War is horror. But so is training for it. This is something Clyde Scott learned firsthand.
In the mid to late 1940s, Clyde Scott was arguably the world’s most dynamic football player as a tailback dynamo for Navy, Arkansas and the Philadelphia Eagles. Before he began a collegiate Hall of Fame career in 1944, though, he underwent a horrifying war “game” experience.
Fair warning: The following story, which occurred during his first two weeks on the campus of Navy in Annapolis, is a graphic one. Scott shared it with the Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History in 2010. He wrestled with whether to share it publicly or not — “the family of those people, those three boys, I don’t know how they would feel, lookin’ at or seein’ somethin’ that say about how their boys…”— but decides to share it anyway since it’s a part of his story.
Perhaps, too, sharing its horror will one day play a role, though small, in preventing a future war from happening.
The events unfolded in summer 1944 during a training exercise on a Landing Craft Infantry amphibious assault ship. Scott was part of a team of four guys whom he’d never met before. He was assigned to man the ammunition box of a fifty-millimeter machine gun mounted the back end of an LCI.
A morning alarm signaled the start of the war game. As Scott and others scurried onto the boat to their positions, he looked out: There was a little plane right on the water, prop plane, and it was blowin’ water back, sprayin’ it back… It’s comin’ right straight at us, simulating attack.”
Scott climbed up a ladder, to his comrade stationed at the machine gun, and as he’s getting near the platform he looked back again over the water. “”Damn, there’s that plane. Damn, he’s down yonder. He was out there. Now there he is right down here.”
Scott had three comrades on the boat with him. Two were already up on other parts of the deck, and one is peering out over the water with a pair of binoculars. It’s unclear what the second is doing, while a third — a “boy” with big shell belt strapped on, as Scott recalls — is simulating firing the actual machine gun at the oncoming prop plane.
Scott’s almost touching the britches of that gunner, and nearly touching the big metal ammunition box near sturdy steel siding, when an onrushing force raises him up from the ground and then flattens him on the ground. Before he goes on to describe the horror that follows, Scott explains some of why the such a horrible mistake had just happened, why the plane had gone far too low:
“He was a pilot on leave, on a ninety-day leave back to the States, and they had him. He was an expert pilot, and he was makin’ it look real, you know. He was really makin’ it look real. But he had gotten too damn close to the boat… he didn’t even have room to climb, but he cut… the gunner.”
After the impact, Scott got on his knees, the remains of the gunner drenching him. “I was covered with the sinew of a body that was put through a propeller of a damn plane. And it was just turned out mush,” he told his friend Bud Whetstone, who helped interview him for the Pryor Center. “I had to rake stuff outta my face and just had to breathe.”
He crawled up on his knees and saw the gunner:
“Everything was gone from here up [draws line across his shoulders] was gone, and there was just a little bitty squirts of blood, like that—you know, like a—it was his heart dyin’. It—and I am bloody. I—it—some of it is blood; some of it is goo.”
Someone else aboard the ship soon arrived. “‘Are you hurt, Mister? Are you hurt, Mister?'” And I told him, ‘I don’t think so. I don’t think so.’ And he said, ‘Well’—and then he tried to look at that boy strapped to the gun. He didn’t know how to handle it. He turned around and yelled down for somebody to bring blankets…”
It took a long while for Scott to recover from this event. It was especially tough in the following weeks during classes when he took his usual seat by the window at the Naval Academy’s Bancroft Hall. He sat near a window, overlooking the sea, where the testing of new planes and motors occurred. He remembered a feeling of dread watching the small test planes coming up off the bay toward him. “I just couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t concentrate… Here comes another one, you know, and you keep waitin’ for it to go past, and you’d wonder if he’s gonna go past.”
Scott often wondered what exactly happened and why. The tip of the prop plane itself had actually hit the same huge ammunition box to which Scott was assigned. That collision sent it into two or three barrel rolls and a plunge into the ocean. Everybody on it died. There was a rumor the pilot had had a girl with him.
The two other comrades disappeared. Scott didn’t know what happened to them, but he couldn’t stop caring. Just a few months before the 2010 Pryor Center interview, Scott started having nightmares about the event and its aftermath. He couldn’t sleep. He kept wondering what happened to the comrades. So he finally wrote to someone at the Naval Academy.
He got a response. “Well, they had a meeting—a inquiry, they called it. The boys were presumed dead, and they—the ship that was over following us saw some—two bodies goin’ over the side these guys were on. So the — they think that they died—that they—nobody was picked up from the thing.”
For the United States, World War II was probably as close to a “necessary” war as we will ever see. And yet, even in the most necessary of conflicts, terrible, entirely avoidable tragedies like these occur — over and over again. Scott’s particular experience was simply the smallest of snapshots of the kinds of lethal accidents which inevitably happen when nations decide the best way to resolve a conflict is by fire and fury.
Clyde Scott never saw actual combat, but he nonetheless firsthand understood what war entails. His ability to recover from this experience (as well as worse-than-usual hazing in his first months) show a strength of mind worth as much admiration as his obvious strength of body.
To read (or watch) the entire Clyde Scott interview in its entirety, make sure the visit the Pryor Center’s site here. It’s a fascinating, four-hour long deep dive that is an important contribution to state (and national) public history.