Branch: U. S. Navy
Rank: Aviation Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class
Status: Killed in action/Lost at sea
Date of Service: WWII
Home Town: Itasca Township
A kamikaze striking the St. Lo, causing an enormous fireball
Clarence Helmer Peterson was born March 27, 1920 in Shevlin, Minnesota to parents Carl O. and Hilda Magnusen Peterson. He was raised in Itasca Township where his parents farmed for many years. Carl and Hilda were both Swedish immigrants, Carl coming over in 1907 and Hilda coming a year later. Clarence had three sisters: Julia, Hilma and Edith. Clarence attended school through the 8th grade, then went to work on the family farm helping his father.
When he registered for the draft on July 1, 1941, Clarence was age 21 and employed by his father Carl on his farm. He was a tall young man at 6’ tall, 165 pounds, with hazel eyes and brown hair. He noted that he was missing the thumb and forefinger at the first joint on his left hand.
Clarence enlisted in the Navy Reserve on July 21, 1942 in Minneapolis, and trained to be an aviation machinist’s mate. AMMs are mechanics that inspect, adjust, test, repair, and overhaul aircraft engines and propellers on U. S. Navy aircraft. Clarence was sent to Naval Air Station Alameda to become part of the air crew for Composite Squadron VC-Sixty-Five. The letter VC designate V for aircraft and C for composite, meaning the squadron’s aircraft consisted of more than one type. The squadron had an assortment of advanced trainers, Douglas Dauntless dive bombers and one Douglas Devastator torpedo bomber. Clarence also learned the workings of Grumman Wildcat fighters and Grumman Avenger torpedo bombers.
The Squadron was commissioned June 10, 1943 at Alameda. It trained at Crows Landing Naval Air Station for night flying and completed it in September of 1943. Following that the airmen were transported to Holtville Naval Air Station in the desert to train for live glide bomb runs.
In February of 1944, VC-65 received orders for the USS Midway. The Midway was a Casablanca-class escort carrier, with a flight deck 498’ X 108’ and a maximum speed of 18 knots. It was armed with 1 5” 38 gun, 8 twin 40mm guns and 20 20 mm guns. Clarence boarded the ship from North Island Naval Air Station at San Diego on February 23, 1944. He remained on VC-65’s roster because he was “air crew” as opposed to “ground crew,” who became part of ship’s company. Clarence was given a cot on the hangar deck the first night aboard ship until bunk assignments were made. That night a sailor returning from liberty turned on the overhead sprinklers and soaked the unsuspecting newcomers as a dubious “welcome aboard.”
The Midway sailed from San Diego the next morning, transporting a load of aircraft bound for Ford Island Naval Air Station, Pearl Harbor. The new crew had plenty of time to get their sea legs and check out the ship’s facilities. After unloading its cargo in Hawaii, the Midway went back to sea for maneuvers with the Marines off Hilo, Hawaii.
In June of 1944 the Midway joined Carrier Support Group 1 for the invasion of the Marianas (Guam, Saipan and Tinian) and the “Marianas Turkey Shoot,” a huge Japanese air attack in which many enemy planes were shot down by ship anti-aircraft fire and fighter aircraft. During this campaign, through June and July, 1944, nine pilots and crewmen were lost to enemy action and the ship fought off many air attacks.
After repairs and resupply, the Midway was assigned to the 7th Fleet and was soon in action again providing air cover for the invasion of Morotai in the Moluccas. Possession of Morotai was necessary to provide land-based air cover for the coming invasion of Leyte.
On October 10, 1944, the Midway received news that the ship’s name would be changed to “St. Lo” to free up the name of Midway for a giant new aircraft carrier being built at Newport News. It was also to commemorate the victory by American forces at St. Lo in France in July of 1944.
After providing air cover for the Army on Leyte for five days, the crew awakened to a desperate situation on the morning of October 25, 1944. The St. Lo and its task unit came under a concentrated air attack by Japanese kamikazes, or suicide bombers. During the 40-minute engagement, almost all the escort carriers were damaged. One Mitshubishi A6M2 Zero crashed into the flight deck of the St. Lo at 10:51 a.m. Its bomb penetrated the flight deck and exploded on the port side of the hangar deck, where aircraft were in the process of being refueled and rearmed. A gasoline fire erupted, followed by six secondary explosions, including detonations of the ship’s torpedo and bomb magazine. The St. Lo was engulfed in flames and sank 30 minutes later. Of the 889 men aboard, 113 were killed or missing and another 30 died of their wounds. One of the dead was AMM2c Clarence H. Peterson. His body was never recovered. The Navy commemorated Clarence by inscribing his name on the Tablets of the Missing at the American Military Cemetery and Memorial in Manila, along with 36,281 names of other Americans who lost their lives in the South Pacific during WWII and have no known resting place. He was 24 years old.
The St. Lo received the sad honor of becoming the first major warship to sink as the result of a kamikaze attack.