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Native American Heritage Month: Maj. Gen. Clarence L. Tinker

  • Published
  • By Robert Vanderpool
  • 7th Air Force and 8th Fighter Wing Historian
Historian's Note: The month of November is designated annually in the United States by presidential proclamation as National Native American Heritage Month. In celebration of the 2013 observance of National Native American Heritage Month, the Seventh Air Force History Office recognizes Maj. Gen. Clarence L. Tinker, a member of the Native American Osage Nation and 30-plus year U.S. Armed Forces veteran, who served as commander of Seventh Air Force from Dec. 18, 1941, until June 7, 1942, when he was killed-in-action conducting a combat operation during World War II.

The front page of the New York Times dated June 13, 1942, read: "Maj. Gen. Clarence L. Tinker, commander of Hawaiian Air Force (Hawaiian Air Force was redesignated as Seventh Air Force on Feb. 5, 1942) and one of the most brilliant air officers in the American Army was lost during the battle of the Mid-Pacific (later designated as the Battle of Midway) the War Department announced today."

On June 7, 1942, Tinker was co-piloting a B-24 Liberator heavy bomber from Midway Island, leading a heavy bomber raid of four Liberators on an attack against Japanese-held Wake Island on the last day of the Battle of Midway. The B-24's originated their flight at Hickam Field, Hawaii, the day before first flying 1,100 miles to Midway Island to take on fuel and recheck bombs and equipment before beginning the 2,500-mile round trip from Midway Island to Wake Island. Tinker had been contemplating a Seventh Air Force-directed heavy bombing attack against Wake Island since shortly after assuming command of Seventh Air Force, which occurred on Dec. 18, 1941, five days before Wake Island fell to Japanese attack forces.

Prior to the arrival of the four B-24's to Hickam Field in May 1942, Seventh Air Force-assigned units had primarily flown B-17 Flying Fortresses when conducting heavy bombing operations against the Japanese. The operational range of the B-24 was approximately 2,850 miles while the operational range of the B-17 was approximately 2,000 miles, making an attack on Wake Island from land-based heavy bombers a possibility for the first time. The bulk of the daylight hours of June 7 were spent in final preparation of the B-24's with the bombers lifting off from Midway Island just after darkness set in.

Clarence Leonard Tinker was born on Nov. 21, 1887, at Pawhuska, in the Osage Nation in Indian Territory (located in the present day state of Oklahoma). Being one-eighth Osage Indian, Tinker's Native American heritage played a significant role in his childhood, influencing his character and later attitudes towards life. His parents moved to the Indian Territory in the 1870's where Tinker's grandfather was serving as the official U.S. Government Blacksmith to the Osage Nation, a position he held from 1849 until his death in 1880. Tinker received his early schooling at the Osage Indian Boarding School in Pawhuska and later at the Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kan. Tinker's formal military education began when he enrolled in Wentworth Military Academy, located in Lexington, Mo, in 1906, graduating in 1908.

Tinker entered the uniformed services in the Philippine Constabulary on Nov. 3, 1908, at the rank of Third Lieutenant. He gained a commission as a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army in 1912. Between 1913 and 1920, he served as an infantry officer in different posts located throughout Hawaii, Arizona, California and Texas.

In 1920, then Maj. Tinker joined the U.S. Army Air Service, earning his pilots wings the following year and beginning his flying career. Graduating from the Army's Command and General Staff School in July, 1926, he became the Assistant Military Attaché for Aviation in London. A few months after arriving in Great Britain, he earned the Soldier's Medal while rescuing a Naval Aviator from the burning wreckage of a crashed aircraft he was piloting after a battery failure caused the engine to quit. Despite suffering a broken nose and severe facial lacerations in the crash, Tinker made several determined attempts to reach the Naval Aviator, who was rendered unconscious and unable to escape on his own. Tinker suffered additional burns to his hands and face before he was finally able to remove the Naval Aviator and drag him to safety before collapsing into unconsciousness. At the time, the Soldier's Medal was the United States Armed Forces highest peacetime decoration.

Tinker returned to the U.S. in 1927, serving on the staff of the Chief of the Air Corps, before being named Commandant of the Air Corps Advanced Flying School at Kelly Field, Texas. Beginning in 1930, he commanded various pursuit and bombardment units at Mather Field, March Field, and Hamilton Field in California. In 1936, then Col. Tinker served for three years in Washington, D.C., as chief of the Aviation Division, National Guard Bureau. He served as commander of the 27th Bomb Group at Barksdale Field in Louisiana in 1939. Subsequently promoted to the rank of Brigadier General on Oct. 1, 1940, he served as commander of the 29th Bomb Wing and 3rd Interceptor Command at MacDill and Drew Fields in Florida.

Following the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese surprise attack at Pearl Harbor, Tinker assumed command of Hawaiian Air Force 11 days later, becoming the second commander in Seventh Air Force history. He set out immediately to reorganize the air defenses of the Hawaiian Islands and also began preparing the Hawaiian Air Force for offensive action. A strong proponent of both the offensive and defensive capabilities of the airplane, and heavy bombers in particular, Tinker said " my opinion the Air Force will be the controlling factor in all wars, including this one." On Jan. 14, 1942, he pinned on the second star of a Major General becoming at the time the highest-ranking officer with Native American ancestry in the U.S. Army. Subsequently on Feb. 5, 1942, Hawaiian Air Force was redesignated as Seventh Air Force. Described as "a tough, taciturn, quietly humorous, and deeply earnest Army man," Tinker spent the first six months of his command vigorously bolstering and building Seventh Air Force air power as the organization's assigned units prepared for and conducted combat operations in the Central Pacific in the weeks following Pearl Harbor and leading up to the Battle of Midway.

With fuel tanks filled to the brim, in the early evening hours of June 7, 1942, the four B-24's taxied towards the runway on Midway Island under an overcast of approximately 6,000 feet. Each aircraft used every available foot of runway to lift off and reach the sky. The Liberators climbed slowly, leveling off into formation. Tinker's aircraft was piloted by Capt. Coleman Hinton, with Tinker serving as co-pilot and commander of the mission, along with a crew of nine other officers and Airmen on board. Unfortunately for Tinker and his crew, the early versions of the B-24 were known for their difficulty with feathering their props in order to reduce drag should one of the propellers or engines fail. If two propellers or engines failed, it was virtually impossible to keep the aircraft in the sky.

Approximately 40 minutes after the first aircraft took off, the heavy bomber group was flying at approximately 8,000 feet about 30 miles southwest of Midway Island when Tinker's B-24 began to lag behind and then suddenly lost altitude as it nosedived into the overcast below and out of sight. Reports of the incident from the other three B-24's were varying. One account recalled observing that "parts broke off the plane, and it went out of control, crashing into the ocean." Another reported that Tinker's plane was last seen "flying just above the ocean's waves with its landing lights on." Still another observer recounted that Tinker's plane "vanished with Number One and Number Two propellers barely turning." Regardless of the circumstances, Tinker and his crew went down. Search parties were launched but were unable to locate any signs of wreckage or survivors.

Maj. Gen. Clarence L. Tinker was the first U.S. general officer killed-in-action in during World War II. In addition, he was also the highest ranking U.S. Armed Forces service member of Native American ancestry to make the ultimate sacrifice during that war. The June 7, 1942, entry in the 'World War II Official Operational History of the Seventh Air Force' simply reads: "Brig. Gen. H.C. Davidson assumed command of the Seventh Air Force, succeeding Maj. Gen. Clarence L. Tinker who was lost near Midway." When news of Tinker's death reached the Osage Nation, the Native Americans conducted their first victory dance since World War I over a four day period, dancing to the booming rhythm of traditional drums in remembrance of the "Indian general who did not come back."

Tinker was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Medal by the U.S. Army Air Forces for exceptionally meritorious and distinguished service for personally leading the raid against Wake Island. His citation reads in part, "...he personally took command of a flight on an attack mission of extremely dangerous nature, and in the highest traditions of the Service elected to execute the mission rather than detail it to a subordinate. This gallant officer and his entire crew, all of whom volunteered to participate in the mission with full knowledge of the nature thereof, were lost at sea."

In addition to earning the Distinguished Service Medal, the Soldiers Medal and the Purple Heart during his 30-plus year military career, Tinker was also rated as a Command Pilot, Combat Observer and Aerial Observer, in addition to serving in a variety of pilot, staff and command positions. On Oct. 14, 1942, the Oklahoma City Air Depot was renamed Tinker Field at the direction of Gen. Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, Chief of the Army Air Forces. At the time, the naming of airfields was generally only authorized using geographical locations in the belief that it would take the perspective of time to determine which individuals merited memorialization. After several discussions at the highest levels of the War Department an exception was granted and the airfield near Oklahoma City was named after Tinker. The installation was later renamed Tinker Air Force Base on Jan. 13, 1948.