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Veteran recalls service in Army Air Corps

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

ALBANY -- Even today, when Claude Surface is riding in a commercial airliner during takeoff, it takes him back to when he had a front-row seat to the battles taking place in the Pacific during World War II.

And, after all these years, it still makes him just as nervous.

Originally from Oklahoma, Surface, now 89, eventually found himself at Turner Air Force Base in 1941. At the time, what the next few months would bring was anybody's guess -- especially since there was no way to tell what their potential enemies in Europe were up to.

"Nobody knew what was going to happen," he recalled. "Everyone was expecting the worst. They didn't know what the Germans had."

The fear of the unknown was evident even while Surface was still in training.

"They had to push us through while they knew we had to hit Japan," he said. "They knew they didn't have much time; the situation in Europe looked pretty bad."

During the war, Liberty Magazine was picking up some stories regarding the campaign in Europe. So, even before participating in any battles, these depictions gave Surface an idea of what the future held.

"We knew we were going to be put into it," he said.

Surface wound up in the maintenance section for the airplanes, with the bulk of his time spent working with the B-29. Built to go 2,000 to 3,000 miles without refueling, the aircraft was used to fly to Japan and back.

"It was a four-engine bomber," he said. "I ended up as a flight engineer; they needed someone to handle the systems on the plane."

From a B-29 base in Nebraska, Surface's unit was sent to an air base on Tinian, now one of three principal islands of the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands, in early 1945. At that point, they started flying missions to Japan. Each mission was roughly 15 hours long and made for a round-trip of 1,500 miles.

Surface's responsibility was to run the engine up and make sure the plane was in good enough condition to take off, which was a task that had to be performed in virtually no time at all.

"It made me responsible for the whole crew," he said. "I had to make the final decision as to whether the plane would take off. I had to make sure it was in top-notch condition.

"I had four to five seconds to make that decision."

Under those conditions, the veteran remembered touching his face occasionally after take off to find it ice cold and soaking wet.

"It stayed like that all the time," he said. "It (the task) didn't get any easier, it just got harder."

From there, Surface was able to participate in attempts to cripple the empire whose attack 68 years ago this month pulled the United States into the war.

"We hit a lot of major Japanese cities; we burned about 15 square miles of Tokyo," he said. "It was just a complete ocean of fire."

Surface vividly remembers the day the U.S. was attacked at Pearl Harbor. He had gone to church in town that day, which was his future father-in-law's birthday, on what was supposed to be his on-pass time.

"(Louise Surface's) mother was fixing dinner when an old man came in and saw me sitting (in the living room) and asked me: 'What are you doing here.' We turned on the radio, and that's how we found out about the war."

Surface went to church that night and later was given a ride to the transport point on North Jefferson Street and Broad Avenue. He was in his barracks when President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress to declare a state of war on Japan.

"I'll never forget that," he said.

During their missions, what Surface described as an ungodly odor would make its way up into the bomber, which was later determined to be the smell of human flesh and hair.

"That was a sickening situation," he said.

One mission he was on required flying at a low altitude in order to drop mines into the ocean, a process that carried a lot of risk to the 11 crew members on board.

"We were picked up on the search lights," Surface said. "Just as we dropped a mine, the plane was hit and (the impact) destroyed our main cables."

Eventually, there was additional parking space constructed at the base for more B-29s, which came as a result of what Surface suspected was a call for help.

"We had some pretty bad situations, we had lost a lot of planes and crew members," he said.

In May 1945, some planes were put into those spaces. For their day, they had the latest of everything. But, for the life of them, Surface and his comrades could not figure out exactly what to do with them.

"We couldn't get any information on what they were there for until after the end of the war," he said.

Although, since they were short on aircraft, the crew members did get some flying time in on the new planes.

"They were really something," Surface recalled.

Surface was flying his 15th mission when the war ended in Europe, which is a battle that sticks out in his mind very well.

"The plane was pretty well damaged," he said. "The Marines had secured Iwo Jima, so we decided to land there with two engines. We had to hitch-hike to another plane."

Surface recalled having heard the news of the surrender upon their landing in Iwo Jima. He was headed to the main encampment area when he saw a Marine listening to the announcement on the radio.

In all, Surface completed 35 missions. The last one he was in occurred on July 28, 1945. More than a week later, on Aug. 6, there was a great deal of excitement on the base when word got out that the atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima.

A number of military personnel were running around the base when a fellow service member told Surface what had happened.

"That really had everybody excited," he recalled from his Albany living room.

Shortly after the second bombing three days later, the war ended.

Through it all, Surface had a higher power on his side.

"I made a point to go pray before every mission," he said.

The toll on innocent civilians from what Surface and his comrades did was not lost on those that performed the missions. To that effect, they went through counseling to help them better process what they were doing.

It was then that the veteran said he obtained a new sense of purpose for what he was doing.

"When I thought back through it time and again, it would get me sometimes," Surface said. "They told us if something should happen that the Japanese would be winning, they would be doing the same thing to us without thinking about it."

When he left to fight World War II, he also left behind a wife and an 18-month-old son. Even though they were half a world apart, the veteran said his spouse was the only thing that got him through it.

"Because of her morale and God's help, I was able to fly," Surface said. "Of course, I was scared like everyone else.

"She kept me going."

For his military service, Surface earned roughly a dozen medals.

While Louise Surface served as her husband's rock, she often found herself sweating over her spouse's fate. But, she had faith it would work out.

"I was worried, but I would always have the feeling he would come back and that God would take care of him," she said.

Even after having retired from military life, Claude Surface said the memories are not something that are left behind easily.

"Military life and the combat zone are really something," he said. "It just keeps going through your mind as if it happened yesterday. You can't forget.

"I sweated every one of those takeoffs."

The family members he came back to can vouch for the impact the war had on him.

"He talks about it all the time," his wife said.

Claude and Louise Surface met in October 1941, a month after Claude Surface joined the Army Air Corps at the age of 21. They were married nearly a year later. Claude Surface retired from the Air Force in 1963, and later worked as a carrier for the U.S. Postal Service until retiring from the position in 1985.

The couple moved into a house in north-central Albany in 1948, which they still reside in to this day. They have five children, 17 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren.