It started as idle chatter on the beach. My family was vacationing with old friends we've known since our Laurel High School days in the early 1970s, Richard and Denise Pond. Rich was talking about his father, Clayton Pond, an American Indian and World War II veteran, who died in 1989. His father was typical of many World War II veterans, and reluctant to talk about his military service. He would occasionally drop hints and tidbits that made his children curious, but when pressed for details, he clammed up.
At Rich Pond's request and after some digging, I found an amazing story of a small-town hero who was written about in newspapers across the country in the 1940s. Even more amazing was that his family, growing up in West Laurel, had no idea.
Clayton Pond told his family many stories about growing up on an Indian reservation in Oregon. A member of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, Pond was born in 1920 and lived on the Siletz Reservation.
The Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians is comprised of 27 different tribes, mostly from the West Coast. The Confederation has a long history, dating back hundreds of years. The Siletz Reservation was established in 1855, amid the controversial, and conflicting, political climate of the time concerning Indians.
Pond described to his family the discrimination and prejudice he experienced growing up, especially from the local Oregon population. He was not one to back down from a fight, and in high school he became a boxer. He won the Oregon State Golden Gloves championship in his weight class in 1939.
He told stories about how the Siletz Indians coped with being discriminated. For example, Oregon state law at the time made it illegal for American Indians to purchase alcohol. Clayton had an enterprising uncle who acquired a fake ID with a Japanese name on it. He became the source for alcohol for residents on the reservation. His enterprise backfired with the beginning of World War II, however. He said his uncle, along with thousands of Japanese-Americans, was put in an internment camp. It took him a few months to convince the authorities of his true heritage and get released.
After graduating from high school, Pond enrolled at the University of Oregon. After a year and a half, though, he became discouraged because he figured that even with a degree his heritage limited his opportunities, so he enlisted in the Army.
'Flew a small plane'
Pond also told many stories to his family about the years following the warHe met his wife, Eileen Shue, in 1947 while posted in Washington, D.C. She worked at the State Department, and they met at a dance packed with GIs and local girls.
They corresponded for the next year while Pond was stationed overseas, and married upon his return to Washington in 1948.
During the 1950s, Pond was a flight engineer in the Air Force, working for the Strategic Air Command. He was in the 320th Air Refueling Squadron, based at March Air Force Base in California. The 320th provided in-air refueling support to SAC's bombers that stayed airborne in case of nuclear attack on the U.S.
Patricia [Trish] Drake, a North Laurel resident, recalled that her father was away for nearly six months around the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. "He'd never been away that long since I was born," said Drake.
Later that year, Pond retired from the Air Force, and his family, now with five children, relocated to Maryland eventually to West Laurel.
Pond told his family many stories at one time or another, but whenever World War II was brought up, he went silent. Rich and Trish remembered that occasionally he would hint at his wartime service, telling them t he "flew a small plane" during the war, and he said he was in Asia for awhile, but wouldn't discuss anything further.
Pond, a master sergeant, did indeed spend some time in Asia. My research at the National Archives and from other sources discovered that Pond had a distinguished and heroic career that he just didn't want to talk about.
His service record shows that he attended liaison pilot training and flight engineer school in 1943. World War II liaison pilots performed a variety of tasks, such as observation and reconnaissance, transportation of battle commanders and messages, rescue and evacuation of injured soldiers and other duties. They flew Stinson L5 Sentinel aircraft, which were able to land and take off in a short distance from unimproved airstrips.
His flight records across Asia could fill a small book. As part of the Army Air Corp's 530th Fighter Group stationed in Shanghai, China, he flew numerous rescue and evacuation missions. In one report he filed, Pond described evacuating the bodies of a crew of a C-46 that crashed into a mountain in Hangchow, China. "After landing near the scene of the crash, a local school teacher was contacted and used as interpreter," Pond wrote. "Natives of the area verified that all occupants of this plane were killed on impact. … All personal effects were turned over to us by local natives who had helped bring the bodies off the mountain top."
The amazing part of Clayton's story, however, took place shortly after the war.
Nationalists loyal to China's government and Communist forces had been waging civil war since 1927. The two sides called a truce in 1937 to fight the Japanese invasion, which lasted until the end of World War II in 1945. The civil war resumed in 1946.
Pond had stayed in the service after the war and in April 1946 he was piloting a military attaché, Army Maj. Robert B. Rigg, across China. Rigg's mission is unknown, but since he had spent time during World War II in Europe as a military observer with Soviet Army units, it's a reasonable assumption that he was gathering intelligence on China's civil war. Pond's flight records during this time show dozens of stops across mainland China.
Pond and Rigg were caught up in the fighting when the Communists captured Chungking. Newspapers from the New York Times to the Salt Lake Tribune to the Seattle Times reported the story. The St. Joseph, Michigan Herald-Press headline read "Yanks Caught in Changchun." [There was inconsistent reporting at the time as to the location.[ At the same time, Gen. George Marshall, acting as a special envoy of President Harry Truman, arrived in Chungking to attempt mediation between the factions and gain the Americans' release.
Pond and Rigg were held for 10 days. After their release, Rigg was quoted in dozens of papers describing the incident. An AP story that ran in the Seattle Times on April 30, 1946, included this quote: "On April 15, two days after I arrived in Changchun, the city was under full attack by Chinese communist forces, who greatly outnumbered the defending garrison. Heavy fighting prevented me and my pilot, Pond, from reaching the west airdrome for several days. The battle developed around the north railway station, which was only yards from the Yamato Hotel, where we were staying. The hotel was caught in the midst of a heavy crossfire that finally forced all hotel occupants into the cellar. Both myself and Sergeant Pond were generously treated by the Communist forces."
Amazingly, Clayton Pond's family never knew. There are undoubtedly many more humble heroes from the Greatest Generation that we don't know about, but Laurel can claim one as its own.
History Matters is a monthly column rediscovering Laurel's past. Do you have old pictures or stories to share about a historic event in Laurel? Contact Kevin Leonard at firstname.lastname@example.org or (301) 776-9260.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun