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.
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.
Robert “Bob” Klingman flew his F4U Corsair with Marine Fighter
Attack Squadron 312 in support of the Battle of Okinawa near the
close of World War II. During operations he flew into Marine Corps
history when he used his propeller to chop off the tail of Japanese
aircraft. (U.S. Marine Corps courtesy photo)
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 caf� but no “burger joint”. With his money, he
opened “Bob's Caf�.” 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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
By Roger Klingman, Defense Media Activity
Marine Corps News
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