Clare H. Oliphant Jr. hung about a foot above the ground, strapped into a parachute stretched over a tree like an unraveled beacon to both British and German war planes flying in the area.
It was Dec. 23, 1944. Oliphant was on his 17th bombing mission over Germany. He was in a B-26 bomber as the topside gunner. A German plane rammed their plane and it went into a dive. Some of the six-man crew got out, others did not.
Oliphant is still alive to tell the tale, and many more. On Tuesday, he will celebrate his 100th birthday. He is slow in body now, but his mind is clear and his memory is sharp.
His war experiences are not all he is about, but his time as a prisoner of war will never leave his memory.
After breaking away from the parachute belts, Oliphant found he was alone and obliged to stay put in the cold snow with just his escape kit containing biscuits, hard candy, a map of Germany printed on silk and a compass.
“A British bomber flew by but just saw the parachute,” Oliphant said. “Then a German plane flew over and dropped a bright yellow flare. The next morning the Germans picked me up.”
Oliphant said, “I heard the car engine coming carrying German troops. They opened the door and I got in with them.”
By Jan. 1, 1945, Oliphant was on his way to prisoner of war camp Stalag Luft 1, just outside Barth, Germany on the Baltic Sea. It was filled with mostly airmen and officers.
His prisoner of war experience lasted only five months. However, in that time, he found out there were 30 other members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the camp, and he got permission to have church services. The men used their bread rations and water for their sacrament ordinance and studied the scriptures from a small military New Testament.
On May 1, 1945, the Russian allies liberated the camp. He was taken to France and was put on the “Liberty Ship” headed home.
Oliphant was born June 11, 1919, in Payson to Clare Howe Oliphant and Martha Gertrude Hiatt. He spent his early days in Payson, but by first grade he was attending Edison School in Salt Lake City.
“We we’re kind of a globetrotting family,” Oliphant said. “I was in Salt Lake City at Edison School from first to seventh grade, and then came the (Great) Depression.”
The family moved to San Juan County and Oliphant said they had it pretty good.
“We grew the best potatoes and carrots,” Oliphant said. “We had powdered milk from the government and mom made the best cottonseed cake. Dad had his cows and horses.”
His mother came down with severe heart problems and ended up in the hospital for a full year. His father traded 640 acres of land to the hospital to pay the bill. With what was left, he got two cars and two trailers and moved his family of six kids and a sick wife to Southern California.
“We lived and went to school in National City about 10 miles from Tijuana, Mexico,” Oliphant said. “We bought sugar in Tijuana because it was a lot cheaper then where we lived.”
That was the beginning of a life of zig-zagging the country from the Ozarks in Missouri to Washington State for young Oliphant. For a while, he and his dad worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in Mexico, Missouri, breaking limestone into small pieces to be crushed and put on farmland to help improve crops.
“After a while, dad decided we better leave Missouri. He hitched a ride to Kansas City, Missouri, and saw a Lincoln car for sale,” Oliphant said. “Dad had $100 in cash. He got the car and that’s how we moved to Washington State. We all voted to move to the northwest.”
Oliphant and his parents settled in Bremerton, Washington. Their first home for the eight of them was a chicken coop they had to clean out, but his dad was a trader and he ended up with an abandoned house, with a broken cistern and a well that wasn’t working.
It was from that home that Oliphant learned his skills in painting and metal work with the Lentz Company.
“I made box lids for first aid kits,” Oliphant said. “I painted the (red) crosses on the metal boxes.”
Oliphant enlisted into the Army Air Corp in November of 1942 in Seattle. After basic training he took some college training in Missoula Montana and ended up at Barksdale Field Louisiana in February 1944.
That’s where he met Doris Raphiel. They married July 26, 1944, and he shipped out to war two days later. He reached Ireland for more training and then started bombing runs from England.
After returning from the war, Doris Oliphant insisted he go to Brigham Young University on the GI Bill (federally funded educational assistance to servicemembers). He received both a Bachelors and Masters of Arts degree from the school and thought music is where he would make his money. He worked nights at Provo’s popular Hotel Roberts.
Clare Oliphant plays a number of instruments but has an affinity for the harmonica. He also has a deep singing voice and spent many years singing in Utah’s popular Mendelssohn Men's Chorus.
Clare and Doris Oliphant had three children, Martha, David and Leroy. Doris Oliphant taught school for 30 years. For many years, Clare Oliphant traveled as an agent of the Social Security Department.
The family eventually landed in Orem, and that is where he lives today. Doris Oliphant died in May 9, 2015.
Clare Oliphant says his secret to a long life is he is a faithful member of the LDS Church and obeys the church’s Word of Wisdom (which bans tobacco, alcohol, coffee and tea among other things), and he eats ground wheat cereal every morning for breakfast.
He said he’s never thought about it, but he doesn’t mind if he lives to 110, if the Lord is willing.