CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
Clifford R. Quesenberry was born in 1921 and raised in Berkeley, West Virginia. Prior to the advent of World War II, he was attending a small local college on a scholarship. Quesenberry recalled that, at the outset of the conflict in Europe, when the Germans invaded Poland, his peers had little interest in the war. The Federal Aviation Administration foresaw possible eventual American involvement in the war and increased the number of flight schools across the country. In late 1939, Quesenberry, who was interested in aviation, volunteered for civilian flight training.
Quesenberry completed his training in 1940 and received a private pilot’s license. He then attended further training at Lynchburg College in Lynchburg, VA, with nineteen other people from all over the East Coast. Quesenberry qualified as a limited commercial pilot; in order to become a full-fledged commercial pilot, he needed 200 hours of flying under his belt. He became a flight instructor in 1941, and was tasked with training pilots at primary flight schools, which were contracted by the US Army Air Corps and the US Navy for training.
Quesenberry also trained pilots for the British Royal Air Force. “The British had higher completion rates than the Americans,” he remembered, “because they were more motivated.” The Luftwaffe was bombing London, and the students were anxious to earn their wings and return home to defend their country. Perhaps remarkably, there were no flight fatalities during Quesenberry’s time as an instructor, although there were many automobile accidents – and one freak fatal episode. When a pilot earned his wings, he was subjected to an initiation rite in which he was thrown into the base swimming pool. A British pilot was tossed in the pool and his comrades left, no doubt somewhat inebriated. When they returned they discovered that he had drowned, as he was unable to swim.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Quesenberry joined the United States Navy and was sent directly to the Naval Air Station at Corpus Christi, Texas. Due to the fact that he had been flying for four years, he was not assigned to basic training or officer candidate school, but was given a direct commission as an officer. Quesenberry was transferred from Corpus Christi to the Naval Air Ferry Service unit at Floyd Bennet Field in Brooklyn, New York. His duties were to transport various aircraft from the industrialized East Coast to the West Coast, as the Pacific fleets were in need of aircraft.
After completing each ferry mission, Quesenberry returned east on a commercial flight, which lasted much longer than his trip west. On average a ferry flight would take, from beginning to end, an average of four days, but could be completed in as little as one and a half days if the pilot woke up early and rarely made stops. In addition to ferrying, Quesenberry also tested Grumman F6F Hellcat fighter planes at Willard Air Force Base in Philadelphia. One of the things he enjoyed most during this duty tour was eating at the Officer’s Mess at Floyd Bennet Field, which he recalled as better than most restaurants. Quesenberry said that he did feel a bit guilty because his job involved no combat; and, he felt he had it “easy” compared to those fighting in the Pacific and Europe.
However, dangers did exist in Quesenberry’s job. As a ferry pilot, it was important to stick to a specific route, especially on crossing California’s mountainous terrain. There was no radio contact between planes in a flight, so pilots in formations had to rely on hand signals to communicate. While flying from Alameda County to Red Bluff, California, one pilot deviated from the specified route. Instead of flying up the coast to Red Bluff, he turned towards Napa Valley, where the terrain was mountainous and narrowed further north. Quesenberry was unable to contact him and had to fly on without him.
Quesenberry landed safely in Red Bluff, but the errant pilot crashed into a mountain and broke his leg. Fortunately, he was rescued by a fireman who was hiking down the mountain. Not everyone was so lucky. During a flight from Midland to Fort Worth, Texas, a formation encountered poor weather and was forced to land in Abilene, Texas. Instead of watching and sticking with the formation, one pilot focused on the terrain, was battered by the weather, crashed and died.
Quesenberry finished with a lighter story, recalling that once, when he was flying from Jacksonville, to Miami, Florida, he had had to relieve himself. His plane didn’t come equipped with a urination tube and there were no cups on board, so he was forced to use a folded-up chart!