FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. --
Two young brothers carry a water-cooled, 30-caliber Browning machine gun with its associated tripod and ammo box. Robert “Bob” Klingman and his younger brother, Charles, move quickly through the low scrub hills of southwestern Oklahoma.
In the 1930s, Binger, Oklahoma was no exception to the Great Depression slowing economic activity in the rest of the nation. Jobs were hard to come by. Feeding a family of nine was a challenge for Robert Klingman’s parents.
The Civilian Military Training program took young men to Army camps for 30 days to introduce them to military life. Sending these teenagers to Fort Sill, Oklahoma was a relief for families. For a large portion of summer, parents did not have to feed or clothe their boys. The advantage for the country was a sizeable population experiencing a Pre-Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, which provided familiarity with drill, barracks life and the common weapons of the time.
From this experience, Bob decided carrying something lighter than the crew-served machine gun would be a big advantage. Just out of high school, he entered the Marine Corps in 1934. While in basic training, he qualified with the Browning automatic rifle, commonly known as the BAR, which was the best light machine gun in the American arsenal.
Eventually he served as headquarters’ drummer at the old “8 & I”. During his four years as a Marine, he sent his pay to his mom. Most of his cash came from winning at poker. Once he won a bet that he could climb the stairs without using his feet. He climbed the stairs at the “8 & I” barracks balanced on his hands.
Returning home to Binger after his four years in the Marines, he discovered his mom had saved all the money he had been sending home. Binger had a café but no “burger joint”. With his money, he opened “Bob’s Café.” Bob’s burgers were 10 cents each. Financially successful but bored, he heard from his brother. Charles was serving as maintenance chief in the Navy and encouraged Bob to join the Navy in 1940.
At this time, the Navy allowed immediate advancement. If an individual finished in the top 10% of those training for a job placement, he could start training for the next highest placement. During his first assignment on the USS Tennessee, Bob progressed from petty officer third class to aircraft maintenance mechanic first class, then was sent to San Diego for advanced carrier training.
He arrived in San Diego on December 7, 1941. By the end of the day, he had lost many shipmates and all his personal belongings still aboard the USS Tennessee. The start of the war intensified his drive to succeed. By September 1942, he had completed the training in carrier operations. Bob was qualified for preflight school. This created a problem since enlisted service men were not entitled to flight school. The Navy discharged him and selected him as an aviation cadet in the Naval Reserve.
Training advancement may have been challenging, but preflight school may have been an even greater crucible. Bob had not been in a classroom in seven years and never in a college classroom. As the oldest cadet, he was up against students straight out of college. He had to study longer and harder than ever. The only place with lights on after “lights out” was the “head”, which was the restroom. Using the restroom as his study area, he memorized formulas and worked through calculations. He again graduated in the top 10 percent of his class. The Navy sent him to pilot training.
At the conclusion of pilot training, at Corpus Christi Naval Air Station, Bob had to choose between the Navy or the Marines. Without hesitation, he became a second lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps Reserve and was assigned to VMFA- 312, “The Checker Boards” at Parris Island, South Carolina.
Action in the PacificUnlike the battle for Iwo Jima, Marines did not face Japanese attacks during the initial landings at Okinawa. However, the Japanese were strategically hidden throughout the southern half of the island. Infiltrators appeared from underground in areas supposedly cleared. The Japanese heavy artillery hidden in mountain caves hit Yontan and Kadena Airfields. The artillery sited in on aircraft landing on the airfields making them kill zones.
Okinawa was to be the rock, which broke the Americans. United States forces continued to secure islands previously occupied by Japan, coming closer to the homeland of Japan with each island. The mountains were honeycombed with caves situated so one cave entrance could not be attacked without the attackers coming under fire from at least two other caves.
The American forces were opposed by waves of Kamikazes, which worked in conjunction with the Japanese ground forces. Kamikazes were formed into Kikusuis, “floating chrysanthemums”, of two to three hundred freshly recruited, poorly trained pilots. While combat air patrol and anti-aircraft fire could destroy 70 to 80 percent of the Kamikazes, the damage inflected by the remainder was horrific.
Second Lt Frank Watson, a pilot with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 312, recalled, “We would be flying [combat air patrol] and get a call to help a destroyer. When we’d get to the coordinates, there would be nothing but an oil slick.”
Between April 1st and May 9th, five Kikusuis had attacked the American fleet. The attack on May 4th sunk or crippled a dozen ships. On this day, the Navy lost 890 who were either killed or wounded. This attack was coordinated with a counterattack from the caves.
The Japanese used photoreconnaissance, which played two roles. With a 12-hour delay, it informed the Japanese ground force commander of Army and Marine Corps movements. It also allowed the assignment of Kamikaze pilots to individual ships. Bob noticed this relationship. A reconnaissance pilot would make two complete circling photo missions around the island and the fleet. It had been their routine for several days in a row, where they would take photos back and the Kamikazes could plan their suicide runs on choice targets.
Interception of the reconnaissance missions was not an easy task. The Japanese planes flew above the range of the largest gun of any battleship. The stripped and souped-up “Nick”, Kawasaki Ki-45 aircraft, flew above the service ceiling, or the range, of our fighter pilots. During May 6, two “Corsairs” F4Us aircraft from VMF-312 had to discontinue a high-speed chase of a “Dinah”, American code name for the Rikugun Ki-46 Japanese aircraft. The lead Corsair’s blower cut out and his wingman’s engine froze. Only the flight leader 2nd Lt. Merlin O’Neal, returned to base.
Operation Interception, May 10, 1945
In anticipation of the reconnaissance flight, Marine Capt. Ken Reusser, a pilot, led his VMF-312 flight to 13,000 feet, an altitude 3,000 feet above the usual combat air patrol flight zone. For this flight, Reusser was Red 1, Bob was Red 2, Capt. Jim Cox was Red 3, and 2nd Lt. Frank Watson was Red 4. At Reusser’s command, they dropped their belly tanks containing reserve fuel and started to climb toward the lone “Nick” above 36,000 feet. When they reached 20,000 feet, Reusser ordered the flight to fire off some of their 50 caliber ammo to reduce weight. Bob fired off 2,000 rounds, lightening his Corsair by 687 pounds.
When Red 3 and 4 started to experience engine trouble, Reusser ordered them back to CAP over the fleet. The Nick was completing a second leisurely pass when Reusser decided to take a desperation shot. Thus warned, the Nick took off at full speed.
Reusser and Klingman went to “wartime emergency power.” Bob recalled, “My plane was faster than Ken’s, so I went ahead of him at max speed. I remember watching the cylinder head temperature where it was pegged in the red. I felt that when it got that hot, it would probably blow up. So, I found by easing back on the low pitch, I could get a little more speed out of my plane.”
At approximately 38,000 feet, 3,000 feet above the Corsair’s rated service ceiling, Bob took position directly behind the Nick. He discovered the cold at the extreme altitude had rendered his guns inoperative. Reusser later told a reporter that Bob didn’t think he had enough fuel to make it back to base and was not about to end an hour and a half chase by letting the Nick get away. He quoted Bob as saying, “I’m going to hit him with my plane.”
Hitting the Nick was not easy. The slipstream prevented Bob from closing with its tail. Reusser pulled up to the Nick’s right side. To get above the air compression caused by the Nick’s propellers and immediately behind the Nick, Bob pulled back to come down on the tail from above.
Finally aware of the Americans, the Nick’s rear gunner opened the cover of his cockpit just as Bob was starting his descent. Bullets ripped through the right wing of the Corsair. Undaunted, Bob continued his dive and chopped off part of the Nick’s rudder with his propeller.
As Bob climbed for a second strike, the rear gunner turned his attention to Reusser. Bob heard Reusser call on the radio, “The way he is beating on that gun, he must think he’s going to get it working again.” One clip was all the gunner could get off before the altitude also froze his weapon. Unaware of that, Reusser later admitted. “I was calling to Klingman to hurry up. I wasn’t comfortable looking down that gun barrel.”
On his second strike, Bob’s propeller flung the Japanese machine gun and it’s gunner into empty sky. Still the Nick continued level flight. Bob’s third strike severed the Nick’s tail putting both of their planes into an uncontrolled spin. The Nick broke apart but, after falling 1,000 feet, Bob was able to regain control.
As Bob regained control of his plane, the Corsair was shaking so badly Bob could not read his instruments. At one point he was afraid the shaking would dislodge the engine. Reusser stuck with Bob, used his own compass to get Bob on a course back to Kadena, and stood by as Bob found an engine speed that reduced the shaking.
Bob remembered, “About 10,000 feet, I ran out of fuel, but thought I could still make the field. I remember Ken said he thought I had better bail out. I felt I was in good enough shape that a wheels-up landing was not necessary. This was almost a costly mistake as I was surprised at the loss of altitude when I put my gear and flaps down.”
Reusser raced ahead and landed in time to watch Bob come in. Out of gas but not out of luck, Bob’s plane hit the ground and bounced onto the runway. Officers and enlisted crowded around the Corsair. They saw a plane with pieces of the Nick stuck in the engine cowling, bullet holes in one wing and six inches of one propeller blade missing. The other two blades were bent back almost to the cowling. Those gathered recalled Bob slowly climbing out of the cockpit, standing on the wing, and saying in his Oklahoma drawl “It’s a hell of a way to earn a buck.”
A few days later Bob did have to bail. His Corsair had one wheel, which refused to descend. He was flying toward the fleet, he bailed out. Instead of crashing, the Corsair started a slowly descending circle coming ever closer to our ships. Bob received quite a bit of ribbing that his plane had to be shot down.
After the bail out, Klingman made the acquaintance of Admiral R. K., Kelly, Turner. Turner was the admiral commanding the fleet off the coast of Okinawa aboard his flagship the U.S.S. Eldorado. He was allowed to keep the parachute, which Jackie Cochran, Bob’s girlfriend, turned into her wedding dress when he returned to San Diego.
Robert R. Klingman went on to serve in Korea as a forward air traffic controller with 1st Marine Division. Recipient of the Navy Cross and the Air Medal with Gold Star, for his actions on May 10, 1945, he had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He retired in 1966 at the rank of lieutenant colonel.