Retired Air Force 1st Lt. John A. Clark, 98, says his generation was as captivated by air travel as the current generation is with space travel.
During an interview, the World War II co-pilot recalled arriving at the Las Vegas Army Airfield in Nevada in May 1944. He was there to become familiar with a four-engine bomber as a co-pilot trainee 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’d just arrived, but I thought I’d better grab the opportunity to talk to her,” he recalled. “She told me her name was Marie [Mountain]; she was from Iowa and was a WASP [Women’s Airforce Service Pilot]. They trained exactly as the men did, and she graduated with her wings about two months before I did.”
Marie said she flew fighters and performed mock attacks on the B-17 Flying Fortresses at the flexible gunnery school. Gunners trained there and tracked fighters making mock attacks, preparing themselves for action over Germany. She also instructed instrument pilots during flying procedure training, and she was a test pilot for aircraft in need of maintenance.
Marie was headed to the library to listen to a vinyl record of French composer Claude Debussy’s “La Mer.” Clark recalled, “She looked at me and said, ‘You may come if you wish’ 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 she passed away in 2008.”
Clark said he finished advanced flight school in a very small, two-engine airplane, which by comparison to the B-17 was almost like a toy. “When I got in that aircraft in Las Vegas, it felt like sitting in the Grand Canyon ó [and was] full of clocks! This four-engine bomber had twice as many instruments and much more complicated operational switches than those I had experienced before.”
The next day, he said he began “learning by just doing” by going out on gunner runs, spending the next month learning to fly the B-17.
Clark soon built up 50 hours of flying time in the co-pilot’s seat of the B-17 before being sent to Lincoln, Nebraska. There, he was assigned to a 10-person flight crew in which he would go through 8th Air Force operational training before heading overseas to fly missions.
After their training, crews were sent to bases around 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 picked up a new airplane and flew to New Hampshire before heading to England.
On a rainy night, the crew arrived by train in 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 told us, ‘Welcome to the Bloody Hundredth!'”
The Bloody Hundredth’s legacy began when the 100th Bomb Group flew its first 8th Air Force combat mission in a bombing raid on Germany’s Bremen U-boat yards on June 25, 1943. On that mission alone, they lost three planes and 30 men, according to the British museum dedicated to the group.
Several times, the 100th BG lost a dozen or more aircraft on a single mission, as, for the first six months, it focused on German airfields, industries and naval facilities in France and Germany. When the 100th BG raided Munster, Germany, on Oct. 10, 1943, only one B-17 returned safely to England.
Clark was assigned to the 418th Bomb Squadron, one of four squadrons there. In flight, the group was usually composed of 12 aircraft, though sometimes they added an extra one.
The base commander told the group that a 100th BG mission would be made up 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 — Assemble!”
Clark said the policy of the 100th BG was to have new crews fly three or four practice missions because circumstances in combat squadrons were very different from training. “Firstly, 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 of about 50- or 100-feet, in freezing rain, fog or snow [and] with a runway that was often very slippery. Two aircraft would line up on the runway; one aircraft would take off before disappearing into the fog or rain; then, about 30 seconds later, we would take off.
“We had no real, clear idea of where the other aircraft were, but, fortunately, every time we flew, the aircraft ahead of us made a successful takeoff. As soon as we left the ground, we would immediately take up a heading, usually to the left, and fly that for a specified number of minutes,” Clark recalled.
Heading out 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 because maintaining a tight formation at high altitude with oxygen masks and other equipment was physically tiring.
“We would loosen up a bit until we got over German-controlled territory, then we’d tighten up the formations and try to get as close as we could to the aircraft we were flying off. That was done primarily so the gunners in the squadron would be in a compact group of aircraft and would be able to defend the squadron of 12 ships with something like 150 .50-caliber machine guns,” said Clark.
Clark said the formations picked a fixed point on the way to the target and flew in tight formation, as close as practical to the aircraft next to them. The lead navigator would confirm the bombsight was on the right target, and they went straight to it.
Clark said German pilots learned that coming close to a “box” of 12 Flying Fortresses was very hazardous.
He attributed the tight formations with forcing German pilots to stop attacking squadrons from the rear. Head-on attacks put the Germans at a disadvantage because they had three to five seconds before being within range of the formation.
Putting Bombs on Targets
“The Germans learned our procedure quickly, so [they] would place their antiaircraft guns along our flight path. As our colonel used to remind us all the time, ‘Fly [in] a formation 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 Germany’s antiaircraft guns hit the aircraft. “I always felt [that] if you could hear it, you were a goner. Most of the time when the flak was coming close [and] scattering thousands of bits of steel, you’d get a serious hit, which could cause a loss of engines and fire ó which was usually the most serious damage that would be inflicted,” he said.
Feeling the Cold
One of his biggest concerns was keeping warm at 30,000 feet when the outside air temperature was minus 60 to minus 70 degrees. By his fourth mission, Clark said he had discovered the solution: a heated suit that plugged into an electric socket in the aircraft, providing warmth down to his boots. But the solution came with a problem ó he got so hot he was drenched in perspiration. “I wore goggles to protect my eyes from flak, and they would fog up. The only thing I could do was raise them up on my helmet so I could see, as you can’t fly in tight formation if you can’t see!” he exclaimed.
Clark returned home in April 1945 shortly before the war in Europe ended on May 8. He and Marie married in July.
Later, Clark taught mechanical engineering at University of Michigan. He also worked as a consultant for industrial companies.
At the 100th Bomb Group reunion in Dallas last fall, Clark shared stories of his time in the Air Force.
United by their love of flying, theirs was a story that withstood the test of time and outlasted the vinyl record that brought them together.