran, Algiers in North Africa in the 99th Fighter Squadron...but the Germans at that time were already on the run heading out of there- so we were then transferred to Capodichino Base in Naples, Italy. But there were no planes for us to fly when we got there at first because Mt. Vesuvius had erupted and all the planes at the base were destroyed and the runways were covered in ash.
Jeeves: Can you tell me of some of your combat experiences?
Lt. Col. Dart: We flew P-40L’s and M’s early on in Italy and a lot of our missions were ground support where we would be dive bombing and strafing enemy positions. We flew in support of Clark’s 5th Army as they drove to Rome. In support of Operation Strangle, we were constantly flying dive bombing and strafing missions. The Germans weren’t as numerous in the skies here. It was during this time that I was shot down two times.
The first time, we were flying a mission to help some GIs that were pinned down on the ground by some German forces. We had to go out with a new flight leader. We found the guys we needed to support, but we went in on our attacks in trail formation as the flight leader had ordered. On the first and second passes, things went OK. On the third pass though, I saw lots of ground fire coming up. It was like the 4th of July. I could see the 40mm shells in between the tracers...and I heard a bang near my cowling and it peeled back like a banana. Another bang...I looked down and there was a hole in the floor between my feet and the rudder pedals. Another bang behind the cockpit. It wasn’t too long after this that I tried to bank away that the engine froze up... my fuel, oil, and coolant lines were cut. I was only 500 feet up, so I knew I was too low to bail out...so I tried to set her down in what looked like a smooth field. As I got lower, I saw it had been plowed....my left wing stalled and hit the ground and I cartwheeled. Both wings ripped up, the engine flew free, and the tail ended up breaking off- leaving me and a small bit of the fuselage sitting in the field. A group of GIs came upon me and told me that a group of Germans had cleared out of that very field not 45 minutes earlier. So I was lucky. One of their medics patched me up and I was back to my group the next day and was back in the air in a couple days.
The second time, a group of 4 of us were sent in out P-40’s to help support the landings at Anzio. At the time, the Germans had their big railway gun (Anzio Annie) firing shells at the battleships that were supporting the landings. In the day, they would wheel that gun into a tunnel and at night, they’d wheel it out to fire on the Allies. Our mission was to skip our bombs into the tunnels to try to bury it. We were heading on in to drop when I felt a hit and flames started coming from under the cowling. I banked and tried to make for an emergency field we had in Anzio...and saw the black smoke trailing...you know- kind of like what you see in the sky-writer planes....only black. I knew I wasn’t going to make the field, so I saw a group of saplings that I figured might make for somewhat of a soft landing...but at the last second saw a bunch of our 155mm guns in those trees, so I pulled up again and saw this sandy road. I started cranking the canopy back and locked the handle so I could get out quick with the flames as high as they were. I hit pretty hard though, and the canopy slammed forward anyways. I unbuckled my harness, crouched onto my seat and forced the canopy off with my back. I got out and started walking up the road.... I was about 1/8 of a mile away when my plane blew up. I was picked up by a 6X6 and spent the night in a grainery that had been converted to a garage for the Allied trucks. I didn’t get much sleep that night though as I heard that German gun firing and the ground shook with it. I made it back to my base and found out they had abandoned trying to knock out that gun.
I continued flying those type of missions until Clark liberated Rome. It was then that we switched roles and became bomber escorts. We switched to P-51’s as well. We then ended up with the 332nd Fighter Group at Ramitelli air strip on the Adriatic coast. I flew the P-51C mainly. We mainly escorted bombers out of Foggia—they were all types....B-17s, B-24s, A-26s. One time, my wingman and I even escorted a photo-rec plane. We didn’t really help much though as the plane that we were escorting was a stripped-down P-51 that was going much faster than we were. We had wing tanks and he didn’t....I kept asking him to slow down...
Jeeves: Did you have any special markings or names for your planes?
Lt. Col. Dart: I named all my planes “Tess’s Torch Song” because my first wife’s name was Theresa and we called her Tess. Also, it was a jazz song that was out at the time, so I took it for my name.
Jeeves: I know you had said that you did a lot of ground attack missions in the P-40. Did you do them also in the P-51 or were you mainly flying escorts in the Mustang?
Lt. Col. Dart: Oh we flew all types of missions in the P-51 as well....strafing, bombing...but mainly escorts at the time. There was one mission where our flight destroyed over one hundred ground vehicles...I have the number on a certificate at home with the exact number—but I destroyed some barges, aircraft,....
I remember our escorts being long missions. We flew escort to Ploesti...that was one place I didn’t enjoy being around. There were large groupings of guns, and as we’d bank to stay with the bombers, I would hear the shrapnel hitting my plane. We also flew missions to the ball bearing factories and over Berlin. That was actually my last mission to Berlin. It was there that I first saw their 163 flying. There was no way any of us could’ve caught up with that one—it was just way too fast. It would shoot up through the formation, and you’d see the glint of the sun off it’s skin...and then it’d zoom back down through the bombers and that was it...we could never catch them. All we could do was watch them...
Jeeves: I have read where the fighters flew off a ways from the bombers during their runs to avoid the flak....is this true?
Lt. Col. Dart: (laughs) No... we were right in the thick of it. We weren’t allowed to leave the bombers... so we were in the thick of it with them. I didn’t like the flak that much...you’d see a puff of black and then hear the pieces hit the plane. There were times the whole wing would jerk up if there was a burst close by. It was hard to watch though....there were times the Germans had such a heavy concentration of the guns that it was like a huge black cloud. You’d see those bombers fly into that cloud and watch at the other end as they flew out and there were gaps in the formations where they had lost some to flak. I hated seeing those bombers go down....and you’d know when they were hit as there would be these huge flashes of flame and you’d see smoking pieces fluttering down. There goes 10 good men...
Jeeves: Did you have any air kills?
Lt. Col. Dart: No... as I said- we weren’t allowed to leave the bombers to hunt for enemy fighters...so that didn’t open up a lot of opportunities. Some of us were aces and had kills, but our main job was to stay with the bombers. That’s why we were so successful and never lost a bomber to enemy fighters. Col. Davis never let us stray from the bombers...he said he’s ground us if he ever heard of any of us doing that. We were always within 2000-3000 feet above the bombers.
There were times when I’d be behind a fighter and fire and see pieces fly off, but I never knew what happened to them after that...whether they crashed or not. I was never credited with any kills.
One time though...I have never been so embarrassed in my life....I found myself behind a Me-262 and was lining up to take a shot...and then saw I could count my propeller blades. I looked down at my panel... well—just before that, I had dropped my wing tanks and had forgot to switch over to my main tanks. It only took a second to hit the switch, but he must have seen me because there was a big puff of black smoke, and he was gone!
Jeeves: What kind of things did you do when you weren’t flying?
Lt. Col. Dart: Well- we were fortunate in that our group had some pretty good jazz musicians in it...in fact some were members of Duke Ellington’s band prior to their service. We weren’t supposed to go into the enlisted men’s club, but the officers never paid heed to that rule. I was a captain at the time, but I’d go in there and listen.
We’d get the Italian kids coming to our mess tents looking for food as well....we’d be eating and would scrape our scraps into the garbage, and the cooks would dump all the grease and waste into the garbage, and these kids would go in their and root around for food. We soon learned to ask for seconds and then would scrape our plates into their buckets. But anyways-—sometimes- when we’d get passes to Naples, we’d buy all kinds of stuff like shoes, food, clothes and the like at the Px there and would bring it back and give it to the kids. All highly illegal... if we were ever caught, I imagine we’d probably be kicked out if an officer was cruel enough to enforce it.
Jeeves: How many missions total did you fly?
Lt. Col. Dart: I flew 95 missions total before they grounded me and shipped me back home. I flew 45 missions in the 12th Air Force in P-40’s and 50 in the 15th Air Force in P-51’s.
Jeeves: Did you stay in the service after WWII?
Lt. Col. Dart: Oh yes....after I was grounded, then sent me to the Naples Repo Depot...that was in April of 1945. From there, we flew in DC-4s to LaGuardia in NYC. The other guys who left later had to ship out on the ocean. I ended up back at Tuskegee where I trained pilots on AT-6’s for about a year. Then I went to school in Oakland in aeronautics and ended up working for GE here until I retired.