When I began researching and writing about Jimmy Stewart in WWII, my friend Walt Powell referred me to Clem Leone, who had served in the same bomb group as Stewart and actually flew with him on a training flight. Walt warned me that Clem could be tough and did not suffer fools—after the war he had become a schoolteacher while also rising to the rank of major in the Maryland National Guard.
Clem agreed to meet with me at his home in Gettysburg, PA—that was in 2014 when he was a sprightly 90 and still bowling every week. He told me his incredible war stories, which included bailing out of two flaming B-24s. I took furious notes during our meetings and then wrote up the Leone storyline for inclusion in the book that became Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe. During my first visit, he took me on a tour of a room in his house converted into a war museum, with beautiful scale models of a B-24 and an FW-190, which he pointed out with a certain pride as the German fighter that shot down his plane over Gotha in 1944. Also on display were his medals and uniforms and the ring from the parachute that had saved his life.
We met up again after I had sent him a printout of the narrative and he corrected key points. In those places where I had taken the wrong path (for example, had two characters looking at each other as they floated to earth after bailing out of the plane), he would point at me and say, “That’s not history, that’s Hollywood!” The rigors of working with Clem led to a 100% accurate depiction of life in a bomb group stationed in the English countryside because Clem had no interest in self-aggrandizement. He was what they call a straight shooter.
I’ve written about Clem many times here because he’s simply the most remarkable person I ever met. I love the guy, and for whatever reason, he grew to love me. He considered seeing his war story captured in Mission to be, as he said, “the greatest thing that ever happened to me.”
Clem and I shared the podium for a Mission book presentation in Gettysburg in November 2016, which ranks up there with the launch party for Dutch Girl in Velp as the most memorable, gratifying experience of my literary life. Seeing the outpouring of love and admiration from the entire town as he told his story, and then as we sat signing books together afterward, was an inspiration.
I next saw Clem at his 95th birthday party in July 2019, an event so jam-packed with well wishers that Clem and I had to shout our happiness to see each other over the din. Since then, I would call him occasionally just to check in, and he was always sharp as a tack. He told me at one point he had dismantled his museum and donated it here and there, with some pieces going to the Jimmy Stewart Museum in Indiana, PA. Always the practical fellow, he told me all his funeral arrangements had been made, and chuckled while he said it.
On three or four occasions I heard that Clem was on his last legs and I would call up, full of concern, and there would be that ironic chuckle and he would sound exactly like his old self until I began to understand that any guy who could survive two bailouts, betrayal by a double agent, imprisonment in a German luft stalag, and a death march across Poland, was going to be hard to shove out of this world.
I always laugh when I think of the time he told me his daughters wanted to buy him a ride in a vintage B-24 at an air show sometime in the last 10 or 15 years. He barked in return, “I had to bail out of two of the damn things when they were new—I’m not going to get inside one that’s 70 years old!” That, my friends, is a survivor.
You know where I am going with this. My hero, Clement Francis Leone, died this past Tuesday after a fall in his home that led to a series of medical emergencies. Were it not for that mishap, I know he would still be with us. The world is a gray place without you in it, Clem. May you enjoy your reunion with Sylvia and the boys of your ship, Wacky Donald, who went on to their reward on February 24, 1944.