Growing up on a farm near Newcastle, California, during the Great Depression, a young Clarence “Bud” Anderson always wanted to fly.
At 7, his father took him to a small dirt airfield where he got his first ride in a Stearman biplane.
But with financial times what they were, he knew there was no money for such an expensive hobby and set his sights on the then-Army Air Corps.
He researched the requirements.
“You had to be 20 years old, physically fit, unmarried, with two years of college,” he told the Review-Journal during a brief interview at Nellis Air Force Base.
On his way home to California, Anderson stopped at the base Thursday to meet with officials and airmen.
The decorated 97-year-old former fighter pilot was a “triple ace” in World War II and flew the P-51 Mustang Old Crow while assigned to the 357th Fighter Group “Yoxford Boys,” 8th Air Force, at Leiston Field, United Kingdom.
Anderson was the highest-scoring ace (a pilot who shoots down five enemy planes) of 42 in his P-51 Mustang squadron, shooting down more than 16 enemy planes.
He is the highest-scoring living ace in the nation. On Thursday, he said the thrill of survival mode in the war was “very, very exciting.”
“We were not winning the war when I got over there, and I helped defeat enemies … It was either kill or be killed,” Anderson said.
“We thought of the killing as shooting down the other machine, not the human being. I had to cope with that.”
At 19, Anderson learned to fly while attending college in Sacramento and taking flying classes through the Civilian Pilot Training Program.
“We learned on a 45-horsepower, slow little airplane,” he said. “They could see the war coming, and they hired the whole class to work.”
The war came on Dec. 7, 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese. The next month, Anderson turned 20 and enlisted.
“I didn’t even know what Pearl Harbor was,” he said.
“I had no idea what the war was going to be like; I didn’t know what I could do,” Anderson said. “It was learn as you went along. I never had anybody after me trying to kill me before.”
Toward the end of Anderson’s two combat tours in Europe in 1944, he was promoted to major at age 22 and eventually moved on to serve in combat in the Vietnam War.
He retired in 1972 with more than 7,500 hours logged in more than 130 types of aircraft and, among his many accolades, was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame and given the Congressional Gold Medal in 2015.
Before he quit flying when he turned 90, he still flew some of the same P-51 Mustangs he used during the war.
On Thursday, he was asked his advice to future airmen.
“Drink water,” he said, joking.
“No, do the right thing and do what you have to do,” he said. “And that’s advice for anybody.
“There’s still a bunch of young, clean-cut Americans trying to do their job, serve their country and I’m very proud of them.”