Cdr. Robert Clancy was a highly decorated World War II Navy aviator who bombed and helped sink the Japanese super battleship Musashi off the Philippine Islands.
Cdr. Clancy was awarded the Navy Cross, the Navy’s second- highest military decoration, as well as the Silver Star the third-highest) and the Distinguished Flying Cross, for his bravery while flying the famed Helldiver carrier-based dive-bomber.
He was like thousands of other young men who volunteered for duty right after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Cdr. Clancy began training in January 1942 — prospective flyers were first trained as civilian pilots — and started training as a military pilot in August of that year.
By May 1943, he had received his wings, and after learning how to land on an aircraft carrier, he set sail for Hawaii on the carrier Yorktown in January 1944. He eventually ended up as a lieutenant junior grade on the Intrepid and flew the Curtiss SB2C Helldiver, a fast dive-bomber that would swoop in on an enemy, unload its bombs and streak away. It was not a job for the faint of heart or stomach.
“The hell bombers would go down from 17,000 feet,”recalled Dan Baker, 84, of Lafayette, and a fellow pilot with Cdr. Clancy on the Intrepid. “You’re flying the plane down and the targets were pretty big — a battleship is about 800 feet long and 125 feet wide, and if you have a clear day it’s almost hard to miss. At about 9,000 feet, there’s a white carpet of anti-aircraft fire. You hope it doesn’t hit you.”
Baker said that he and Cdr. Clancy and other aviators would zoom down from above and drop their bombs as their accompanying torpedo planes attacked horizontally at sea level.
“When you pull out (of the dive bomb run), you “jink” the airplane, skidding the plane up and down so you don’t have a constant target as you’re pulling away,” Baker said. “The battleships are shooting 17-inch guns into the water to create a big splash and try to knock you down. You get by the cruisers, you get by the destroyers, then run like hell and get out of there.”
That was just the kind of thing Cdr. Clancy went through during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. In January 1945, the Fresno Bee wrote a story about his exploits over the Pacific in October 1944, during the thick of that bitter battle off the Philippines.
“While the storm of flak rattled him around in his cockpit,”the newspaper reported, “Clancy picked himself another battleship, pushed the Helldiver straight down and, while his tail gunner gazed straight up past his toes, watching for fighters, got the surface mammoth’s deck in his bombsight, set his flaps to slow him as much as possible and let the bomb go. He was at 1,800 feet when he pulled out of the screaming rush.”
“Striking the deck squarely, the armor piercing bomb slammed through and exploded in the battleship’s innards. Clancy’s gunner, looking down and back now as the bomber fought upward, clicked a camera shutter and got pictures of several bombs exploding as they hit the surface craft. The battleship slowed, stopped, floundered and sank.”
Cdr. Clancy was one of many aviators credited with sinking the huge 65,000- ton battleship.
“In this Battle of the Sibuyan Sea,” according to the Naval Historical Center’s Web site, the Musashi “was hit by some 19 torpedoes and 17 bombs. Though her heavy protection withstood this massive damage to a degree probably unsurpassed by any other contemporary warship, Musashi capsized and sank about four hours after she received her last hit.”
Baker said Mr. Clancy was “an excellent pilot” and used to have a favorite reply when somebody called him on the radio and asked where he was. Clancy would radio back, “I’m at 35,000 feet, flat on my back and going straight up.” Baker said he thought Clancy may have borrowed the line from a popular novel.
After the war, Cdr. Clancy returned to California, where he worked in sales for a division of the large medical manufacturing company Johnson & Johnson. He remained in the Naval Reserve, flying out of Alameda Naval Air Station until he retired in 1958, at the rank of Commander.