Clay, Lucius DuBignon, Jr.

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Clay, Lucius DuBignon, Jr.

(b. 6 July 1919 in Alexandria, Virginia; d. 7 February 1994 in Alexandria, Virginia), air force general who rose to the command of all air defenses in North America.

Clay was the elder of two sons of Lucius DuBignon Clay, Sr., one of the leading U.S. Army generals of World War II, and Marjorie McKeown, a homemaker. Growing up an “army brat,” Clay moved frequently during his youth as his father moved from assignment to assignment in the United States and Panama. After graduating from Western High School in Washington, D.C., in 1937, Clay entered the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, where he had lived as a child while his father was an instructor at the school between 1924 and 1928. Although Clay entered West Point with the class of 1941, he was held back in his plebe (freshman) year and graduated with the class of 1942. Thus Clay’s younger brother, Frank Butner Clay, who entered West Point in 1938, was his classmate, and the two men graduated together on 29 May 1942.

After receiving his commission Clay entered the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF), which was created in June 1941 with autonomous status within the army. He attended flight school at Lubbock Field, Texas, received his pilot’s wings in December 1942, and went on for more training with bombers. In June 1943 he was assigned to the 616th Bombardment Squadron at MacDill Field, Florida. In August he joined the 495th Bombardment Squadron as the assistant operations officer and was eventually shipped to England with the unit. While in Florida he met and on 6 December 1943 married Betty Rose Commander of Tampa, Florida. The couple had four children.

In June 1944 Clay was assigned to the 344th Bombardment Group in England. First as a squadron leader and then as group commander, he flew some sixty combat missions over Europe. After Germany’s surrender in May 1945, Clay remained in Europe and eventually became the deputy commander and deputy for base services at the European Air Depot in Erding, Germany.

Clay returned to the United States in February 1947 for staff duty with the USAAF just as the National Security Act of 1947 (26 June 1947) cleared the way for the establishment of the U.S. Air Force as an independent branch of the armed services. Clay transferred from the army and served on the staff of the deputy chief of staff, Operations for Atomic Energy, Headquarters, U.S. Air Force at the Pentagon. Thus Clay, although only a lieutenant colonel at the time, was present at the creation of a new branch of the U.S. armed forces and would rise in rank and responsibilities with its expansion.

In 1949 Clay was assigned to the Air University and Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. In June 1952 he returned to the Pentagon to become an Air Force member of the Joint Strategic Plans Group of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. From 1954 to 1956 he served on the staff of Headquarters, U.S. Air Force. In July 1956 he became deputy commander of the Seventy-second Bombardment Wing at Ramey Air Force Base, Puerto Rico. In 1958 he returned to staff work at Headquarters, Strategic Air Command at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. In 1961 he was reassigned to the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon, where he was first a member of the Joint War Games Control Group and later the deputy director for operations. He was promoted to brigadier general in August 1962.

In August 1964 Clay was named the vice commander of the Twelfth Air Force at James Connelly Air Force Base, Texas. In January 1966 he took over command of the unit and was promoted to major general. In July 1966 he returned to the Pentagon and served in a series of increasingly important staff positions until August 1969, when he became deputy chief of staff for plans and operations, and was promoted to lieutenant general. In February 1970 Clay left staff work once again to assume the position of the vice commander in chief, Pacific Air Forces, but in September of that year he was named the commander of the Seventh Air Force at Tan Son Nhut Airfield in the former Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). He also served as the deputy commander for air operations, United States Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV). Thus Clay, who was awarded his fourth star and raised to the rank of full general, was responsible for directing all air force combat, support, and air-defense operations in Southeast Asia, advising the MACV commander on matters relating to tactical air support of ground forces in South Vietnam, and coordinating the efforts of the South Vietnamese air forces.

In August 1971 he became the commander in chief, Pacific Air Forces, with headquarters at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, which gave him overall command of U.S. air power in the Pacific during the closing years of America’s direct involvement in the Vietnam War.

Clay reached the pinnacle of his career in October 1973 when he became the commander in chief of the North American Air Defense Command/Continental Air Defense Command as well as the commander of the United States Air Force Aerospace Defense Command at Ent Air Force Base, Colorado. In these capacities Clay was responsible for the air defenses of the North American continent and for global aerospace surveillance to provide warning of hostile attack from outer space.

Upon his retirement on 1 September 1975, he remained in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Uncomfortable with the idea of trading on his service connections, Clay chose not to enter a new career in the private sector. Instead he devoted himself to working with a number of charitable organizations and was active in several Air Force associations.

In 1990 a deteriorating lung condition exacerbated by the high altitude of Colorado led Clay to return to the place of his birth, Alexandria. After the death of his wife in 1992, he moved to a military retirement community at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. He died at Alexandria Hospital of emphysema and cardiac arrest, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.

In his many staff positions, Clay played an important role in the transformation of the USAAF from an arm of the army into the new and separate service known as the U.S. Air Force. In his various command positions, he aided in the development of American air power both as a tactical and a strategic force.

No biography of Clay exists. However, Jean Edward Smith’s biography of Clay’s father, Lucius D. Clay: An American Life (1990), gives an idea of what Clay’s early years were like, although it provides little specific biographical information about him. “General Lucius D. Clay Jr.,” United States Air Force Biography, Secretary of the Air Force, Office of Information (1974), provides a résumé of his career. Obituaries are in the Washington Post (9 Feb. 1994), New York Times (14 Feb. 1994), Air Force Times (16 May 1994), and Assembly (May 1995). A transcript of an oral history interview is in Columbia University, Oral History Research Office, Butler Library, New York City.

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