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Clyde Isbell


Clyde Isbell

Clyde Isbell was born June 22, 1926, and grew up in Navasota, Texas, near Bryan. He spent his first three years of high school at Navasota, transferred for his senior year to Ball High School in Galveston and dropped out after six weeks there to work for an insurance company as a “general handy boy, run the mailroom, go get Cokes — just a gopher.” His parents didn’t say much about his dropping out.

Ball High School, Galveston, Texas, circa 1900 (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

His father, the chief electrician at Todd Shipyards in Galveston, tried to persuade Clyde to go into the Coast Guard. He knew a Coast Guard admiral and had hopes of getting his son assigned to a Coast Guard facility in Galveston, but Clyde wanted to be in the Navy. He enlisted December 19, 1942, at the age of 16. The fact that that was below the minimum enlistment age was no problem. He lied about his age and his father signed papers attesting to it.

The Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island circa 1939. View is from Yerba Buena Island, looking roughly north.

The Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island circa 1939. View is from Yerba Buena Island, looking roughly north.

His naval career began with ten weeks in San Diego — six weeks of basic training, then four of sound school at a destroyer base, where among his classmates was his future shipmate Nathan Turner of Houston. Isbell graduated as a sonarman 3rd class and was assigned, along with Turner, to the Macaw. While the ship was being fitted out in Oakland, he stayed in a building constructed for the Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939-40 on Treasure Island, dated a girl from Alameda and spliced cables at Moore Drydock, the shipyard where the Macaw was built. He was assigned once during that time to shore patrol, keeping tabs on off-duty sailors in a bar district in San Francisco. He had the good fortune not to be given KP duty.

The sonar room on the Macaw was just below the bridge. A shift was four hours long. The men on a given shift would rotate tasks at thirty-minute intervals to stay fresh: thirty minutes on sonar duty, thirty minutes on search light, thirty minutes on radar, etc.


Dean Frederick Jewell

Among his friends on the Macaw was Dean Frederick Jewell, a cook he used to go out drinking with at Pearl Harbor. The drinking age there was 21. Isbell had a phony ID and never had any trouble using it there. Afterward they would go back to the ship and make themselves steak and eggs in the galley.

Isbell devoted most of his free time aboard the ship to reading science fiction, a taste he inherited from his father. He got books out of the Macaw library. Other pastimes included talking and playing cards — poker, blackjack, pinochle. He once won $1,500 in a poker game.

He was seasick just once, when assigned the task of painting the bilges in the sound room. It was not a pleasant task, but “They give you a job to do, you do it.” The compartment was clean and dry, and the job took him only about two hours, but the smell of the paint and the motion of the ship made him sick. It was years before he could smell paint without throwing up.

Fathometer filter (Photo courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Photo Library)

Fathometer filter (Photo courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Photo Library)

Isbell was taking a fathometer reading some distance behind the bow when the Macaw ran aground. He thought the ship was in sixteen feet of water at the time, but, he noted 58 years later, you could get a reading of sixteen feet behind the bow and have nothing under the bow itself. He said (perhaps not entirely jokingly) that, having reported that depth just moments before the grounding, he figured later that he had sunk the ship.

Isbell’s father and the older of his two brothers were both in the Merchant Marine during the war. The senior Isbell heard of the Macaw’s sinking through Merchant Marine connections within two weeks. He quit the merchant marine after his ship sank in the invasion of Normandy. “He got out,” Clyde said. “He said it was too cold for an old man like him to go swimming.”

After the Macaw ran aground, Isbell operated a crane unloading ships at the naval base at Midway. One day he dropped a 500-pound bomb from a height of about forty feet. It was unarmed, he said, but the people standing by below either didn’t know that or weren’t disposed to assume it. “You shoulda seen ’em clear the dock,” he said.


A chandelier at the Royal Hawaiian

Isbell got a new issue of clothes and one week of R&R at the Royal Hawaiian at Pearl Harbor after the Macaw sank. The sign on the door of his room at the hotel gave a price of $40 a day. “Back then $40 was a lot of money.” They would get breakfast, walk on Waikiki Beach. There were quite a few women there — nurses, native Hawaiians, etc. — but he was shy and didn’t “get around” too much.

He worked in the sound/radio shop at Pearl Harbor for about three months after Midway, taking hydrophone readings of submarines to help pinpoint noise sources. “I worked on just about every sub we had in the Pacific,” checking them for sound. Sub skippers were pleasant enough to deal with. “They had to get along with you pretty good or you could lie to ’em” about noise problems.


USS Fulton (AS-11)

From Pearl Harbor, he was assigned to the Fulton, a sub tender, AS-11, which operated much of the time behind enemy lines and on which the men slept in bunks stacked five high.

He mustered out of Navy in 1946 after three years, nine months and eight days.

He was discharged at Houston. He went to work for his father at an electrical shop in Navasota, then read light meters for Gulf State Utility. Having tired of that, he went to Houston and lined up a job with Southwestern Bell, but he slept late on what was to have been his first day, so he went to a recruiting office instead. An Air Force recruiter was on the ground floor, a Navy recruiter on the second floor. “I didn’t feel like walking up the stairs,” he said, so he went into the Air Force. “I always go with the flow.” He saw action in Korea. Occasionally an enemy plane would fly over his base and drop a few bombs. He ran a movie theater in the Air Force, serving as projectionist and manager. He ran a Px in Alaska.


Red dot marks the location of Iola, Texas. (Map courtesy of Acntx at en.wikipedia.)

His wife, n. Alice Yeager, grew up in Iola, Texas, near Navasota. They met at a Sunday school picnic. She was 17 when they met, 18 when they got married in 1950. She was one of eight kids. One brother, E.F. Yeager, was a paratrooper who died in Europe when he was deployed behind enemy lines by mistake. They never opened the casket when he was sent home.

Alice doesn’t know where her father came from — his background remains a mystery. Clyde’s great-great-grandfather was from England. He died before he got to Texas. His wife ended up there.

Clyde got a pilot license after the war and practiced in a T6, a military trainer. “I was doin’ rolls, spins … havin’ a ball.”

White Sands

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico (Photo courtesy of

He was stationed for a while at Almaden Air Force Base near San Jose, and near White Sands/Alamagorda, New Mexico, where their children (they had five: Kathy, Yvonne, Sherry, Bubba, or Clyde Jr., and Peggy) thought nothing of playing amid snakes and tarantulas.

Clyde retired from the Air Force in 1964, then worked for the Post Office from 1964 to 1989 as a computer technician and did some electrical wiring on the side.

After retiring from Post Office, he went to night school on the GI Bill and earned an associate degree in general physics from Austin Community College — a degree he never used. He said later he should have studied computers instead.


Custer, South Dakota, Aug 2003 (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

He and Alice toured the US by motorcycle. He had a Honda motorcycle. He taught motorcycle safety. He was in five motorcycle wrecks. Once he was hit by a Chevy Blazer: “Biggest Blazer I ever saw, big as a Greyhound bus.” In Custer, South Dakota, circa 1991-92, his trailer wheel bearing froze up. He and Alice rolled three times. Alice was hospitalized. They were both wearing helmets. Hers was badly damaged. If she hadn’t been wearing it, she would likely have been killed. Clyde sold his bike in 2000 or thereabouts but retained his membership in the Austin Roadrunners motorcycle club.

Clyde contracted Parkinson’s Disease. He broke a hip in February 2002. Two months later, he expressed impatience with his medical condition and said he hoped to straighten it out soon. He was never quite able to do that. He died on June 21, 2006, having just invited Alice to climb into bed with him. She demurred on grounds of seemliness. He assured her that no one would know, closed his eyes and slipped away, two hours and fifteen minutes shy of his eightieth birthday.