Cliff Largess honored at Veterans Day ceremony
“The attack on Pearl Harbor changed the course of everything: History, the future, attitudes,” said Largess, a retired Navy captain who was involved in aviation combat in World War II and the Korean War.
The attack certainly put a spin on the life Largess had planned.
Life, he said, became very interesting after Pearl Harbor.
“People in my category, seniors in college, weren’t paying any attention to the war in Europe,” or to Japan’s maneuverings, he said. Largess was a student at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., at the time. “We felt isolated. We had these big oceans, the Atlantic, the Pacific, and we felt we would never get involved.”
Dec. 7, 1941, altered that thinking.
The surprise attack united the country, all focused on one goal, said Largess, who moved to North Kingstown five years ago. “By the end of the week, all my classmates and friends were committed to going into the services.”
He chose the Navy, where he remained on active duty for 31 years, retiring in 1973.
He chose the Navy because it was more selective than the other branches of the military. The Navy training program, unlike the Army, required two years of college experience. “There was a little bit of prestige with the Navy,” Largess said.
The Navy was also an appropriate choice for another reason: At the time of his enlistment, Largess held aviation licenses in private, commercial and instrument training. He obtained the licenses after participating in a FAA program that sought to train the public for the coming expansion of the commercial aviation field.
“The recruiters were impressed with me and wanted to make me an instructor,” Largess said. He nixed that idea and threatened to take his services to the Army.
“I negotiated with them,” he said, laughing.
Ultimately, he joined the Navy and was assigned to be a combat aviator.
After completing the necessary training, Largess left the Navy’s Pearl Harbor base on Christmas Eve, 1943. From that day forward, for the duration of the war, Largess took part in most of the action in the Pacific theater.
His most significant experience came when he was working under a commander who wanted to combine a pilot’s instrument training with airborne radar, he said. The experiment, if successful, would allow pilots to fly off the aircraft carriers to perform combat missions at night and in inclement weather.
“Before then, we flew only at the crack of dawn to sunset,” he said.
In 1944, during the month of February, Largess – along with 13 other men – put the commander’s theory to the test. Their mission: To bomb Truk Lagoon, Japan’s primary base in the Pacifi c. During World War II, Truk Lagoon was regarded by the U.S. as the strongest naval base in the Pacific – with the exception of Pearl Harbor.
“We took off from the carrier at 1 a.m., the dead of night,” he said. “We all came back, except one. We lost one man.”
The attack was considered a success.
“The results were spectacular,” Largess said. “We had the evidence that night flights could be done successfully.”
The approach caught on and within a year, most of the aircraft were capable of flying at night, he said.
“We were the pioneers,” Largess said.
But the advances weren’t without cost. The new technology and training persevered despite lots of initial problems and many crew casualties.
In spite of the responsibility and risk-taking he endured in World War II and Korea, where he was in charge of bombing aboard a heavy cruiser used to supply air support, Largess said he never felt as if things were out of control.
“In the service, whenever I was asked to do anything I was trained in advance,” he said. “When the time came to do my job, I always felt prepared.”
Largess ended up doing two tours of duty during World War II. After coming home in 1945 from his second tour, “the first thing I did was get married,” he said. Appropriately, his soonto be wife was a stewardess for American Airlines, flying on a DC-3.
Their 64-year union produced eight children and is still going strong.
His children are “all good, solid citizens serving their communities,” he said. “It’s a good feeling. I consider it a blessing.”
“It also makes me think someone has been looking out for us,” he added.
Largess, who taught at the University of Rochester in New York for seven years after retiring from the Navy, was honored during yesterday’s Veteran’s Day remembrance ceremony conducted by Jamestown’s American Legion Post and Veterans of Foreign War.