Americans in Wartime Experience

Richard "Clem" Clement

Vietnam War

During the Cold War and the Vietnam War, Richard "Clem" Clement served his country as a member of the United States Air Force. He first served in the early 1960's during the Cold War flying B50 weather planes. During his time on Christmas Island in the South Pacific, Clem took part in 5 nuclear bomb tests. During the Vietnam War, Clem flew B50's that had been modified into refueling tankers.

Born in Woodbury, New Jersey, Clem first learned about military service from his father who served during the Great War. Other family members who served include his wife who was a flight nurse in the Air Force with over 2,500 hours of flight time, and his son-in-law who retired as a commander in the Navy. When asked why he joined the Air Force, Clem responds without hesitation, “because its the best service.” It also made sense because he knew at an early age that he wanted to be a pilot.

Becoming a pilot was not a guarantee, however, no matter how hard Clem worked. To be allowed to fly at that time, you could only measure 27 inches when sitting. Clem measured 29. But one can never be deterred, so many tips were given to Clem and other would be pilots who were too tall to ensure that they would be within the standards set by the Air Force. Of these where ways to compress the spine while marching by wearing heavy packs, and a tip on how to properly sit to reduce ones height during the official measurement. And when it came time to be measured, Clem came it at 27 inches.

After graduating basic training and flight school, Clem became a pilot on a WB-50D Superfortesss specially configured to sample the air for weather reconnaissance. The WB-50D was the last propeller-driven bomber delivered to the Air Force. In 1962, Clem was assigned to Christmas Island where he witnessed five nuclear weapon detonations. His duties as a pilot of a WB-50D was to monitor the weather in preparation for the weapon testing.

Clem describes witnessing a nuclear weapon detonation like this. You are 24 miles away wearing a welders helmet and facing away from the blast with your arms up in front of your face. When the blast goes off, there is an instant heat wave that comes over you and then shortly afterwards you feel the pressure wave hit you. Looking through the welders helmet with your arms and hands in front of your face, you can see the pressure wave move through the arteries of your arm as they expand as the wave washes over you, and then as it dissipates, you can see the pressure subside as the arteries return to normal.

After the WB-50D was phased out, Clem trained to fly refueling tankers in support of fighter squadrons. In modified B50’s designated KB50, he would serve in various places to include Japan, Korea and eventually in Vietnam in 1964. He flew 27 combat support missions while there. The pilot at that time with the next closest combat support missions only flew 9.

Clem left South East Asia for an assignment in Hawaii at PACAF where he flew C47’s, affectionately known as the Gooney Bird. After leaving Hawaii, he was back in Vietnam, this time in a staff position at 7th Air Force Headquarters. He was prohibited from flying because of knowledge he had as a result of his time at PACAF. Knowledge that the Air Force could not risk being discovered by the enemy should Clem find himself in their hands as a result of being shot down.

When it was all said in done, Clem had 9 years of direct involvement in South East Asia. He then was assigned to study the effectiveness of air power in South East Asia as part of a program called Project Corona Harvest. As part of the program, he along with another airman set up an oral history department which resulted in several volumes on the history of the Vietnam War. Clem retired in 1983 at the rank of Colonial.

Clem says that he learned one lesson from witnessing five nuclear weapons detonate, “don’t ever pull the pin on a nuclear weapon again.” He says that when witnessing a nuke go off, there’s nothing to say because you are just stunned. He jokingly says that he wishes future conflicts could be resolved through a game of football.

For all of those who have served their county, Clem thanks you, and we thank him for his service.







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The Americans in Wartime Experience explores the impact of war and conflict on America since WWI. It honors those who served in the military and on the home front and highlights the values they demonstrated in serving – duty, honor, and courage. It examines how periods of conflict have profoundly shaped American society. It educates visitors about the costs of war, both on a personal and social level. It challenges visitors to remember the service and sacrifices made by their fellow citizens to preserve and defend our freedoms. LEARN MORE

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