Retired Air Force 1st Lt. John A. Clark, 98, says his generation was as enthralled with air travel as the current generation is with space travel.
During an interview, the World War II co-pilot recalled arriving at Las Vegas Army Airfield in Nevada in May 1944. He was there to familiarize himself with a four-engined bomber as a trainee co-pilot for the B-17. On his first night he was at the officers’ club when he spotted a woman in a military uniform with silver wings on her blouse.
“I had just arrived, but I thought I’d better take the chance to talk to her,” he recalls. “She told me her name was Marie [Mountain]; she was from Iowa and was a WASP [Women’s Airforce Service Pilot]. They trained just like the men, and she graduated with her wings about two months before me.
Marie said she flew fighters and performed mock attacks on the B-17 Flying Fortresses at the Flexible Artillery School. The gunners trained there and followed the fighters doing mock attacks, preparing for action over Germany. She also instructed instrument pilots during flight procedures training and she was a test pilot for aircraft in need of maintenance.
Marie was heading to the library to listen to a vinyl record of “La Mer” by French composer Claude Debussy. Clark recalls, “She looked at me and said, ‘You can come if you want. Of course, that was exactly my wish, so I put down my pen and followed her into the library. I ended up following her for the next 63 years. We had a long life together from that day until his passing in 2008.”
Clark said he completed advanced flight school in a very small twin-engine aircraft, which compared to the B-17 looked almost like a toy. “When I got on that plane in Las Vegas, I felt like I was sitting in the Grand Canyon – [and was] lots of clocks! This four-engined bomber had twice as many instruments and much more complicated operational switches than I had known before.
The next day he said he began “learning by doing” by participating in gunnery races, spending the next month learning to fly the B-17.
Clark quickly racked up 50 flight hours in the co-pilot’s seat of the B-17 before being sent to Lincoln, Nebraska. There he was assigned to a flight crew of 10 in which he would undergo 8th Air Force operational training before traveling overseas to fly missions.
After their training, the crews were sent to bases across the country. Clark’s crew was sent to Tennessee, where they flew with other B-17 Flying Fortresses for two months. In August 1944, they took a new plane and flew to New Hampshire before heading to England.
One rainy night, the crew arrived by train at Diss, England, where they were picked up by truck and taken to the 100th Bomb Group at Thorpe Abbotts, England.
“About two other crews were with us and we arrived around midnight. We were greeted by an officer who said, ‘Welcome to the Bloody Hundredth!’ »
The Bloody Hundredth’s legacy began when the 100th Bomb Group flew its first 8th Air Force combat mission during a bombing raid on the German submarine yards in Bremen on June 25, 1943. During that mission alone, they lost three planes and 30 men, according to the British museum dedicated to the group.
On several occasions the 100th BG lost a dozen or more aircraft in a single mission, as for the first six months it concentrated on German airfields, industries and naval installations in France and in Germany. When the 100th BG attacked Munster, Germany on October 10, 1943, only one B-17 made it back to England safe and sound.
Clark was assigned to the 418th Bomb Squadron, one of four squadrons there. In flight, the group usually consisted of 12 aircraft, although they sometimes added an extra one.
The base commander told the group that a 100th BG mission would consist of three squadrons, normally with 12 or 13 aircraft each. Several times the 8th Air Force mounted a maximum effort mission with four or five squadrons.
“Bloody Hundredth – Gather Together!”
Clark said the policy of the 100th BG was to have new aircrews fly three or four training missions because the circumstances in combat squadrons were very different from training. “First, we had to learn how to assemble; when we took off from our base in England in the morning[s]it was often in the dark and with ceilings around 50 or 100 feet, in freezing rain, fog or snow [and] with an often very slippery track. Two planes would line up on the runway; a plane took off before disappearing in the fog or the rain; then, about 30 seconds later, we were taking off.
“We had no clear and real idea where the other planes were, but luckily every time we flew, the plane in front of us successfully took off. As soon as we left the ground, we We would immediately take a heading, usually to the left, and fly it for a number of minutes,” Clark recalls.
Departing over the North Sea, Clark’s crew and other 100th BG B-17s followed the preceding aircraft as they held their combat formations. The airborne commander would allow the formation to loosen up as maintaining a tight formation at high altitudes with oxygen masks and other equipment was physically tiring.
“We loosened up a bit until we were flying over German-controlled territory, then we tightened up the formations and tried to get as close as possible to the plane we were taking off. This was done primarily so that the squadron’s gunners would be in a compact group of aircraft and could defend the 12-ship squadron with something like 150 .50 caliber machine guns,” Clark said.
Clark said the formations picked a fixed point in the path of the target and flew in close formation, as close to the plane beside them as possible. The main navigator confirmed that the sight was on the right target, and they went straight to it.
Clark said German pilots learned that approaching a “box” of 12 Flying Fortresses was very dangerous.
He credited the tight formations with forcing the German pilots to stop attacking the squadrons from the rear. Frontal attacks put the Germans at a disadvantage as they had three to five seconds before they were within range of the formation.
Put bombs on targets
“The Germans learned our procedure quickly, so [they] would place their anti-aircraft guns along our flight path. As our Colonel always reminded us, ‘Fly [in] training no matter what because the reason we’re here is to put bombs on the targets! »
The greatest danger of being hit was along the flight path, Clark said. The danger increased when “flak” from German anti-aircraft guns hit the plane. “I have always felt [that] if you could hear it, you were done for. Mostly when the flak was getting close [and] by scattering thousands of pieces of steel you would take a serious hit, which could lead to loss of engines and a fire – which was usually the most severe damage that would be inflicted,” he said.
feel the cold
One of his biggest concerns was staying warm at 30,000 feet when the outside air temperature was minus 60 to minus 70 degrees. On his fourth mission, Clark said he discovered the solution: a heated suit that plugged into an electrical outlet on the plane, providing heat all the way to his boots. But the solution came with a problem – he was so hot he was drenched in sweat. “I was wearing goggles to protect my eyes from the flak, and they were fogging up. The only thing I could do was hoist them on my helmet so I could see, because you can’t fly in close formation if you can’t see! he exclaimed.
Back at home
Clark returned home in April 1945 shortly before the end of the war in Europe on May 8. He and Marie were married in July.
Later, Clark taught mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan. He has also worked as a consultant for industrial companies.
At the 100th Bomb Group meeting in Dallas last fall, Clark shared stories from his time in the Air Force.
United by their love of flight, their story has stood the test of time and survived the vinyl record that brought them together.