ONEONTA – Word has been received of Oneonta native and career Air Force officer Clifford Roger Silliman, recipient of the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, and survivor of a harrowing air crash at sea during World War II, has died at his home on the Pacific Coast, two and a half weeks shy of his 98th birthday.
The news of his passing was delayed due to the remoteness of his location from Oneonta, his advancing age and infirmity, and the passing of most of his contemporaries. Roger, as he was known to his childhood friends and immediate family, passed away on Jan. 28, 2018, in the beachside community of Lompoc, Calif.
He was born on Feb. 15, 1920, the eldest of three children. His parents, Clifford and Velma (Beach) Silliman, and his wife, Bernadette, preceded him in death. Silliman was the last surviving member of the L. Fieg, Builder construction crew in Oneonta.
His father, Clifford, for decades operated a filling station and auto repair business in the 400 block of Main Street in Oneonta. It was there that the younger Silliman, teaming with another adolescent, Lothar “Bud” Fieg, opened a shop where they produced, serviced and sold complete bicycles assembled wholly from metal tubing, salvage and various mechanical parts.
This skill presaged Silliman’s mechanical aptitude later in life. He received Bachelors Degrees in both aeronautical and civil engineering, and enjoyed a thirty-three year career in the military and the aerospace industry.
During World War II, Silliman saw action in the military theatres of Western Europe and in the Balkans. He was also a veteran of the Army Air Corps’ North African campaign, engaged in vanquishing German and Italian units under the command of Nazi Field Marshall Erwin Rommel. Silliman was the executive officer for the P-38 fighter maintenance depot there.
En route to take this position, Silliman and the crew of the C-46 on which he was a passenger narrowly escaped with their lives when the plane developed difficulties in a storm over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Gibraltar.
The pilot had declared that all aboard should parachute to supposed safety, but Silliman, as senior officer aboard, was able to persuade him that this would be foolhardy, and possibly suicidal, especially as it was night time, and that because the aircraft was well-built and very sturdy, it would remain intact on splashdown. After the plane hit the water, the crew launched an inflatable raft, drifting for many hours before being rescued. Silliman called it the worst experience of his life.
In the 1950s, Silliman was in charge of directing the multi-million dollar design and construction of the Far East Air Force Base on Guam. From 1957 to 1961, he was responsible for the development, construction, testing and acquisition of the ground segment of the hardened Titan ballistic missile system.
Colonel Silliman topped his career in the mid-1960s as Chief, Technical Requirements and Standards Office, Space and Missile Systems Organization. The Legion of Merit Award marks his exceptional service.
Roger and Bernadette finally retired to a life of travel to sunny southern climes and hiking in the Rockies, until her death in 2002.
Silliman was likely among the few remaining, perhaps one of even the last two, from the Oneonta High School Class of 1937, along with former mayor Albert S. “Sam” Nader.
Silliman was nothing if not an exceptionally amiable friend and acquaintance to all who knew him, offering a snappy salute, a ready smile and a meaty handshake.
“I remember Roger as being a very nice guy,” recalled Nader.
Clifford Roger Silliman’s survivors include Bernadette’s son, Barry Welker (Lynn), his nephews George Sidney Silliman (Rachel); Bruce Silliman (Michiko); David Silliman (Saundra) and his niece Wendy Silliman Creel (Richard). Donations in his name may be made to Lompoc Meals-on Wheels.