Not many fighter pilots of World War II shot down three German planes in one morning. There are also only a few airmen living who flew an English Spitfire 200 hours in the Battle of Britain after transferring to the U.S. Army Air Force.
In retrospect, it seems naturally that the pilot who did this would shoot down the first German plane on D-Day. It is mind boggling however, to know that this same airman was decorated by the government of England, France and Belgium. His World War II record shows that he flew 200 combat missions in which he accumulated a total of 350 hours of combat time.
His own country awarded him the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Air Medal with an incredible 36 Oak Leaf Clusters. Before his 25 years of service were completed, he was to add more repeat medals to the above, plus five more Oak Leaf Clusters to his Air Medal.
His name entered the Guiness Book of World Records 1955-56 as having the highest number of repeat awards of combat medals prior to that time.
One would not be surprised to find that the above achievements were accomplished by the combined efforts of six or eight hot pilots of W. W. II vintage. What is astonishing, though, is that all of the above were accomplished by one American pilot.
Many county citizens may have forgotten and others never knew that these exploits are only a part of the remarkable record of Col. Clyde East of Sonans.
The morning of June 6, 1944, was probably the most desperate hour in American history. Hundreds of thousands of the country's finest young men stormed the shores of Normandy in a crusade to rid Western Europe and the rest of the free world of Nazi tyranny.
Facing the Americans and their British allies were 58 well-equipped and well-experienced German divisions. After news of the invasion reached Southside Virginia, the names of the landing sites at Utah and Omaha Beach became household names.
It was at Omaha Beach that U.S. forces encountered the stiffest resistance. The 29th Division, which included many soldiers from the Bedford County and Southside Virginia in its ranks, was the first to hit the beach there. It did so under a withering German fire which resulted in an enormous number of American casualties.
There would have been more casualties on the beaches had not the Allies gained air superiority earlier.
Among the airmen helping to maintain control of the air on D-Day was a 23-year-old Army Air pilot from the Sonans area of Pittsylvania County. Clyde East was one of those flyers in the sky over Normandy then as a member of the Ninth Air Force. He was flying on reconnaissance duty on a P-51 Mustang as a member of the 19th Tactical Air Command.
While the landing was in progress, Capt. East's squadron caught a group of German Focke-Wulf 190's in a landing pattern over Laval, France. He was the flight leader at the time and brought down the first 190.
In doing so, he became the first American pilot to shoot down a German plane on D-Day. This kill was followed by another shortly afterward.
On one occasion, East was halfway through his mission when he spotted a Messerschmitt 109 flying at a lower level. The Virginian went after him with alacrity. In writing home about the incident, he described the action:
“He never knew what hit him. I made one pass, firing about 75 rounds and must have killed the pilot for the plane went straight in and burst into flames on striking the ground.”
Capt. East made a significant contribution to the Allied cause in the German counter offensive in the late fall of 1944. This bitterly fought campaign is now better known as the “Battle of the Bulge.”
As a reconnaissance pilot, he flew many missions leading P-47 Thunderbolt fighter bomber squadrons to targets such as truck and rail convoys.
In one remarkable episode, he was assigned the task of guiding the fire of the eight inch howitzers of George Patton's Third Army artillery. They were engaged in attacks on rail marshaling yards at the town of Trier near Luxembourg.
The doughty captain spent two memorable hours dodging anti-aircraft fire from altitudes of 13,000 feet down to 300 feet in his P-51 Mustang while directing fire at the targets. The raid was highly successful, incidentally.
East flew daily and almost always alone. He made notes of enemy road, rail and river traffic plus conditions of marshaling yards, airfields, and reported the results of previous air strikes.
While flying scores of missions over enemy territory, he had many notable experiences of course. However, the most remarkable of all came when he shot down three German planes in one morning.
East grew up in Pittsylvania County and was still in his teens when W. W. II erupted in 1939. He was itching to get into flight training and managed to get accepted in the Royal Canadian Air Force in June 1941.
A great day came in his life when he received his wings in Ontario. East arrived in the European theater in December 1942 and was given his first assignment. He flew patrols in a search of Hitler's U-boats.
America was in the war by this time and East was transferred into the U.S. Army Air Force where he spent the remainder of the war. Along the way, me married his wife, a native of Hamilton, Ontario, whom he met while in flight training.
When W.W.II ended, his unit was in the process of reorganizing for the invasion of Japan until V-J Day.
East returned home after the war as Pittsylvania County's most highly decorated veteran, but remained in the Air Force where he served in several locations.
East was one of the veteran pilots assigned to the new jet aircraft. He was a flight commander in the first Air Force squadron to the equipped with the jet propelled RF-80A “Shooting Star.”
When the Korean War erupted in 1950, Capt. East found himself again in a deadly shooting war. By August 1951 he had flown 130 more combat missions and packed up more decorations, including two more clusters to his Distinguished Flying Cross. Promotions followed.
When the war wound down, Maj. East took several assignments training pilots to combat. A stint at the Air Command and Staff Cottage followed next.
Few Pittsylvanians who watched the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 were aware that one of their own, Lt. Col. Clyde East, was engaged in missions as dangerous as combat. He was a wing commander on one of the units that flew 100 visual and photo missions as ordered by President John F. Kennedy and his staff over a three and a half week period. That hazardous duty earned him a third cluster to his DFC.
Lt. Col. East remained in the service until his retirement in 1965, after which he joined the Rand Corporation as a civilian. Today he lives with his wife in Oak Park, Calif., where he leads a busy life keeping up with six children and seven grandchildren. The events of 9/11 have made Americans aware of how essential it is to have dedicated servicemen and how lucky this nation has been to have Clyde Easts on hand when needed.
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Copyright © 2002 Herman E. Melton.