Learn, teach about aircraft by volunteering

Volunteer Cliff Lawrence talks at the Hill Aerospace Museum about flying B-52s in World War II.
Volunteer Cliff Lawrence proudly displays the same insignia on his jacket as is just above his head on the B-52.
By Mary Lou Gorny
Hilltop Times editor

Like planes? Got a little spare time on your hands? Well, if you're like Cliff Lawrence and Dick Van Allen, both war veterans and volunteers at the Hill Aerospace Museum, you could rub elbows with some interesting characters -- not to mention that they could tell you about some pretty interesting experiences of their own.

While a conversation with either can start out fairly matter-of-fact, any visitor willing to listen and ask questions, can get a lot of colorful background and combat experiences from the volunteers who flew the planes or worked on them.

Lawrence served as a pilot during World War II, flying missions in B-25 Mitchells and A-20 Havocs in the South Pacific. Van Allen flew helicopters in Vietnam, flying T-33 Shooting Stars and T-28 Trojans there as well.

"You get to meet people from all over the world," said Lawrence when he was asked why he volunteers. Van Allen repeated those sentiments and said he thinks it's important to educate others about the airplanes and what happened in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

"What a great place to be," said Lawrence about serving as a tour guide.

Lawrence is one of the guides you're likely to find near the B-25J if you visit the museum on a Monday. The aircraft sits at the right of the entrance to the first main display area and bears the insignia of Lawrence's unit, a fact he finds quite amazing -- his jacket has a large matching patch to the insignia on the aircraft.

Both volunteers are enthusiastic about their experiences, past and present at the museum.

"It's a wonderful experience. Families come in all the time," Lawrence said.

Once, Van Allen reports, a busload of Japanese tourists stopped by and one of them asked him if he knew anything about the "High School Kamikazes." When Van Allen drew a blank, the tourist told him that they took the orphans out of Tokyo high schools during the war, sent the seniors to Okinawa and the juniors to Iwo Jima. "I was one of them," the tourist replied. Van Allen reports the Japanese visitor told him, "If they hadn't dropped the atomic bomb I wouldn't be here." Apparently there were 7,000 planes hidden in caves to defend the homeland and the kamikaze pilot would have likely been called upon to give up his life in such a battle.

Lawrence's air missions from his first assigned location in Nadzab, New Guinea, were flown no higher than 50 feet over the ocean, as his squadron made its way to sites in the Solomon Islands, and then later on to the Philippines, Formosa, and even an 800 mile mission to China.

"Because we were that low we couldn't drop (the bombs) without a parachute on -- so you dropped them and they floated down and we could get away from the bomb blast," Lawrence explained. A native Utahn and high school graduate of Granite High School, he and his buddy figured when the war started Dec. 7, 1941, that they would soon be drafted. So after graduation they went into the recruiter's office at Fort Douglas and enlisted in order to become pilots.

Given the rank of privates, he and his friend first had to pass the requirement tests and physical examinations. Flight training involved primary, basic and advanced flying schools before he got his wings and commission. Training involved "someone in your face all the time and you had to do precisely what they said or you were washed out." Lawrence soloed in a Stearman biplane after only six hours of flying time, this as a young man who had never stepped foot in a plane before. His basic training lasted 17 months before he got his first assignment in the South Pacific.

His first mission out in a B-25, he followed orders, sticking like glue to his leader's right wing, but after dropping his load of bombs he peeled away, only to be told later that he had disobeyed orders. "I just wanted to get out of there and get back to base," he said. But Lawrence reports his flight leader took kindly to the new second lieutenant and its being his first mission. Lawrence followed orders closely after that and was not disciplined for the error in judgment.

While the bulk of his experiences were in the B-25, he reports the A-20s were so easy to pilot that you could "fly them with one finger." When many B-25 personnel were lost, they needed pilots again in that aircraft and he was reassigned to that aircraft.

He talks of landing one time with a two-foot hole very near a tire in his aircraft which he found afterward. "If it had hit the tire, I would never have known, because the lack of air pressure wouldn't have shown up until after we landed," he reports. Without a fully inflated tire, the plane would have likely been uncontrollable upon landing and crashed. He also recounts plenty of bullet holes in the aircraft after missions.

One particular flight lasted quite a bit longer - a good thing, or he would have had to ditch his aircraft in the ocean. That particular mission to China from Luzon was an extremely hazardous one. He and his crew must have been flying on fumes. He recalls his navigator said to him after they had dropped their bombs in China, "I've flown this plane. I know its fuel consumption. You don't have enough gas to get back."

"We prayed for an hour and those gauges just hung there," he said after being told to return to home base by his flight leader rather than a closer site. "We were in the air 11 hours in that airplane." Normally flights lasted six or seven hours.

"Of the airplanes in the area I was assigned, they lost more than 177 planes."

"I'm very lucky to be here," he said.

To volunteer

Anyone wanting to help out as a volunteer at the museum is encouraged to apply by calling the museum at (801) 777-6818.

There are a lot of different ways to help out, and after a successful interview process and fulfilling some requirements it's possible to serve as little as four hours a week or as many hours as can be worked in.

The museum is also accepting applications for a volunteer coordinator.

To apply for that position, contact Colette Geiss, Hill Air Force Base Volunteer coordinator, at the Airman and Family Readiness Center, Monday through Friday during normal hours of operation or by calling (801) 586-2697, or e-mail her at colette.geiss@hill.af.mil.

A volunteer coordinator is also needed at the Airman's Attic. Contact Geiss if interested.