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The 36th Mission
He spent his tour of duty bombing German cities and made it home only to discover he could never leave the war behind him. Then, a lifetime later, he found a way to make peace.
May/June 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 3
In 1981 I started having heart attacks. They forced me to think about my life and my mortality, which so depressed me that I ended up in the hospital with suicidal thoughts and a problem of alcohol abuse. I talked to psychiatrists and stole a peek at my records. Their verdict: schizophrenia. I read up on it and found out it was sometimes incurable. This frightened me further, and I became desperate to understand why I had been hurting my wife and myself. When I asked one of the psychiatrists, he told me that I might have been holding too much inside me for too long and that perhaps I should join a group of other veterans who were having similar problems.
I did, and during one of the meetings I broke down and blurted out things I never thought I’d say. I was so embarrassed afterward that I never returned to that group or those doctors.
But I began thinking more and more about how I wanted to tell my story. I figured by this point I had nothing to lose.
Early in the morning on May 16, 1987, half-asleep, I wrote an open apology to all the cities I had bombed. I wanted the people to know how I felt about what I had had to do during the war. Just writing the letter made me feel better, but it was not intended merely to unburden my conscience. I wanted it to get there on Memorial Day so that the Germans could understand what kind of people Americans are. I requested a response from someone, anyone, just so I’d know my letter had arrived. I never thought anything would come of it. This is what I wrote:
To the People Who Live in [City], Germany:
An open apology for having participated in the bombing of your city on [date].
As we are told as soldiers on either side to perform our duties, it does not mean we cannot feel that part that others must play.
Having participated in thirty-five missions as a gunner and toggler, the thought has always been with me that those on the ground, the innocent and the guilty, were one and the same in war.
Surely now we should understand that men who have malice in their hearts are not to be taken lightly. This is true on this side also. Whatever we do in life we must all be careful not to follow blindly. We must consider that humans are far from perfect and therefore make many mistakes in dealing with one another.
In the month of May in the United States we observe Memorial Day, as I am sure you do in Germany. This should also be the time for forgiveness of past wrongs. Please again accept my heartfelt apology.
Thank you. Sincerely, Frank Clark
For my own peace of mind, would you have someone reply to my letter.”
I had no idea to whom to send the letters. I simply addressed them “To the Public Officials” of each city. I asked my local postmaster whether this would work. He said just to send them and find out.
Seven letters were returned unopened; I must have sent some to East Germany, not realizing the difference.
But then letters from Germany began to arrive. The first ones I received were from Alfons Müller, mayor of Wesseling, and from the office of the minister president of Schleswig-Holstein. Soon they began to arrive not only from city officials but from German citizens all over the country. My letter had been picked up by newspapers across Germany. Here are some of the letters as I first read them.
FROM THE MAYOR OF THE CITY OF WESSELING TO MR. FRANK CLARK , FT. ATKINSON
June 22, 1987
Dear Mr. Clark:
I have received your letter of May 16, 1987, and certainly appreciate your concern over the actions you had to take in the war year of 1944.
I was a little boy then and personally experienced the terrible bombings in those war years. Those were sad times, but today I am aware that soldiers on both sides acted on orders. There is cause for forgiveness on both sides, and today we only regret that so many innocent people had to sacrifice life and health in those terrible events in the war.
Based on this realization, we now should act and make sure that there never will be another war. I think this is the best conclusion to be drawn from those terrible events. . . .
I do accept your apology in the name of the citizens of Wesseling, and we have not forgotten what happened in the war—but we have forgiven. Together we should work toward peace. Perhaps you will have the opportunity to visit Wesseling someday. I would be very happy if you could. You would then be our guest.
Yours sincerely, Alfons Müller (Mayor of Wesseling)