Peoria's Teenage Warriors
by NORMAN V. KELLY
As a parent I am sure you have anguished over your teenage son or daughter who was late getting home, or forgot to give you a call to ease your worry. I wonder if you can imagine the pain and anxiety connected with having your son off fighting in WWII when he was fourteen or fifteen years old. Can you even begin to imagine that? Well, I want to tell you about our two local, heroic young boys that did just exactly that.
Norman Eugene Gibbs lived at 1111 Meyers Street and went to school here in Peoria at Lincoln Grade School and Roosevelt Junior High School. Norman had little interest in school and the very first chance he had he did something that is rarely done by such a young man…he joined the Marines. He was a big kid, five foot ten inches tall and a hundred and fifty pounds. So when he fooled the Marine recruiter and signed the enlistment papers, Norman Gibbs was a Marine. Norm was born June 21, 1927 and when he went off to Marine training he was all of fourteen years old. You can do the math. Born in 1927 he was in a Marine uniform on December 15, 1941. Like the kids would say…that is awesome! I wish I could go on to tell a lengthy story about Norman Gibbs, but the truth is he was killed in combat on Tulagi Island in the Solomon’s. His mother received a telegram, no details, nothing but the horrible news that her young son was killed in combat serving his country in December of 1943.
Clifford Wherley’s story has a much happier ending. Clifford lived in Elmwood, then Yates City when WWII came along to change his life forever.
Although he was only five foot five inches and 130 pounds he managed to do a bit of fibbing and was accepted into the United States Army Air Corps
on April Fools Day, 1942. His real birthday was May 27, 1927, which made him an aerial gunner on a B-26 Marauder at the age of fifteen! The teenage gunner had an exciting dangerous time in combat, flying twenty-two missions and protecting his Bomber named ‘Thunder’ from German fighters. He shot down one German ME-109 and had a probable kill on fourteen others. Can you imagine at age fifteen being shot at by expert fighter pilots over North Africa? On his thirteenth mission his bomber was forced to make a ‘belly landing,’ and thankfully the crew all walked away from the crash.
Clifford held the rank of S/SGT and was awarded the African Ribbon with a star, a Good Conduct Medal and an Air Medal with three oak clusters.
Sadly for Clifford his career as a teenage warrior came to an end when the Army discovered his real age, culminating in verification from his mother. So, Clifford came home a hero after his honorable Discharge on August 17, 1943. Well, that ended his Army career, but at the age of 17 he enlisted in the United States Navy. During the time he had to wait before his seventeenth birthday he spent some time traveling the States selling war bonds. He was a distinct hero to the folks in America and brought fame and honor to himself and his hometown folks. He also took a job in Maryland where he inspected machine gun installations at the Martin Bomber plant.
On June 1, 1944, here in Peoria, the brave Army Air Force veteran joined the United States Navy and off he went once again to join a Navy Fleet Air Wing. He became a Seaman First Class and left the Navy on February 15, 1946. He appeared in a movie and a book called Babe In Armor was to have been written about him, but that never came to pass. He moved down to Texas after working here at the Caterpillar where he and his wife raised five children. He is eighty-five now and living in Greenville, Texas. I am working to get him on an Honor Flight for veterans to Washington, D.C. If there was ever a veteran who deserved that flight it is Clifford Wherley. Clifford was said to have been the youngest Army hero, although I never really researched the matter, I believe it.
So here we are so many years later, Clifford is still with us and Norman Gibbs has been gone all those years. I feel good about bringing their stories to folks that read ADVENTURE SPORTS OUTDOOR MAGAZINE, real red blooded American folks. Clifford sounded happy and content on the phone and I do have his home address. I have a feeling that he would love to hear from you.
Editor’s Note: Norm is a local historian and author. He welcomes your e-mail. email@example.com