The 36th Mission

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My story begins in 1925. I was the youngest of nine children born to Frank and Leata Clark, factory workers in southern Wisconsin who were hit hard by the Depression. My father died when I was thirteen. In October 1943, as soon as I turned eighteen, I enlisted in the Army as a private, hoping to become a fighter pilot.

I soon found out that the Army Air Corps already had plenty of fighter pilots. I would have to choose among the paratroops, the infantry, and aerial gunnery. The prospect of jumping out of an airplane for any reason ranked as low with me as walking through the mud of the world as an infantryman. I made my choice.

I went to gunnery school in Las Vegas, Nevada, and after what seemed a short time, the crew I trained with was assigned an airplane. We picked up our B-17 bomber at Hunter Field, Georgia; proceeded to Bangor, Maine, then to Goose Bay, Labrador, and on to Valley, Wales, in the British Isles; and then joined the 8th Air Force, 379th Bombardment Group, 524th Squadron at Kimbolton, England.

The B-17 was built to fly high and fast and required ten crew members: two pilots, a bombardier/nose gunner, a navigator/nose gunner, a radio operator/gunner, a flight engineer/upper-turret gunner, a ball-turret gunner, two waist gunners, and a tail gunner.

From my diary: “October 5, 1944. Well, today was our first mission. We were all plenty scared and exhausted until we got into the air. Our target was the big Henry Ford plant at Cologne, Germany. We couldn’t see the results of our bombing because of cloud cover. The flak was really heavy and very accurate. We had thirteen holes in the wings and fuselage when we got back. The bombardier was hit by a piece of flak, but because he was wearing a flak suit, he was just knocked to the floor.”

I was in the ball turret, the revolving upside-down dome underneath the plane. It was operated by hydraulics but could be cranked up by hand by someone in the plane if hydraulic pressure was lost. One requirement of a ball-turret gunner was that he should be small. And although I was small, a flak suit or a parachute wouldn’t fit inside the turret along with me, so I had to take my chances. But mine was not the worst position on the ship, and it didn’t bother me at the time. Actually there weren’t any very good positions on the plane. War does not discriminate. We were just like the people on the ground when the bombs dropped.

A mission began with a briefing session. We were told where the target was, whether we could expect enemy fighters, and how many flak guns there were around the target area. Most of the time during the briefing we wondered: Will I survive? Will the plane blow up? What happens if this happens? What happens if that happens? Will this be the end? Although the crew was a unit, a team, its members talked to themselves so no one else could hear that they were afraid. Fear isolated each of us.

When we were finally airborne, a sigh of relief ran through the crew. The critical part of the journey was over once the plane struggled off the ground with its full load of gas and bombs. Anything could happen during takeoff.

The view was fantastic as we circled over England, waiting to join a fighter squadron; they say fliers were the only people who could see the sun over England. By the time twenty-four planes formed into a squadron and headed for the target, ages had already seemed to pass.

Most of the time during the briefing we wondered: Will I survive? Fear isolated each of us.

As the German target drew near, we first saw only a few puffs of black smoke, then more and more, the close ones jarring the plane. I would sit sweating even though the temperature outside my heated suit was twenty or more degrees below zero.

Finally we reached the target and dropped the bombs. Another sigh of relief, but the danger was far from over. The only welcome sight of the mission was the white cliffs of Dover as we passed over the coast of England on our way back to Kimbolton. Once the plane touched down, our hearts finally slowed with the slowing of the engines.

On the ground we had time to talk, time to think, and time to wonder what would happen next. We didn’t talk much in the air, at least not to anyone, just at them, on the intercom, only when necessary. Now that we had time for conversations and could hear one another, we couldn’t think of anything to say. No one wanted to look or act stupid, although I knew I did anyway. I wondered if everyone felt that way.

Now we could take time to preen ourselves: shower, shave, comb our hair, and get our clothes ready for a possible pass to town.

Our first time out on a pass no one wanted to go alone because we were shy and felt there was safety in numbers. Naturally the first place we all headed was a pub, and we were welcomed. Going to town was fun, though we also felt sad and lonely and disoriented so far from home, knowing only other soldiers. But the English were hospitable and tried hard to make us feel comfortable.