The Story of Clare and Jeanette

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Two young people, having grown up during the Great Depression, meet in the midst of war. This is a true story, of one couple, but could be that of thousands more.

Submitted: January 07, 2008

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Submitted: January 07, 2008

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The Story of Clare and Jeanette

We all chuckle over the endearing antics of Grandpa Clare and Grandma Jeanette, but we must also take time to remember the trials and accomplishments of these two loveable people. They form a strong branch of a sturdy family tree, from whence we sprang. And recently, for the first time, Clare started talking about his early years, during the Great Depression, WWII, and the Korean War.

We’ve all heard the stories of how these two met, and married after a whirlwind romance, in the midst of a war. But let’s look back a bit farther.

In a small farming town of Iowa, a mother of 9 struggled through the hardships and hunger of the depression. Her husband had deserted her some years before, leaving her alone to support this large and hungry brood. She did so by working as a seamstress, sewing clothing for those more fortunate. The older boys went to work in an egg-candling business, and though the wages were barely minimal, they got to take home all the cracked eggs. Eggs were the main source of protein for the family of 10. They grew some vegetables in their garden to supplement the larder. The girls would do housework or child care for money. All money earned by the kids came home to mom, to pay the rent and buy any necessities that could be afforded.

When the war broke out, the older boys all joined the service, and were shipped out to various parts of the world, places that this farm community had never even known existed before this. The boys sent all of their army pay back to mom, to support those left behind.

One by one, the kids left the nest, marrying or going off to war. Jeanette, being second to the youngest, and the youngest girl, was the only one left behind. She was absolutely devoted to her mother, and could not think of leaving her. When a friend who had moved to California wrote to Jeanette, begging her to join her there, Jeanette declined, unable to leave her mother alone. There were numerous letters, all encouraging Jeanette to come to the west coast. This friend’s sister came by frequently to lend her voice to the urgings for going to California. Jeanette’s mother learned of all this, and said, “Of all my children, Jeanette, you are the one I hoped would leave this town, and do something else with your life. I think you should go. I will be fine here with my sister, and my friends.” So, Jeanette finally agreed to the great adventure.

The sister of Jeanette’s friend told her that there was a local man who was being paid to drive another man’s car from Webster City, Iowa, to Long Beach. He had room in this car to take 4 people. He had already found 2 young men, who would help him drive. Girls in this time and part of the country rarely had drivers’ licenses. There were 2 spots left in the car, and for the sum of $25 each, Jeanette and her friend’s sister could get transportation to California. They signed on.

The trip was accomplished non-stop, except for a few, infrequent food and pee breaks. The 3 men rotated driving, and slept in between. Upon arriving on the west coast, Jeanette went to stay with her friend and friend’s sister, but their place was very small and crowded, so she found a room to rent in an older lady’s upstairs. She stayed there until she moved in with Aunty Dot, Clare’s older sister, whom she met while standing in line at the ship building employment sign up area. She was trained to do metal lathing, and became a trainer herself. This is where she was working when she started to write to Dot’s little brother, who was in the Navy, in the Pacific. She sent him her picture, and they met sometime later, when he came home on leave.

Clare’s story is a bit different. He was born and raised in California. His parents were not the family-oriented people that his future wife’s family was. Clare was the second of 4 children, and the oldest boy. His mother liked to paint her face and gad about. Being a mother was a bit of an inconvenience. His father was handy with his hands, could fix just about anything, and was not afraid to work. The depression was very hard on them. Dot, being the oldest, got out of there as soon as she could find a husband, a disastrous and short-lived union, which ended just before she met Jeanette. Clare and his next youngest brother, Don, were adolescents, and more of an irritation than anything else to their mother. She doted on her youngest, Ernie Jr., who was still in grade school. Ernie Sr. took Clare and Don, along with Ernie’s brother Paul, and hit the road. There were no jobs to be had and no food to fill their bellies.

These two men and two young boys lived in their car, sleeping by the side of the road on the ground if it was warm, or in the car when it was not. They drove from state to state, doing odd jobs, working in the fields, sweeping floors, whatever they could to get money for food and gas to take them to the next job. Clare remembers his father siphoning gas from some unguarded car to get them to the next town, because they had no food, and no money for gas, and no prospect of either in the place where they were. Once, a farmer dumped a load of rotten cantaloupes by the side of the road. The “boys” gathered these up, and lived on the rotted fruit for several days, until the diarrhea was so bad they preferred to go hungry than eat any more. Clare finally had to be hospitalized for his severe diarrhea.

Then a miracle: the CCC was established. The Civilian Conservation Corps was begun to take some of the thousands of men and boys who were roaming the land in search of work and food, and put them to work. Clare, his brother, his dad, and his uncle all joined up. They built roads, they dug ditches, lived in tents, and ate in mess tents. Not gourmet food, but it was hot and it filled their bellies. Then, the war in Europe. This was an opportunity that Clare was determined not to miss. He got his mother to sign papers falsifying his age (he was only 17), and he joined the Navy. He went through boot camp in San Diego (where his future son, Chris, and grandson, Bret, would also learn the ways of the Navy). He was assigned for a short time on the Saratoga, and does not remember this ship kindly, saying it was a cramped bucket of bolts with terrible grub. His next assignment was the Enterprise. Clare suggests that any of us interested in the events of this time should read a book called And Then There Was One. The Enterprise was on her way to Pearl Harbor, when she developed engine trouble, and laid up at sea to do repairs and conduct drills. While the Enterprise was occupied there, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The Enterprise had miraculously escaped the destruction planned for her, and thus became the only surviving aircraft carrier of the American Navy.

Clare was trained, and excelled, as an aircraft mechanic. The availability of wartime aircraft was woefully thin after the attack on Pearl Harbor and Hickam Field. The American manufacturing machines cranked up to the max, but were barely able to produce the planes faster than they were lost in battles. Shipbuilding, by necessity, cranked up, as well. A shipbuilder by the name of Henry Kaiser proved to the world that a well-made warship could be built in as little as 12 days!! During Clare’s early days onboard the Enterprise, they had few planes and absolutely no spare parts! When a pilot would crash his aircraft onto the flight deck, the maintenance crews, Clare included, were allowed 20 minutes to strip the crashed planes of all salvageable parts before the planes were pushed over the side into the sea. They could not tie up the deck any longer, or there would be planes dropping into the sea from lack of fuel.

The pilots could not waste any time getting off the deck when a battle was on, so they would fire up their engines while still in the hold of the carrier. Clare and his peers would listen to the engines as each fired up, to try to detect any problems in the engines. I can hardly even imagine the level of the noise in the hold of that carrier, with dozens of aircraft engines roaring to life, and their screams bouncing off the iron walls of the ship. Little wonder this man is nearly deaf.

He tells of a shipment of 12 new torpedo planes that was sent out to the Enterprise. They went on their first mission, and only one returned.

When a battle was imminent, the ship’s crew was served steak and eggs for breakfast. This is a combination that Clare refuses to eat to this day. Following one such breakfast, in the ensuing battle, one of the sailors near Clare shouted a warning, pointing to a Kamikaze plane, diving straight for them. A group of sailors turned as one, and ran to try to reach safety. All Clare remembers of the next moments is a horrendous explosion, of flames and darkness, and a feeling of suffocation. He fought and struggled from under an immense weight, finally reaching sunlight and air. He found that he was on the very bottom of a large pile of dead young sailors, the only one of that group to have survived. As he freed himself from this pile of wasted humanity, before even the pain set in, he looked down to see his own skin hanging, burnt and sizzling, from his face and arms. He stumbled to the sick bay, where a medic asked him if he wanted a shot. Clare says that he had heard rumors that when the pilots returned successful, they were given a shot of whiskey. Never being one to turn down an opportunity, Clare said “Sure.” He was disappointed and disgruntled to get a needle in the arm. He was bandaged up, then returned to his duties on deck. One hundred and thirty sailors died that day. All but one were zipped up in mattress covers from the bunks below decks. One body, at random, was chosen to be saved for the funeral service, which would have to wait for a time when they were not under fire.

When the ship was taken to port, it was put up in dry dock. The crew was then given the task of hanging from her sides, 8 stories up above a concrete dock, to scrape the paint off her. The practice had been to repaint on top of the old paint, the layers becoming an inch thick or more. This practice was changed after the Yorktown was hit. She survived the hit, but then went up in flames when the thick paint caught on fire. The ship was lost, and so were a lot of sailors. After that, all ships were called to port, in rotation, to be scraped and repainted.

The war ended, and, miraculously, all of Clare’s and Jeanette’s brothers and sisters had survived. Clare, in a peacetime navy, was stationed in Los Alamitos, and then up in Whidby Island, Washington. He remembers that he requested assignment to Whidby Island, because it was a training station, where he hoped to ride out this new war in Korea. But it was there that he received short notice of his return to war. One maintenance crew was needed right off the bat, to be sent to an American Navy base in Japan. The senior officer on hand that day put everyone’s name in a hat, and had different crewmembers pick a name from the hat. The lucky ones whose names were drawn would be shipped out on Monday morning. This was Saturday night. Clare was chosen to draw a name from the hat; he stuck in his hand, felt around for a slip of paper, and drew out his own name. What an irony. He had moved his family there to avoid another war; instead he went home to Jeanette, 4 year-old Jon, and 6 month-old Chris, to announce the newest challenge in their lives. Jeanette did not want to stay in Washington, all alone, for who knows how long. She did not have a driver’s license, and there was no time for Clare to take her to California, or even to help her pack up her house and her babies. On the day that Clare shipped out to Japan, Jeanette took herself down to the DMV, and secured her driver’s permit. She says the man who did the test drive with her passed her so she would hurry and leave the state.

With her household goods packed and sent by moving van, Jeanette loaded her toddler and her baby into the back seat of their family car, and set off for Long Beach, to live with her sister-in-law, and best friend, Dot. Dot and husband Kenny had a 4 ½ year old boy of their own, Gary. Jeanette drove straight through, with Chris in an unsecured car bed, and Jon giving him bottles and changing his diaper.

Meanwhile, Clare was assigned to a reconnaissance plane out of Japan. He was the mechanic aboard, his battle station being the aft gunnery turret. He said that the machine gun mounted there had an electric mechanism for directing the fire, but the mechanisms were so slow and stiff that he could only pray that the enemy planes would run into his bullets, because he sure couldn’t have hit them any other way.

The crews were sent there, and went out on missions, without being provided with the necessary warm outer clothing that they should have had. They had to scrounge around, wrapping themselves with whatever clothing layers they could find. Those planes were stripped down to conserve weight, with no insulation against the frigid air above the frozen fields and mountains of North Korea. Clare spoke of seeing Chinese troops, camped in the snow below them, huddled around fires to keep warm. On one mission, his plane was supposed to get close up photos of a submarine. He said he will never know why that sub crew did not fire their guns at them, as they flew just feet above the waves, matching their speed to the sub, taking photos from spitting distance away.

Another time, their plane flew over an American battleship by mistake. This was a big no-no, since the ships in question would shoot you out of the air and ask questions later. They had just unwittingly stumbled across this ship, and spent several agonizingly long minutes dodging “friendly” artillery and trying to get the hell out of Dodge. Another time, they got “slightly lost”, flying over the tip of Russia. Happily, they realized their mistake, and got out of there before being pursued or shot at.

Clare earned a license to taxi aircraft, so as to move planes from place to place on the airstrip, or to be able to test the engine for possible problems. Once, in Japan, one of the airplanes was taking off for a mission over Korea. The pilot frantically called the tower to say that the engine was making funny noises. There was no time to bring the plane back into the hangers for inspection, so Clare did the next best thing: Inspection on the fly. He stood on the hood of a jeep while it barreled down the runway beside the plane, and Clare once again used his famous ear to detect engine problems. He heard none, and waved the pilot off. The plane took off, completed its mission, and returned in good shape.

All in all, Clare completed 57 missions over Korea, completed over 5,000 hours of wartime flight time, and earned numerous medals and awards. These are as follows:

The Korean Service Medal The Naval Unit Commendation Ribbon The Asiatic-Pacific Air Medal The Good Conduct Medal The National Defense Medal The Presidential Unit Citation Medal The Distinguished Flying Cross Medal The Purple Heart Medal

Through all of his career, and most of his life, the one anchor, the unchanging root in Clare’s world was his bride, Jeanette, who was always there waiting for him, keeping the family going, and selflessly giving herself to all who loved her.

One day, towards the end of our visit, Clare was looking in his wallet for some thing or other, and an old photo fell out. It was of Jeanette, taken before they were married. It was faded, wrinkled, tattered around the edges, but unmistakable. Clare scooped it up, sheepishly smiling, tucked it safely back into his wallet, and said, “That’s my bride. I’ve carried it since she sent it to me, before we even met.” That is love. That is our beloved Clare and Jeanette.


© Copyright 2017 Rebecca Lydon. All rights reserved.

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