Col. Gerhardt Clementson, 100, graduated top of his class at West Point before flying missions during World War II and helping to found the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Photo by Peter Jones
BY PETER JONES
At 100, Gerhardt Clementson is still living by his own rules—with an emphasis on living.
With parents who both died in middle age, the retired Air Force colonel defies the odds, much as he flouted convention while rising the ranks of the military and life in general.
“I like change,” he said from his wheelchair in Lakewood’s Mapleton Care Center. “Everything I got involved with—I like to see it change.”
A case of teenage boredom is what prompted Clementson to lie about his age to join the Army at 17. That was before he brazenly flew a military plane under the Golden Gate Bridge to impress his stowaway girlfriend and later married her in defiance of Army regulation.
“I’m sure I’ve changed, but it’s a subtle change,” the former Littleton resident said.
Gerhardt Clementson lied about his age to join the Army at 17. Courtesy of Clementson family
Clem, as his Army buddies called him, was born in 1917 in Black Earth, Wisc. He was raised in Lake of the Woods County, Minn., near the Canadian border. The unincorporated community of Clementson was named for his family, who had built the township’s grocery
store-post office. The Clementsons eventually settled in Minneapolis.
Clementson’s earliest memory, around age 4, was his family hitching a ride on a truck to International Falls, Wisc. His mother had gotten a job as a hotel maid.
“We used to get on these cardboard boxes and go gliding down the hill in the snow and had a lot of fun,” he said of the hotel’s most appealing byproduct.
For a while, Clementson’s father made good money as a logger, but he drank much of his paycheck until it finally killed him, to hear his son tell it.
“He went the way of drunkards,” Clementson said.
The boy eventually did his part to help out on his uncle’s wheat fields, shucking one acre at a time by hand in an era before automatic thrashers performed the same job.
Young Clementson escaped it all a few years later by lying his way into the Army before his 18th birthday. Most of his pay was sent home to help his mother, who was suffering from the colon cancer that eventually killed her.
After a year, young Clem finally qualified for West Point, eventually receiving his bachelor’s degree and testing at the top of his class.
In 1942, his career took off—literally—as a pilot in the latter days of Army Air Corps. Though technically stateside, his work marked a little-known chapter in World War II history in the Pacific—not the South Pacific, but the Pacific Northwest.
Nine Japanese submarines had attacked eight U.S. merchant ships along the west coast. Later, a Japanese submarine, surfacing off the mouth of the Columbia River, fired 17 shells at Oregon’s Fort Stevens. The Japanese also bombed Mount Emily in an effort to set the state’s forests on fire, killing a picnicking family in the process.
Clementson’s job was to patrol the upper coast looking for any sign of the enemy.
“They got the fire out, but it was a real problem,” he said.
Later, Clem escorted B-17s to bomb Nazi oilfields.
“I followed them all the way to it,” he said. “The trouble is they’d run into really heavy antiaircraft guns and I would split off at that point.”
His closest call came stateside when he lost both engines on his P-38 wh ile approaching Williams Air Force Base in Arizona.
“I looked around and I saw a nice straight ridge. I thought,” he said. “As I started setting it down, it was the biggest damn boulder you’ve ever seen in your life and I smacked into it.”
Although Clementson walked away safe and sound, the Air Corps was not sure. The airman was submitted to psychological tests to see if maybe that crazy landing had been intentional.
While in a military hospital, Clem moseyed down to the basement bowling alley, where he was finally hit by a bombshell—the good kind, a Scotch-Irish Army captain named EveLynn Thrasher.
“There was the nicest-looking redhead,” Clementson recalled.
To impress his new girlfriend, who outranked him, the daredevil took her out on a scenic flight over—and under—San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.
“At the time, they didn’t have radar and all that stuff,” he said. “The radio went wild—‘Did you get his number? Did you get his number?’ We went into the cloud as fast as we could and flew out into the ocean about 500 miles. If I had been caught, I’d be in Leavenworth.”
Within a month, the two were married in a secret ceremony, defying Army policy that forbade wartime marriages. Thrasher briefly used false papers as part of her illicit transport.
The couple eventually had three daughters, two of whom still live in Littleton, where the family finally moved when Clementson helped found the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs and served as a technology advisor to a Colorado Navajo reservation.
He retired as a full colonel in 1961—his unofficial escapades notwithstanding.
After the military, he was tapped as an aviation safety advisor on NASA’s Apollo project.
Clementson’s West Point cap. Photo by Peter Jones
Over the years, Clementson would earn an assortment of degrees, including a master’s and a doctorate in science instrumentation and aeronautical engineering, respectively, from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
His wife, Lynn, as she was called, died of lung cancer, from 20 years of smoking, at age 82.
“No one knew how dangerous constantly smoking cigarettes was,” he said.
Although Clementson suffers from macular degeneration of his eyes and the admitted senior moment occasionally, he is in remarkably good shape and lucid for someone born when the Ottoman Empire was still in power.
“I never expected to last until 100,” he said. “I’ve always been very active. I smoked a little bit, but then I got tired of that. I never did get much out of drinking.”
As for old age, it grows on you, he surmises.
“I’m not unhappy with it,” Clementson said. “I accept it as being a natural part of life.”
Lynn and Clem were married in the early 1940s in defiance of Army regulations, shortly after the two playfully flew a plane under the Golden Gate Bridge, sparking a military investigation. Courtesy of Clementson family
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