Clayborne Lyles was born in Arkansas on July 5, 1929. At 17 years of age, he enlisted in the Navy, and spent 11 weeks in basic training. He trained to become an engineer and was a machinist mate aboard the USS Toledo. The USS Toledo was a battleship with a wooden deck and 500 living aboard. The main mission of the USS Toledo was to be an operational force for soldiers on land. The ship also traveled from port to port exhibiting its strength and prowess. Clayborne Lyles participated in ocean search and rescue missions as well as Identify Friend or Foe (IFF) instances while aboard the battleship. He served in the Navy from 1947-1968.
Jubiliation at Sea
Clayborne Lyles participated in the Navy's ocean search and rescue efforts when there were US pilots that were shot down over the Pacific Ocean. He felt jubilation to be part of 22 pilot rescue missions, but he was sad when none of these missions were discussed in the newspapers. One mission that made him laugh, but it was still serious event was when a pilot was shot down and he was shot in the butt. Clayborne Lyles remembered how the sailors would give each other grief to lighten the mood of war.
Joining the Navy, Basic Training, and Traveling to Show Power
Clayborne Lyles joined the Navy as a 17 year old in order to move away from poverty in Arkansas in 1947. After attending 11 weeks of basic training and Machinist Maintenance (engineer) training, he was sent way on the USS Toledo to travel to a variety of ports across the world to demonstrate the US Navy's strength during the Cold War. He spent all of his time on the ship maintaining boiler operations while working on steam turbines, generators, pumps, air conditioning and refrigeration.
The Start of the Korean War
Clayborne Lyles did not know much about Korea when the war broke out and he was located in the Pacific Ocean near the 38th parallel traveling around the Korean peninsula. He didn't have any fear about the war because he said that since he volunteered for the military, he could 't complain or worry. For the fellows who were drafted, he heard all about their complaints about the war while being stationed on the ship with the draftees.
Friend or Foe?
Clayborne Lyles was part of General Quarters, "All arms, man your battle stations." The USS Toledo didn't realize that the incoming planes were US planes, so everyone was told to get ready to fight in the middle of the night. Thankfully, sailors used the Identifying Friend or Foe (IFF) gear before any shots were fired from the USS Toledo.
Clayborne Lyles’s Oral History
Transcribed by Camille Roty
Lyles: My name is Clayborne E. Lyles.
Interviewer: What is your birth date?
Lyles: My birth date is 7/5/29.
Interviewer: You were born in the Great Depression.
Lyles: I was born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1929. And I stayed there until I was 17, at which (time) I joined the Navy and I left Little Rock in 1947.
Interviewer: When did you join the Navy?
Lyles: In 1947.
Interviewer: Why the Navy?
Lyles: Why anything at the time? I needed to get away, I thought.
Interviewer: Get away from what?
Lyles: Well, poverty mostly. I wasn’t in extreme poverty but I wanted to get away because I felt that way. Why I felt that way I can’t explain. I was seventeen, I was grown.
Interviewer: So where did you get the basic training?
Lyles: San Diego, California.
Interviewer: Nice place.
Lyles: Of course.
Interviewer: How long?
Lyles: How long was the training? I think it was eleven weeks.
Interviewer: What kind?
Lyles: Basic training. What we went through was training for organization. That was about it, because being young at that particular time, there wasn’t too much specifics. We had choices, but we choose later what we wanted to do. For instance, I’m an engineer. I spent 21 years operation and maintenance of sustained propulsion, to make the ship go.
Lyles: And associated equipment, of course.
Interviewer: So that was your specialty?
Lyles: Well, my rating in the military was Machinist Maintenance. That was the rating system at the time. But it’s all pertaining to engineering. Boiler operations, steam turbines, generators, all types of pumps. Air conditioning and refrigeration.
Interviewer: You were trained to do so, right?
Interviewer: Very good. Wasn’t it hard to learn?
Lyles: No, because I’ve always wanted to do that. When you want to do something it ain’t hard to learn. It only becomes hard when you don’t want to do it. I wanted to be an engineer so that was easy for me.
Interviewer: Wow, that’s nice. And then where did you go after the basic?
Lyles: I went aboard a ship.
Interviewer: What was the name of the ship?
Lyles: My first ship was the U.S.S. Toledo CA133, which was a heavy cruiser.
Interviewer: And what kind of ship was it?
Lyles: Well, it’s a US Navy vessel.
Interviewer: Vessel? But there are many different kinds of vessels, right?
Lyles: Of course.
Interviewer: Toledo. What was it?”
Lyles: It all depends on the size and what it’s made for. A heavy cruiser was like a battleship, a big ship.
Interviewer: How many crew were there?
Lyles: I don’t exactly remember.
Interviewer: But roughly, 100? 200?
Lyles: No, I would probably say about 500. And that was a ship that had a wooden deck. Wooden deck. They don’t have wooden decks anymore.
Lyles: Yeah, that was quite an experience.
Interviewer: Very nice. Must be nice.
Lyles: Oh yeah.
Interviewer: Nicer than the iron, you know?
Lyles: Yeah. Very nice.
Interviewer: How is it to live in a ship with 500 of your colleagues?
Lyles: Well, at that particular time we have to go back to being seventeen. And you volunteer to do certain things, and it becomes no big deal. It’s what you selected.
Interviewer: So where did you go with this ship?
Lyles: My first port of entry was Hawaii.
Lyles: Actually, my first port of entry on the Toledo was Long Beach, California. I left San Diego. I boarded the ship in San Diego. I was assigned to the ship in San Diego.
Interviewer: And then what happened to you after Hawaii.
Lyles: Well, we went to several ports. At that time the United States was involved in the people-to-people program, and they had certain ports they were allowed to go to. And that’s what they did. They went to show the strength.
Interviewer: So no combat mission, but just going to harbor and show your ships.
Interviewer: and represent America.
Lyles: Absolutely. That’s what it was all about.
Interviewer: Ah. So, when did you know, how did you come to know about the breakout of the Korean War?
Lyles: Uh. Kind of difficult. At an early age, you know, you don’t have too much to think about. And what you have to really realize is being a volunteer, you don’t have too much to say against my country –right or wrong, if you volunteer. And that’s the way I looked at it. If you’re not a volunteer, you can do a lot of complaining (chuckles). I’ve been through a few programs here. I don’t want to get ahead of myself. But I told the facilitator, I said I don’t have any business here. I said because these people have been through a lot. I haven’t been through..
Interviewer: Well, where were you when the Korean War broke out?
Lyles: That I cannot answer. I spent 21 years in, from ‘47 to ‘68 and I could find out, but..
Interviewer: Were you in Asia?
Lyles: Not on the shore. We operated out in the ocean.
Interviewer: What ocean?
Interviewer: Pacific Ocean.
Lyles: 38 parallel, all around Guam.
Interviewer: All around the Korean Peninsula?
Lyles: What happened..I can’t remember what my feelings were when I was in the war zones. Being a volunteer, you’re there. And being young and dumb, you don’t care. That’s the way I was feeling. I didn’t have any fears about it.
Interviewer: So you were actually participating in the war, Korean War, in the ocean, right?
Lyles: Yes. We were out on what they called, some of them were independent ship operations, but we were there for the people that were on the shore for certain fixes they would do with the sea going vessels. That was about it. And we were on what we call S.A.R., search and rescue. What that entailed was, is something that you’ve probably never seen or heard about this, on one ship I was on, this is years later, same type of operation SAR-search and rescue, we rescued 22 pilots being shot down in the ocean.
Interviewer: Was it east or west of Korean peninsula? You were in east or west?
Lyles: I don’t know but we operated around 38th parallel.
Interviewer: Around 38 parallel.
Interviewer: Can you describe the moment that you rescued one of the pilots? Any scene that you can describe.
Lyles: Well it’s a kind of jubilation when you know you’ve saved a person out of the ocean, way out in the middle of nowhere. I had an incident that took…it took some time to correct. We picked up a pilot and we had a skipper that was a very good skipper. But he got close to the pilot, well, being close is being close, it’s less work to get him aboard, right. And in doing so, the pilot’s parachute got entangled in what we called the main injection and it disabled one of the engines but I knew what happened right away. I knew the tactical situation. I knew what we were doing. And then when I was told that we were losing vacuum. And there was no guesswork, being that close to the pilot and he got out of the parachute and this big injection pump sucked it up into the engine, so now we got one engine. But we decided that we didn’t have to go to the Navy yard. It took about eighteen hours’ steady work.
Interviewer: 18 hours working on what? Repairing?
Lyles: Disassemble this big pump, a rotary tank pump and the skipper was right there working with us. We were sharpening the knives and we were cutting the nylon parachute away from the impeller. It took that long. But in doing so we discovered how stupid we did it. Because all we had to do was take the torch and melt it out and flush it out, but we were cutting it out with knives in little pieces at a time and I told this guy, well I’m not going to use the words I called him, but in a way we were friends. But we discovered we could have been quicker, we could have done it in less time.
But that was one of the incidents. We’ve had quite a few incidents at sea and it’s difficult to remember all the stuff that happened, you know what I mean?
Interviewer: Yep. Did you actually see the pilots in the ocean?
Interviewer: What were they doing?
Lyles: What do you mean?
Interviewer: How was the situation? Were they swimming or what happened?
Lyles: Well, you know, they have this survival gear. This one I remember in particular he was shot in his butt, and he was bleeding so they wanted to get him aboard right away, you know, to keep him from losing blood. And that’s a big joke in the middle of the ocean, shot in the butt, you know, military stuff, but it was very serious.
Interviewer: How did you know where the pilot was in that big ocean? How did you find them?
Lyles: They have these beacons, and they have all this modern technology and they can almost tell exactly where this guy is, how far he is from the ship and they proceed to him. They have beacons of all types. We call them noisemakers. But anyway, that’s how you find them. And they’re visible, you know, they can see them.
Interviewer: What was your thinking when you rescued those pilots floating in the ocean? That was amazing wasn’t it?
Lyles: You feel so good. You know that you participated in saving a person. Yes. A lot of jubilation.
Interviewer: So what happened to those pilots when you guys rescued them?
Lyles: Well they transfer them to other ships and then they go ashore or whatever. That type of technology stuff we don’t follow it blow by blow, you know.
Interviewer: So when they were rescued, were they thankful?
Lyles: Oh, of course.
Interviewer: What did they say? Do you remember anything?
Lyles: I had no conversation with those people that were picked up but you can tell by the look on their face how they feel, and you being a part of it, it’s quite a feeling.
Interviewer: You saw them right?
Interviewer: Yeah, that’s very nice, isn’t it? It’s very rewarding.
Lyles: I was upset, not upset, you hear a lot of news clips about certain things and I’ve always wondered why this was never publicized in the paper.
Interviewer: Yeah, why not?
Lyles: Yeah, well, you know, you hear little things that happen and I had added to somewhat but he went and picked up 22 guys, at different times over a period of several years. Not like 22 a day (chuckles).
Interviewer: Wow, that’s quite a lot.
Lyles: I was in an operation once. I never will forget it. You ever heard of general quarters?
Lyles: General quarters is a signal from whoever in the bridge. They sound the alarms and they announce it, “All hands man your battle stations”. That means something is happening. Well, this particular night at two o’clock in the morning, that happened. And this is what happened. They did not know who this, they call them “bogeys” when they can’t identify a plane, and it happened to be our planes, U.S. planes, but they did it just in time because it was getting ready to shoot them down and they have on the ship and the airplane I.F.F. gear – “identify friend or foe” so they did it just in time but they, we were on a missile ship they were getting ready to fire on them, That did not happen so, which was a good thing.
Interviewer: So what was the main mission of the USS Toledo?
Lyles: Well during the time I was on it, the main mission I think was people-to-people program, visiting and showing your strength.
Interviewer: But you were in the Korean War in the sea, right?
Lyles: Oh, yeah.
Interviewer: Yeah. So that was one of the main missions.
Lyles: Yeah, well the main mission then I was on another ship, another type ship the main mission then was to be an operational force out for the people that were on the land.
Interviewer: how did you do that? How did you help the men on the land, soldiers?
Lyles: Well, they have ways of communicating which I don’t have the knowledge of, but they have the ways of communicating with people, you know, the Americans.
Interviewer: And then shelling?
Lyles: Yeah, if necessary the people on the beach would direct the naval vessels where to fire and all that. Well, some of that took place but we never were involved in actual combat.
I was involved in I think…the only time I was afraid at sea my chief engineers told me, we were doing some operation and we were doing something like 32 knots going towards the beach, and they said if we don’t make a full right rudder in a few seconds, he said, we’re going to be dead. And at that same time the ship started turning. And they were doing what they called a fix. I don’t know all the particulars of it. That wasn’t my game. My game was to keep the ship moving.
Interviewer: So you never saw any Korea? You were always in the sea?
Lyles: We were always at sea.
Interviewer: And do you know what happened after the Korean War to Korea, South Korea. Do you know…
Lyles: I read a lot about it but it wasn’t my interest and I don’t remember too much.
Interviewer: But now. Now.
Lyles: Oh yeah, well, now.
Interviewer: Korea, Korean economy, Korean democracy. Have you heard about it? What do you know about the Korean economy now? Tell me.
Lyles: I know a little bit about it. It’s quite big now.
Interviewer: When were you in Korean Ocean? Was it 1951 or when were you in the Korean Ocean?
Lyles: I don’t remember. I was in the service serving from ’47 to ’68.
Interviewer: You must be in the Korean Sea around all the Korean War, right?
Lyles: Right. Absolutely.
Interviewer: How long were you there?
Lyles: Only about three months at a time, and then you go to ports.
Lyles: Yeah Japan, Philippines. I spent a lot of time in the Japanese ports. Yokosuka.
Interviewer: Any other message that you want to leave to this interview, about your role the Korean War?
Lyles: No, not really. I’m glad it’s over. You know. That’s about it.
Interviewer: Are you proud of your service?
Lyles: Of course. I’m a volunteer. I’m an American service man.
I had a piece of paper that I wanted you.. I wanted you to look at it. And it probably didn’t mean anything to you but I’m considered as a “4-0 sailor”.
Interviewer: What is it? Where is it?
Lyles: It’s in my paperwork. But that’s the evaluation you get from your higher-ups and I was getting the highest marks they would give. I was always congratulated on my uniform. I had a lot of pride in keeping it. That’s not too much but that’s part of it. They said, “Oh, man, you’re the full sailor right”.
So a lot of people that have good stories that they can covey simply because they were involved in combat. We were involved in combat but it’s on a different level. All of the things that we did was very essential but it wasn’t like fighting a battle. It was a part of the puzzle.
Interviewer: I know. Thank you, Clayborne. Thank you.