BUFFALO, N.Y. — Carl F. Clemen never had to use his parachute during the many missions he flew as a radio operator aboard a B-29 bomber above the Pacific Ocean and Japan during World War II.
He was glad of that. The idea of leaping out of an aircraft thousands of feet in the air did not appeal to him.
Besides, his fiancee, Betty Driscoll, had designs for the parachute.
The bride-to-be wanted an unusual dress for her wedding day and knew of a seamstress, a Mrs. Wendel, on Broad Street in the City of Tonawanda, who might be up for the challenge of stitching something extraordinary.
"Betty asked for the parachute, and I sent it home to her, and the seamstress turned it into her wedding dress," said Clemen, who has been happily married for 66 years. "I gave it to her because I had a backup parachute."
His entry into the Army Air Forces was itself a backup plan of sorts, in order to first finish college, though it didn't turn out that way.
"I was attending Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., and majoring in pre-med. The recruiters came there and said that if we enlisted, they guaranteed we'd be able to graduate from college. That was the first of many untruths," Clemen recalled with a forgiving chuckle.
He signed up for the service in November 1942. Two months later, he was yanked from the classroom and sent to Fort Niagara in Youngstown. Then it was on to Sioux Falls, S.D., for a year of training in how to operate the radio aboard a B-29 Superfortress before heading to Guam.
"There was no fresh water on Guam. When it rained, we showered. That was about once a week," he recalls. "It was hot and muggy. We went to the beach for swims, though the saltwater was sticky."
Of course, there was the business of prosecuting a war, and Clemen was routinely airborne participating in search-and-rescue missions for downed aircraft crews in the Pacific.
"We'd be up in the air a couple hours looking down at the blue ocean. It was usually good weather," he says. "Many times, we would spot lifeboats with crew members, or they would just be floating in the water with their life preservers. I would radio in their location, and they'd be rescued by naval boats or helicopters, whoever was the closest."
Lucky for Clemen and his 10 fellow crew members that they were never fired upon by the enemy, not even during bombing runs above Tokyo and other Japanese cities.
Endurance was the great challenge for the crew, he explains.
"You got tired being up so long," Clemen says. "Most everybody else was able to catch a few winks, but I had to stay awake to operate the radio."
And while he was spared battle wounds, he says, prior to his Pacific deployment, he lost all of his upper teeth in a truck accident at a military base in Georgia. "That," he says, "was my only catastrophe."
After returning to civilian life, he decided that medicine was not for him and attended the University of Buffalo, where he earned a degree in accounting. He then pursued a banking career in the Tonawandas with Niagara Savings & Loan Association.
Oh, and on May 4, 1946, he was married.
How did his bride look in her Army surplus wedding gown?
"Everyone commented that Betty looked out of this world," Clemen says. "Everyone was spellbound."
To this day, Betty Clemen says she cherishes her wedding dress:
"It's my most precious possession."