Calvin Conklin: Focus on the home front

August 29, 2005 

STATE COLLEGE -- Calvin Conklin couldn't see well enough to pass the Army Air Force physical, but that didn't stop him from spending World War II as an aerial photographer monitoring U.S. coasts for lurking German U-boats.

He managed to evade the physical -- "I knew a fella who worked for the draft board in Albany," he says -- and enlist in 1942.

Conklin, 82, of State College, recalls waking his parents at 3 a.m. on a cold December day to tell them he was reporting for duty the next afternoon.

He was barely out of high school, but he was already earning $250 a week working for Fairchild Aviation, making engines for the military. He traded that for Army Air Force pay of $20 a month.

After completing basic training in Miami, Conklin said, he had the opportunity to enter parachute school, but chose to specialize in photography. He was sent to Denver for training.

"I got high marks there, and they put me in the observation school for a couple of weeks. Then they raised my salary from $20 a month up to $75," Conklin said with a chuckle.

By 1943, Conklin earned his wings as a pilot. He was no stranger to flying, having learned to fly a J-3, or Piper Cub, at Lock Haven's Piper Aviation when he was a boy.

Aerial camera work became Conklin's specialty. Eventually, assigned to the 3rd Air Force, 3rd Bomber Command, he trained other airmen in the craft, and rose to the rank of corporal.

At first, his students thought they were just taking pictures of land masses for mapping. In reality, Conklin said, they were learning to photograph the positions of men on the ground from 20,000 feet.

In the belly of B-17 Flying Fortresses and in the cockpit of P-38 Lightning fighters, Conklin trained.

Many times, the photographer doubled as a bombardier, he said.

"Five minutes to target," a pilot would say to the bombardier, whose seat was positioned in the most vulnerable spot of the plane, usually toward the bottom front. That seat gave the bombardier a bird's-eye view of the ground nearly four miles below.

Only a thin plate of Plexiglas separated the bombardier from flak when the plane was under fire, Conklin said. "They (Plexiglas windows) weren't very substantial," he said. "Bullets could go through them like that."

"One minute until target," the pilot would say. The bombardier had to steady himself over the bomb sight. "Once the pilot turns the plane over to the bombardier, there was no turning back," Conklin said.

When the target was aligned, the bomb bay doors were opened.

Conklin never got the opportunity to use his skills in the Pacific theater during the war. When the opportunity came to go overseas, he was required to take another physical. His eyesight kept him stateside.

But the war was fought there, too.

Every day, Conklin flew two missions -- to New Orleans, back around Florida, up as far as the Carolinas and then back to Tampa, Fla. During the war, German U-boats prowled the Gulf of Mexico, sinking hundreds of ships.

One day, he said, a German submarine surfaced four miles from downtown Tampa.

"There were three B-17s that took off one morning," he said. "The first one radioed back 'submarine.' The second one radioed back 'unidentified.' Our bombardier opened the bomb bay immediately and dropped a load. It was a German submarine two miles away from our air base."

Army Air Force divers later confirmed the submarine was sunk, Conklin said. He has always thought it was poised to attack ships in the harbor.

"He was right in line with our runway," Conklin said. "He knew how many planes we had. He knew when they took off and when they landed. Man, what he could have done with one torpedo."

Conklin recalled the time he flew with Gen. James Harold Doolittle, the famous aviator who later led a daring raid on Tokyo from an aircraft carrier.

"The second day I flew with Doolittle, he literally scared the trousers off of me," Conklin said.

They were participating in exercises designed to prepare the crew to take off from aircraft carriers. Doolittle revved up the plane's engines, shot down the runway and lifted the landing gear -- just before the plane was airborne.

"He was quite a man," Conklin said.

Conklin crossed paths with many memorable people, but it's the memory of a German general that lingers with him.

"When I picked up this (German) officer in New York, I was going to take him to Fort Leavenworth (in Kansas) as a prisoner, and he was handcuffed to me for a day and a half," Conklin said.

Conklin said the German soldier explained that he was given two choices: join the German army or be hanged or shot for treason.

When Conklin and the general arrived at the Leavenworth prison, the German gave his Iron Cross medal to his captor.

"I didn't want to take it," Conklin said.

"It's one of the highest honors he could have gotten, and he says, 'You call it the Iron Cross, but I'm going to call it the cross of hope. My hope is that after this war is over that we can meet again.'

"I never did get to see him again," Conklin said.

When Conklin was discharged, he returned to Pennsylvania to work with his father at Piper, until the plant's demise in 1970. He went on to work for the state Fish and Game Commission and later became a TV cameraman.

In 2003, in a joint effort between Penn State and the Library of Congress, some of Conklin's thousands of wartime photos became a permanent fixture of the library's archives.

"The Air Force -- let's put it this way -- was fun," Conklin said. "It was an education and it was an experience, and to be truthful with you, I'm sorry I got out of the Air Force."

Ivonne D'Amato can be reached at 231-4619.

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