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Clotfelter honored for service

POULSBO — It’s been 62 years since a young Navy aerial gunner and the rest of the Miss Tot crew flew missions over Japanese-held islands in the Pacific.

Today, the Navy will pay tribute to that gunner named Ralls Clotfelter as he is awarded two Distinguished Flying crosses and eight Air Medals in a ceremony at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor.

Clotfelter, who now lives in Poulsbo, flew in the relatively unknown medium bomber, the PV-1 Vega Ventura, in Bombing Squadron VB-142 from June 1943 to June 1944.

An Alabama native, Clotfelter said he persuaded his father to allow him to join the Navy at age 17 after his three older brothers were already serving in the war.

“Dad said I could go if I joined the Navy because they had good food and clean sheets,” Clotfelter recalled with a chuckle.

After completing basic training in San Diego, he attended aviation ordinance school in Oklahoma before volunteering for aerial gunnery school.

“I wanted to be a gunner because I didn’t want to get stuck in the bottom of a ship and it paid more, too,” he explained.

From Oklahoma, Clotfelter reported to Sandpoint and the newly created Whidbey Island Naval Air Station for further training.

“We trained, but we didn’t train,” he said. “You learned how to get in and out of the plane and you were good.”

From Whidbey Island, the squadron sailed to Pearl Harbor and onto Midway Island, where it began flying daily patrols in the Pacific.

On Dec. 15, 1943, the squadron reported to Betio Island, Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands.

The island had just been captured in a fierce battle that took the lives of 1,400 U.S. Marines and 5,000 Japanese defenders, Clotfelter said. The runway had just been repaired when the squadron arrived.

“The food was so bad, we all had dysentery within a couple of days and thanks to the Navy medical corps, we were able to fly,” he explained.

From that tiny island, the squadron’s mission was to blockade 600,000 square miles and prevent Japanese supply ships from reinforcing the string of Japanese-held islands in the Pacific, he said.

“Not one supply ship got through and sometimes we didn’t get to bed until the next morning,” he recalled.

After particularly difficult missions, the squadron commander rationed out two ounces of brandy for each sailor, which was unheard of in those days, he said.

“We attacked 11 supply ships and sank eight of them and we put the others out of commission,” he said.

One mission in particular stands out as on Jan. 24, 1944, Clotfelter and the rest of the Miss Tot crew located a Japanese supply in a precarious place.

“We had to attack but we were right in the middle of three Japanese islands that had aircraft on it, but our plane was faster than any Japanese plane if we had fuel to waste,” he recalled.

Fortunately for the crew, it was able to make a single quick attack, sinking the ship before returning back to base safely, he said.

After the war, Clotfelter returned stateside and served in the reserves before being recalled to active duty during the Korean War. His service during that war wasn’t at sea, but rather stateside.

Even though the Japanese were the enemy during the war, Clotfelter said he has no lingering animosity towards them.

“I’ve worked with Japanese all my life in business and I’ve worked a lot in the Pacific,” he said.

As a survivor of the last world war, Clotfelter said the country faces a greater threat from terrorism than it did during World War II.

“That was a military conflict and now we’re fighting an enemy that doesn’t have an Army, Navy or Air Force,” he said. “We must maintain our dominance in world power and also fight the enemy on their terms.”

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