Prairie Public NewsRoom
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Buck Cleven, Bomber Pilot


Gale “Buck” Cleven was born on a homestead near Lemmon, South Dakota, along the Grand River. From there, Buck and his family moved to Wyoming. After Cleven finished High School and several years at the University of Wyoming, he decided to join the Army Air Force and was a bomber pilot when the US entered the war in 1941.

Cleven was one of the original pilots in the famed 100th Bomb Group, commanding the 350th Bomb Squadron. Buck served with distinction in the war against Germany as part of the Eighth Air Force. There are many publications, books and articles about his time as a B-17 pilot and commander.

On this date in 1943, Buck Cleven participated in the historic double raid on the German towns of Schweinfurt and Regensburg. Major Cleven was leading the low squadron when they came under a withering German fighter attack that tore the bomber to pieces. One 20-mm shell hit the right side of the plane, exploding in the radio room. Another 20-mm entered the left side of the nose, tearing out a section of the Plexiglas windscreen several feet square. A third round penetrated the right wing and into the fuselage, shattering the hydraulic system. A forth went through the cabin roof, severing the rudder control cables. A fifth 20-mm shell hit Number 3 engine, destroying all engine controls and setting it on fire.

Confronted with this damage, the crew prepared to bail out, but Cleven calmed them, kept control of the bomber, extinguished the engine fire and went on to bomb the Messerschmitt plant at Regensburg, then safely landed in North Africa.

For his actions, Cleven was presented with the Distinguished Service Cross, which he refused. When asked why he didn’t accept the Medal, he was heard to say, “Medal? Hell! I needed an aspirin!!”

Cleven was eventually shot down and taken prisoner, ending up in Stalag Luft III. It was there that Buck met and became good friends with George Ott from New England, North Dakota. This was the reason that 60 years later, Buck retired to Dickinson where Ott was now living. George and Buck could often be seen enjoying breakfast at a local Dickinson restaurant where they would reminisce about their time during the war.

Dakota Datebook written by Scott Nelson

Sources: Personal interview with George Ott and Buck Cleven.

100th Bomb Group records: