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Wednesday, December 1, 2021

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Gaty will be remembered at a wreath-laying ceremony set for 9:30 a.m. Friday, November 7 at the SDSU War Memorial.

Sacred Duty

An Aztec hero is rediscovered and honored for his service.
By Tobin Vaughn

Seventy years ago, all of San Diego was reading about the wartime exploits of Lieutenant Colonel Clinton Burbridge Gaty.

Under a page eight headline, “Air Commando’s Deeds in Burma Win Decoration,” the June 5, 1944 San Diego Union newspaper published a story chronicling how the former San Diego State University student had received the Air Medal for “meritorious achievement” for his heroics.

“Gaty,” the paper reported, “was cited for participating in a glider mission which delivered heavy engineering equipment to a point 150 miles behind the enemy’s lines after flying over a 7,000-foot range of mountains. Members of the mission were lauded for skillful piloting, and for working 12 hours after their arrival in constructing a landing strip for transport planes.”

The article said Gaty’s medal was announced by Major General George B. Stratemeyer, the American commanding general in Burma (now Myanmar). It also mentioned the lieutenant colonel had served two years in Washington D.C. in the air forces material command before going overseas in 1943.

Just a year and a half later, Gaty’s name was mentioned in the Union again in connection with recognition for his distinguished service; this time for being awarded honorary membership in the Order of the British Empire — posthumously.

Missing in action

According to the official War Department account from Army Air Forces Headquarters, after taking off from an air commando fighter squadron in India on February 26, 1945, Gaty’s plane was spotted circling near Bahlaing, Burma near where enemy Japanese fighter planes were seen. The colonel’s plane never returned from the mission and a two-day search failed to turn up any sign of his aircraft; he was reported missing in action and a month later declared to have been killed.

On Oct. 27 the name of Colonel Clinton B. Gaty became the 233rd etched in the granite of the SDSU War Memorial representing former SDSU students lost in service to their country. All will be officially remembered at a homecoming wreath-laying ceremony set for 9:30 a.m. Friday, November 7 at the memorial near the Conrad Prebys Aztec Student Union.

War Memorial Committee Chairman Col Martin Wojtysiak, USAF (ret.) says Gaty is a "cut and dried example" of someone who needed to be on the memorial.

The SDSU Alumni War Memorial Committee recently approved adding Gaty’s name to the monument based on research by Robert Fikes, Jr., a retired SDSU librarian. His report, “Supreme Sacrifice, Extraordinary Service; Profiles of SDSU Military Alumni,” is a frequently updated document offering details of the lives of Aztecs killed during wartime, including how and when they died.

"Everything I read about Col. Gaty in Mr. Fikes’ report indicated he had a pretty remarkable career,” said War Memorial Committee Chairman Col. Martin Wojtysiak, USAF (ret.). “It ended up being a very straightforward, cut and dried example of someone who needed to be on that memorial."

Well liked at the Pentagon

What Fikes’ research uncovered is that Gaty attended SDSU in 1928 when he was a member of Pi Delta Kappa fraternity and a star freshman on the tennis and swimming teams (specialty 50-yard freestyle and 50-yard backstroke). He played guard for the 1928 freshman football team and married fellow student and La Jolla resident Helen Grace on Jan. 1, 1929.

His connection to SDSU seems to end there, but in the ensuing years, his achievements as an inventor and aviator took off. In just five years, by 1933, he was a lieutenant in the Air Corps Reserve.

Gaty had a hand in introducing the first helicopter used in World War II, the Sikorsky R-4. He was also an inventor with a patent for a device designed to facilitate aerial photography called “film magazine shutter control.”

In a book titled “The Best of Times,” his niece, author Allene Gaty Hatch, provides a passage where her uncle is described as having a reputation for getting things done.  He was also reportedly well liked at the Pentagon where his invention was credited for saving military lives.

Making it right

In addition to his Air Medal, he was also awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart. “All the things he did, I think, is what we should celebrate and what we should recognize,” said Wojtysiak, who hopes Gaty’s name is the last that will ever need to be added to the monument.

Still, when a name is uncovered that belongs on the memorial, he is pleased that his committee can take the necessary steps to make certain that overlooked Aztecs are honored at last.

“We take that as a sacred duty,” he said. “It gives us a tremendous amount of satisfaction when we can make it right.”