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Flyboys: Former military aviators share memories at reunion

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Jim Kendrick, 93, looked at three restored World War II military planes on display at the Georgetown County Airport last week for the 45th annual reunion of the Lowcountry Warbirds and reminisced about a life of flight.

It almost didn’t happen, said Kendrick, who retired from the Air Force and moved to Myrtle Beach in 1968. He graduated from The Citadel in 1940 and finished a year of flying school in March of 1941. “I only had enough money for one year,” Kendrick said. “Dec. 7 came along and they started looking for experienced pilots. I had 18 hours and thought they’d never take me, but they did.”

The war took Kendrick to the Pacific where he eventually had a role in history, escorting the flight of a Japanese delegation to negotiate peace with Gen. Douglas Mac-Arthur in Manilla.

“The Japs had to come in two white bombers with green crosses,” Kendrick said.

Don’t look for political correctness among the aviators who still attend the annual Warbirds gathering on the anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. They’ve never forgotten the “date that will live in infamy,” as President Franklin D. Roosevelt called it.

The group’s World War II contingent has been steadily shrinking, losing 45 members in the past four years. John Jack Daily and Joe Durham were remembered at Friday’s meeting. Pete Dubay, the Warbird organizer, said the group switched its meetings from night to noon because he reasoned, “These guys can’t drive at night any more.”

The group usually has a speaker, but this year’s meeting brought three T-6 military training planes, a 1952 British de Havilland Chipmunk and an AH 64D Apache helicopter belonging to the Army National Guard from Charleston. A few others couldn’t make the flight to Georgetown because of low cloud cover. The former aviators got a chance to kick the tires of the planes and, for some who were able, climb into the helicopter gunship as the two-man flight crew of Frank Campagna and Korey McDavid explained its advanced weaponry.

When Dubay had to have an emergency pacemaker operation in late November, Doug Decker took over the event, scheduled for the conference room at the Thomas W. Edwards Jr. Terminal at Georgetown County Airport. They are likely to return for more fly-ins, Decker said.

“I think it’s wonderful to have it [the meeting] out here,” said Walter McElveen, standing on the runway in front of the group of T-6s. “That thing right there is a real piece of American art for an aviator,” he added, gesturing to one of the planes.

McElveen spent two decades in the Air Force, retiring as a lieutenant colonel, and has been a member of the Warbirds for 10 years.

Bobby Jonte, the guest speaker for the meeting, flew one of the three T-6s from Camden, and Dan Drost of Plantersville brought the Chipmunk.

Drost said he bought the Chipmunk in Toronto in 1997 after the Canadian government bought three of the planes built in 1952 for the Royal Air Force. The planes were used for training and go-for trips until 1996, Drost said.

The Chipmunk is based at Georgetown County Airport and Drost is involved with the Young Eagles, a group of young flight enthusiasts sponsored by the Experimental Aircraft Association. He was a test pilot for military and civilian planes during his career with United Technologies Corp.

“We’re trying to get them interested in something besides Xbox,” Drost said. He took 40 youngsters on a brief flight around the airport in the Chipmunk when the Tuskegee Airmen visited last month.

“For a 60-year-old airplane,” Drost said, “it’s a fun machine. It flies just like a Spitfire except for the horsepower.”

The featured guest was Jonte, a crop duster turned banker from Greeleyville, who fell in love with the T-6 after he went to an air show in Harlingen, Texas, in 1975. He saw pilot Merle Gustafson, a crop duster from Tallulah, La., do a beautiful roll on takeoff in “The Wild Cajun” T-6.

“I had never seen anything like it,” Jonte said. “Almost before the aircraft finished the roll, I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ The T-6 was a wonderful combination of grace, beauty, smoke and noise.”

The next year, Jonte took his father to Texas for the show and told him he wanted his own T-6. “You can’t afford it. You can’t fly it. Shut up,” his father told him.

That didn’t stop him.

Jonte got a loan and bought his first T-6 in 1980.

After practicing stunts and getting certification, Jonte flew in a 16-plane formation of T-6s at the Harlingen air show, realizing his dream.

In 1985, Jonte and friend Brad Gibbs bought another T-6 as an assembly project and spent 22 years working on it before it flew.

“We found lots of gears that can go in backwards,” Jonte said.

As luck would have it, Jonte said, he found a third T-6 for sale after it had been sitting in a hangar for eight years. “It was a heck of a mess,” Jonte said.

His friend wanted to disassemble the plane and ship it to Camden, their new base of operations.

“If we take it apart,” Jonte said, “it will be another project.”

He hired mechanics to check out the aircraft engine’s compression and change the oil before flying it home.

Jonte, Gibbs and Frank Schumpert flew the three T-6 planes from Camden to Georgetown and back on Friday.

Don Banks, 15, who discovered a keen interest in aviation during his first passenger jet flight, was a guest of the Warbirds. He may never have another opportunity to be in the company of such heroes as Claude Lott of Columbia, who flew choppers in Korea and Vietnam, Dolph Overton, an Andrews native living in Smithfield, N.C., who became an ace with five kills in four days in Korea and Claymon Grimes of Georgetown, who shot down a Japanese Zero over the Pacific in World War II.

Banks will have a second happy memory from Friday’s Warbird meeting. He won a drawing for $100.

From Pearl Harbor to the skies over Japan

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Claymon Grimes remembers Dec. 7, 1941, like it was yesterday.

When he learned Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor he wanted to join the Army and go to war, but he was just 18 and needed his mother’s permission. She refused.

The day after he turned 21, Grimes signed up to become a cadet in the Army Air Force. It was July 24, 1943.

Grimes joined fellow Georgetown resident Bud Black, a U.S. Navy veteran, for a program of World War II memories sponsored by Friends of the Kaminski House at the Stewart-Parker House on the 71st anniversary of the “date that will live in infamy.”

Nat Kaminski, a grand-nephew of Lt. Commander Harold Kaminski, the duty officer at Pearl Harbor the morning of the Japanese attack, opened the program with a talk about the raid that launched the war and the resulting military investigation about who was to blame for America’s unpreparedness.

Grimes knew who to blame: Japan.

He began training in Miami and went to Little Rock, Ark., for flight school. That’s where 40 percent washed out, but Grimes continued on to intermediate training in Texas, where he was given a book of instructions and a P-40 fighter plane.

“There’s no way to fit an instructor into a fighter,” Grimes said. “You had to read the book and fly. That’s the scariest thing you can do, that first flight. Once you had done that, you could fly anything. You just get the book and look at it.”

Grimes thought he was headed for the Eighth Air Force and assignment in Europe but was one of 10 pilots picked for the Pacific. They went to the 787th Fighter Squadron Station in Hawaii and learned to fly the P-47.

“That was a strict outfit,” Grimes said. “That was the fighter squadron there when Pearl Harbor was hit. Their classmates had gone to Europe and fought, but they hadn’t been in any action and couldn’t get promoted. I can’t use the word to describe them. Believe it or not, a young second lieutenant had to salute an older second lieutenant. But they could fly.”

Near the end of this training, Grimes saw a shipment of new planes that would ultimately win the war for America, the P-51 Mustang.

“We were going ‘down under,’” Grimes said, “Iwo Jima.”

“B-29s were bombing Japan from Saipan, but that was a 3,000-mile run. No fighter could fly that far. That’s when they decided to take Iwo Jima and its airfield. It was just 750 miles from Japan, and the P-51 could fly that far and escort the bombers. We were the first fighter squadron to land at Iwo Jima.”

He said Japanese troops still held parts of the island and fired at U.S. planes as they landed on a metal grate runway put down by Navy Seabees.

A mission to Japan would take around eight hours, Grimes said, and the P-51 had no auto-pilot. It was mostly armor plating, ammunition, weapons and gasoline. “You had no navigation equipment,” he said, “so we followed the B-29s.”

After the long flight to the bomb run, Grimes said, the fighter pilots would take pep pills to heighten their senses before meeting the Japanese Zeros in the sky.

Grimes made 24 long missions to Japan, but only one stands out in his memory.

“I had been in a dogfight and missed the rendezvous with the B-29 guide plane to go home,” he said. “I knew the general direction, but Iwo Jima is a tiny island, 15 miles long, a speck, 700 miles away. I started back with a compass and a heavy heart.”

Then, Grimes saw a B-29 high in the sky. He couldn’t fly with it because his oxygen lines had been shot out, but he would swoop down to breathe and climb back up to 20,000 feet.

That’s when he noticed a Japanese fighter had spotted the American bomber, too, and was closing on it.

“Luckily,” Grimes said, “he was a dumb pilot because he tried to dive with my P-51 and that was a mismatch. I shot and saw pieces fly off the Japanese plane, but I didn’t see him go down because of the cloud cover. When I got back to the B-29 they were giving me the ‘V for victory’ and everything.”

The B-29 guided Grimes back to his base, and he was credited with a possible kill because there was no corroboration that the Zero had gone into the ocean.

His remaining missions were not as exciting before the Enola Gay dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Soon after Japan surrendered, Grimes came back to South Carolina.

But that was not the end of his story.

Forty years later, in 1985, Grimes and his wife, Harriet, bought a vacation house in the North Carolina mountains. They were there doing some work when a man walking with a cane came by and asked if they would consider renting the place. He had rented it for a month in the summer from the previous owner.

Grimes struck up a conversation with the man and learned he was a retired Pan Am pilot from Greeleyville and had flown B-29s out of Saipan in World War II.

“We must have been on some of the same missions,” Grimes said.

“Yeah, probably so,” the man agreed.

They continued to talk about their experiences and the visitor remembered the day that a P-51 was lost and the pilot was trying to get back to Iwo Jima. He was low on oxygen but had shot down a Japanese Zero that was attacking his bomber.

“You won’t believe it,” Grimes told him. “That was me.”

The visitor said he watched the Japanese fighter hit the water. Grimes could finally count his kill.

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