LAKE WALES – When Edmond Clemenzi starts telling his story, his eyes grow narrow and his voice reflects the tension he must have felt that day.
Never mind that it was 73 years ago. Never mind that Clemenzi is 100 years old.
When he tells his story, he’s back in the nose of that B-26 Marauder, witnessing Allied troops slosh through waves toward the Normandy beach along the coast of France.
It was June 6, 1944, and the D-Day invasion was on.
His was the third unit to leave England on a bombing run that day. The first two had lost formation in the dense clouds, he said, and had to turn back.
“I had a real smart pilot,” Clemenzi said. “He saw a break in the clouds and took it.”
As they moved toward Normandy, the clouds began to lift.
“I saw the target,” the aging bombardier recalled. “It was a big gun position, and I told the pilot, ‘I’m going to do it.’”
“I knocked it off the map,” Clemenzi said, with a hint of a smile. “I wiped it right out.”
Over the next four days, he would return to the Normandy coast six times, taking out bridge roads and more gun positions.
He’d spend nearly two years in Europe during World War II, flying 71 bombing missions with the 452nd Bomb Squadron, 322nd Bombardment Group in the Ninth Air Force.
Teresa Strong, adjutant for American Legion Post 71 in Lake Wales, said Clemenzi represents a living history of the American military.
“When you have a 100-year-old veteran of three wars, he is history,” she said. “He brings consistency to the veteran story, and it brings more pride to the group because of what he has lived through.”
Only once would he return bloodied, in May 1943 on his first low-level mission. The aircraft returned with 311 holes in it, and Clemenzi came away with a Purple Heart. Though he wasn’t shot, his arms still bear the scars from the glass that shattered when the plane’s nose was hit.
“I spent two weeks in the hospital because I had lost so much blood,” he said.
His bombs leveled buildings, power plants and bridges. Once he nailed a target with 14 high-ranking German officers gathered inside, he said.
“I was asked to do targets that were darned near impossible,” he said, “and I did it. I didn’t think I was going to live through it, and they wouldn’t let me go home, so I figured I’ll just go ahead and fight the damn war, and I may as well wipe everything I can off the map.”
Clemenzi, a Massachusetts native who grew up in Fort Pierce, joined the Army Air Corps in September 1941, the same month he turned 24. After basic training, he left for Albuquerque, N.M., to learn how to be a bombardier.
“That’s where I met Jimmy Stewart,” he said. “He needed some twin-engine time, and I flew several times with him.”
By November 1942, he’d boarded the Queen Elizabeth bound for England. He wouldn’t come home for three more years.
In all the missions he flew, Clemenzi said, he never dropped a bomb outside the target area. Once, on his final mission in France, a bomb failed to release because he hadn’t lifted the trigger on the bomb site.
“It was the first time that had happened,” he said. They turned around “and bombed the bridge from the other direction.”
Clemenzi said his commanding officer criticized him because the mission wasn’t carried out the way it had been planned.
“I told him he was thinking stateside,” he said, “and he needed to start thinking wartime. The next day, I was off the base.”
Jody Hatfield, his stepdaughter-in-law, said she’s not surprised by his reaction in that situation.
“He’s very direct and point-blank,” she said. “He would get the job done no matter what it took.”
After the war, Clemenzi became a building contractor in Fort Pierce, where he and his late wife, Novella, would raise their five children. He’d remain in the reserves, and was called back up for a couple of months during the Korean War, where he helped to restore B-17 aircraft, and for a year in Vietnam, working in logistics. He retired from the reserves as a lieutenant colonel.
After a century of living, his hip bothers him and he’s resorted to using a cane. Yet he’s continued to live alone in a south Lake Wales mobile home community since his second wife, Draicle, died in 2004. And even at 100, he’s mastered a smart phone.
Amid the mementos in his home of a life well lived, a model of the B-26 Marauder he once crewed sits prominently on his entertainment center.
“His military service means a lot to him,” Hatfield said. “He talks about it all the time, about different missions he went on. He’ll just start talking about it when he remembers something.''
And today, as Lake Wales joins American Legion Post 71 in celebrating Veterans Day with a parade at noon along Central Avenue, Clemenzi will serve as grand marshal.
Suzie Schottelkotte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-533-9070. Follow her on Twitter @southpolkscene.