Donald C. Clark
596th Bomb Squadron, 397th Bomb Group
|22 June 2009
Verbal recollections recounted by Donald C. Clark, Sr. to Donald C. Clark, Jr. The information that follows is based on notes taken by Don Jr. during a 3 hour discussion period. The primary discussion topic was the different locations where DC, Sr. was stationed, and the route he took when ferrying his aircraft overseas. It has been assembled in more or less chronological order. In some cases, his recollections are augmented with information obtained from various websites on the internet.
Dad volunteers for military duty in the United States Army Air Force during February 1942. At the time, so many men are entering the armed forces that it takes several months before he is called for active duty. His official date of entry is 27 May 1942.
Dad boards a train in Miami and travels non-stop directly to Nashville. The train has been apparently hobbled together from old passenger cars, some of them looked as if they could be late 19th or early 20th century vintage. They have a lot of wood construction in them and are dirty from lots of use over a long period of time.
The engine must be steam powered, fueled with soft coal as it belches thick black smoke. This is most noticeable as they arrive at the train station in Nashville. The station has a cover over it so that the thick black smoke cloud hangs low as he exits the train. Memories of Nashville are dominated by images of the black smoke at the station and hanging low in the valley where ____ Field is located just a few miles from Nashville. The pot-bellied stoves used to heat the barracks are also fueled by soft coal, it seems to be everywhere. It is cold, wet, muddy, and gray. Dad doesn’t think much of Nashville, Tennessee!
Men from towns and cities as far away as Jacksonville and Key West assembled in Miami to take the train to Nashville. The train is full from the start so it is able to make the trip non-stop to Nashville. This first stop in the journey that Dad makes is a classification center. The main purpose is to determine basic aptitude for becoming pilots, navigators, or bombardiers.
Uniforms are handed out here in Nashville, physicals performed, and shots administered. The length of time in Nashville is 2 to 3 months. During this time, Dad performs a couple of weeks each of guard duty, KP duty, including garbage detail, and other tasks no doubt designed to weed out those who might buck the system or have problems with authority. Basic marching and drill instruction is also part of the routine.
Other than the dismal weather and countryside, this phase of the journey seems relatively uneventful other than that described here.
The next stop on Dad’s journey is Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base near Montgomery, Alabama. It was formerly known as Wright Field, in use originally as the site of the first commercial air field in the US. In 1910, the Wright Brothers leased the field for flight training and demonstrations, including night flights over Montgomery. In 1918, the military leases Wright Field and establishes the first Air Corps Tactical School, establishing the roots Air Power Doctrine. Beginning in 1940, now known as Maxwell, trains 10,000 pilots, navigators, and bombardiers for WWII. (http://www.au.af.mil/au/)
This is a storied place and is all “spit and polish”. This location has upper and lower classmen and is where Dad officially becomes an Air Cadet. Here he learns serious military protocol, discipline, formation marching, and pre-flight training, including navigation. Strict dress code is the order of the day, and cadets must eat “square” meals and perform other detail tasks under the watchful eyes of the upperclassmen.
After a couple of months, it is on to Dorr Field in Arcadia Florida. This is a cut-grass air field. Here Dad and the other cadets begin actual flight training. During the mornings, they have classroom instruction in basic flying, including navigation and instrumentation. In the afternoons, they get flight training in what seems to be one Dad’s favorite planes, the P17 Kaydet III. This is a single-engine Stearman biplane with about 220 horse power rating. It is highly maneuverable, including aerobatics, some of which are part of the training. The flying instructors are mostly British.
During the time here, each pilot is allowed to select the type of plane that they want to eventually be assigned to. Dad chooses “twin-engine” as his preferred type. His reasoning is that with two engines you have a better chance of making it back. He reasons it would likely be a fighter, specifically the P38.
The young pilots must master solo landings and takeoffs within the first 8 hours of flight time in the P-17s. Throughout this, and all the flight training he receives, the training seems to progress in 20 hour stages. After each 20 hours of flight time training, the pilots must pass a proficiency test or “check-out” flight. After 60 hours of primary flight training during 60 to 90 days at Dorr Field it was on to the next stop.
Up next was Bainbridge AAF near Bainbridge, Georgia, for advanced single-engine flight training. There the guys train in Vultee BT-13 aircraft, which becomes known as Vultee Vibrators. The nickname stems from the tremendous vibration the planes exhibit during a vertical stall maneuver. Another 60 hours of training during the 2 to 3 months stationed here and it’s on to Valdosta and twin engine training.
Advanced Flight Training in Beech AT-10 twin-engine aircraft is conducted at Moody Army Airfield near Valdosta, Georgia. Dad describes this plane as made of light-weight plywood. It is powered by two Lycoming R-680-9 radials of 295 hp each. Dad seems to thrive here, eventually finishing 2nd on the entire base in physical fitness. This gets him some recognition and he eventually becomes a squad leader calling marching orders to other cadets.
Another 60 hours of training is accomplished here in Valdosta and this is where the Cadets graduate. Dad earns his wings and is now a 2nd Lieutenant in the AAF on 1 October 1943.
The next step for Dad is where things take a bit of different turn from the norm. After Advanced Flight Training, the standard procedure at the time is to proceed to Transition Training in the actual type of aircraft one is permanently assigned.
|In Dad’s case, he is assigned to fly Martin B-26 Marauders. However,
due to the particular timing of his graduation, there is a critical need
for co-pilots to fly with the previous group of pilots who completed B-26
Therefore, Dad is assigned directly to MacDill AAF in Tampa, FL the first official station of the 596th Bombardment Squadron of the 397th Bombardment Group of 9th Air Force. This is the place where the B-26 earned its famous nicknames:
The Widow Maker
One A Day In Tampa Bay (during a particularly bad training period in 1942 many accidents happened on takeoff and landing)
The Flying Prostitute (no visible means of support due to its short wing span)
The Baltimore Whore (planes are originally built near Baltimore)
The Flying Vagrant
The Wingless Wonder
The Flying Coffin
The Coffin Without Handles
In the early days of the development of the B-26, the intent was to use it for strafing and dive bombing in support of ground troops. The plane was fast and maneuverable for its size. However, it could be tricky to fly due to its high stall speed unless the flight crew was adequately trained. During its first combat deployment in the Pacific during 1942, the loss rate was so high that the military almost canceled the contract.
A Congressional committee headed by then Senator Harry S. Truman narrowly approves continuing the B-26 production program. Interestingly, Major James Doolittle is assigned to test and evaluate the B-26 and was instrumental in determining there is nothing inherently wrong with the aircraft. Several minor design changes are made and the program continues.
Much of Dad’s training at MacDill Field and Avon Park Bombing Range involve low level flying for strafing and dive bombing. By the time this group is actually deployed in combat, their primary mission is low-level precision (visual) bombing at 10,000 to 12,000 feet. Many combat missions are carried out at much lower altitudes.
While the stay in the Tampa area was brief by comparison, a couple of weeks, they fly some exercises over ground troops along the Gulf Coast who are training for amphibious assaults. During one such exercise, some of the barges the troops are aboard capsize. Dad and his fellow trainees fly search and rescue to aid in locating troops in the water.
The stay in Avon Park is equally brief. It is a good thing too, as Dad suffers asthma-like symptoms from the ground being stirred up in the area. He notes that as a kid he suffered from asthma until about the age of 16. The symptoms were always worst when the Everglades were burning or stirred up at certain times of the year.
The longest period of pre-deployment training takes place at Hunter Field near Savannah, Georgia. The stay here is about 6 months. Here Dad learns formation assembly and flying. They practice straight and level, formation turning, night flying with search lights pointing up at them. They practice low level flying over the coastal islands so low that grass and debris is thrown into the air as they pass over.
They practice cross-country flying, including a trip to Indianapolis where they spent about a week participating in a huge mock battle with thousands of ground troops. Another trip was to Eglin AAF near Ft. Walton Beach, Florida. Towards the end of their time at Hunter Field, new B-26 aircraft are delivered from the factory. They spend their remaining time here recording accurate data on fuel consumption and handling characteristics on the actual planes they will ferry to England in the coming days.
It is now April 1944 and it is time for crews to be assigned and deploy to England. The decision to establish this Bombardment Group, and hundreds like it, is in direct support of the planned invasion of Europe. Dad is assigned to a crew with Captain Robert A. Broan as pilot of what becomes known as the “Bad Penny”. A crew of 4, including Dad, Captain Broan, a navigator and flight engineer begin the journey overseas.
The trip begins by leaving Savannah and heading to Morrison Army Airfield near West Palm Beach, Florida. There, the planes receive their final check prior to leaving the US mainland. Next stop is Borinquen Field, Puerto Rico. The next morning it is off to Belem Field in Belem, Brazil. The next day they land at Parnamirim Field, Natal, Brazil.
The hop is particularly unforgiving from Natal to Wideawake Field on tiny Ascension Island in the middle of the southern Atlantic Ocean. Your navigation better be precise or you’re swimming with the fishies. The motto among fliers is “If you should miss Ascension, your wife will get a pension.” By dad’s account, the trip is not particularly eventful. One night on Ascension is enough, then it is on to Accra on the Gold Coast of Africa.
The next stop along the trail is Dakar on the western-most tip of Africa. From there it is the harrowing trip through the Taza Pass of the Atlas Mountains in North Africa and landing in Marrakech, French Morocco. The next leg of the trip after Marrakech is a little tricky. Because Portugal and Spain are neutral in the war, flying through their airspace is prohibited. This requires a much longer route over water to England. Therefore, favorable tail winds are required in order for the planes to make it on the fuel they can carry.
After of couple of days in Marrakech waiting for favorable weather, planes and men begin backing up quickly. Finally, the winds shift and it’s off to the next stop at Newquay, England. Only one night here and its arrival time at their final stop in the trans-Atlantic journey at Rivenhall AAF near Chelmsford, England. The trip takes more than 10 days as they travel over 10,000 miles. Rivenhall is where the men fly their first combat missions from.
|The official records state that the 397th BG is assigned to Rivenhall
AAF effective on 15 April 1944. The first combat missions take place on 20
April 1944, exactly one year after the Group is activated at MacDill
Field, Florida. Over the next 30 to 45 days, Dad averages 2 or 3 combat
missions per week targeting bridges in northern France. Soon after combat
missions begin, V2 flying bomb sites are discovered and these become their
primary targets. By the end of May, some 103 of the original flying bomb
sites are destroyed.
After his first 5 combat missions, Dad is promoted to 1st Lieutenant . While stationed at Rivenhall, Dad also takes advantage of the opportunity to work with Captain Broan to get flying time in the pilot’s seat. Dad gets proficient as a pilot through this extra work. He also gets lots of time at the controls during combat missions too. As it turns out, they often fly in the number 3 formation position, which means the co-pilot has the best view of the lead aircraft. Since they fly about 8’ apart from wing tip to wing tip, the co-pilot gets lots of action. Before leaving Rivenhall, Dad conducts his “check” flight with Captain Bob Evans, and Dad leaves Rivenhall qualified as a pilot.
Near the end of May 1944, the 397th BG moves to the southern coast of England at Hurn Field near Bournemouth, England. From here, they fly several missions targeting roads and bridges south of the Normandy beaches. This is a prelude to the Normandy invasion.
Around midnight on 6 June 1944, the 397th BG receives their final briefing before departing for Normandy. Their combat mission is to provide close air support for the troops landing at Utah beach. Dad was fortunate enough to be called upon for the first wave of B-26 flights from the 397th BG scheduled on D-Day.
As daylight broke, the airmen could see the thousands of ships crossing the English Chanel. They were so thick Dad says it looks almost like you could walk from ship to ship.
The close proximity of the ground troops landing on the beaches just as they drop their ordinance requires visual bombing only. The weather that day requires some as low as 5,000 feet, well within the limits of small arms fire. By all accounts, the tactics of B-26 crews flying low and parallel to the beaches yields the most significant destruction of enemy ground forces facing the landing force. Utah is the most successful of all the landing forces on D-Day. Other beachheads, particularly Omaha, are not so fortunate.
At the time of D-Day, Dad has flown about 30 combat missions. For a couple of weeks following D-Day, Dad flies several more combat missions per week from Hurn Airfield targeting bridges and other installations in support of the advancing ground forces. Dad also flies combat missions as co-pilot with a few other pilots. This includes a combat mission as co-pilot for Col. Richard T. Coiner, Jr., Commander of the 397the Bombardment Group. Dad is glad he doesn’t do that very often as the Colonel seems a little rusty!
On one of these post D-Day combat missions from England, Dad’s plane is hit by anti-aircraft fire and loses one engine. The crew knows of a temporary fighter field recently established near the Normandy beachhead since the invasion. They decide this is their best bet to save crew and equipment so they make it there on the one engine.
Fortunately for the B-26 crew, the P-47 Thunderbolt uses the same Pratt and Whitney engine as the B-26. It takes 4 or 5 days, but the fighter ground crew successfully transplants the engine from a damaged P-47 into the B-26. Dad and his crew return to Hurn Field a few days later than expected and the others in the squadron are surprised and glad to see them.
Within a couple of weeks following D-Day, the 397th moves to a temporary airfield known as A-26 Gorges France. It doesn’t take long and the metal mats laid down for the temporary runway are causing so much damage to the tires that they must move again soon. The weight of the B-26s and their ordinances are too much for the mats on the soft and soggy turf. There are not enough tires to keep the planes supplied.
The next stop is A-41 near Dreux, France. The primary objective during the time in Dreux is providing air support for ground forces liberating St. Lo, France. St. Lo is the major crossroads leading into and out of the Cotentin Peninsula, also known as the Cherbourg Peninsula. This is the main route ground troops landing at Utah Beach must take into mainland France.
The battle for St. Lo begins on 3 July 1944, continuing on for the next few days with fierce hedgerow fighting. In preparation for this great decisive battle, the 30th Infantry Division was assigned the formidable task of taking the high ground, a ridge, just to the west of St. Lo. This was accomplished by 20 July 1944, and thus denied the Germans of their prime observation positions overlooking St. Lo.
Dad’s next stop is his longest deployment location in France. The 397th moves to A-72 5 miles southeast of Perrone, France sometime in August 1944. Perrone is about 65 miles north-northeast of Paris and only about 30 miles from the Belgium border. Now supporting the third, the first, and the ninth armies, the group had reached a point where it was well within reach of the battle lines, and the ground situation at the base was more permanent. The front lines of the ground offensive are only a few miles away and incursions by German patrols are not uncommon. While stationed here the men are ordered not to leave the barracks alone and always carry their side arms with them.
Excerpt from Historical Report of Headquarters Detachment, 397th Bombardment Group (M):
“For the month of December, the 397th Bombardment Group remained at A-72, Mons En Chaussee, France. The usual operational activity for the month was limited considerably by weather, with the Germans taking advantage of this change in climate to launch a strong counter-offensive in the 12th Army Group Sector. The attack began the 16th of December, under the protective cover of low fog and conditions unsuitable for our air forces to oppose the drive. However, on the 23rd of December, medium bombardment aircraft were out in strength, striking important communication zones directly behind the German onslaught. On this day, the mission to the ELLER RR Bridge in Germany, the group suffered its first major losses by enemy aircraft and anti-aircraft.
|After the turn off from target, on course to home base, approximately
25 single engine fighters attacked our formation. The group’s records show
a loss of eight B-26’s to enemy aircraft encounters and two B-26’s to
heavy flak. Our gunners hit back for a total tally of four enemy aircraft
destroyed, three enemy aircraft probably destroyed, and eight enemy
aircraft damaged. This total does not include enemy aircraft presumably
destroyed or damaged by the ten missing bombers.”
BATTLE HONORS – Under the provisions of Section IV, Circular No. 333, War Department, 1943, the following-named units of the Ninth Air Force are cited for extraordinary heroism in action against the enemy. The citations read as follows:
“The 397th Bombardment Group (M). For extraordinary heroism in armed conflict with the enemy on 23 December 1944. At the height of the German counterattack in the Ardennes sector the 397th Bombardment Group was assigned the hazardous mission of attacking the railway bridge at Eller, Germany which was a vital link in the enemy’s supply line across the Moselle River. In a desperate attempt to ward off the attackers the enemy threw up an intense hail of antiaircraft fire which exacted a toll of 3 B-26 bombers and damaged many more. Despite the tremendous odds encountered and the lack of protection from fighter escorts, the determined pilots performed their sighting operations with a high degree of accuracy and succeeded in completely severing the bridge. Although the formation was viciously attacked by 25 Messerschmitt aircraft, the airmen of the 397th Bombardment Group met the attack with such vigor and aggressiveness that a total of 4 hostile planes were destroyed, 3 probably destroyed, and 5 were extensively damaged, forcing them to withdraw from the engagement. The intensity of the hostile attacks is evidenced by the fact that only 5 Marauder bombers escaped battle damage from enemy fire. The aerial skill, courage, and esprit de corps displayed by the officers and men of the 397th Bombardment Group in attacking a vital and strongly defended enemy target reflect great distinction upon the 397th Bombardment Group and the Army Air Forces.”
Eventually, Dad completes his 65th combat mission while stationed at Perrone. This, combined with the length of his service allows him to accumulate enough points to return home. He elects to do so and travels back to the states via a troop transport ship from England, landing on the Jersey shore of the Hudson River.
Following a 2 week leave in Miami, including a physical on Miami Beach, he heads by train to Dodge City, Kansas. His official orders are to begin transition training in A-26 aircraft for eventual deployment to the Pacific theatre. However, early in the summer of 1945, eventual victory in the Pacific becomes increasingly likely. Dad never does begin the transition training. Instead, he becomes the _________ Officer for Dodge City AAF. There he organizes an outdoor convention for 1,500 or so Non-Commissioned Officers and enlisted men of the base.
Dad receives his Honorable Discharge effective 17 July 1945 from Camp Blanding near Jacksonville, Florida having received the following commendations:
Distinguished Flying Cross (awarded 12 May 1945)
The Distinguished Flying Cross is awarded to any person who, while serving in any capacity with the Armed Forces of the United States, distinguishes himself by heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight. The performance of the act of heroism must be evidenced by voluntary action above and beyond the call of duty. The extraordinary achievement must have resulted in an accomplishment so exceptional and outstanding as to clearly set the individual apart from his comrades or from other persons in similar circumstances. Awards will be made only to recognize single acts of heroism or extraordinary achievement and will not be made in recognition of sustained operational activities against an armed enemy.
Air Medal with 12 Oak Leaf Clusters
The Air Medal is awarded to any person who, while serving in any capacity in or with the armed forces of the United States, shall have distinguished himself by meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight. Awards may be made to recognize single acts of merit or heroism or for meritorious service. Award of the Air Medal is primarily intended to recognize those personnel who are on current crew member or non-crew member flying status which requires them to participate in aerial flight on a regular and frequent basis in the performance of their primary duties. However, it may also be awarded to certain other individuals whose combat duties require regular and frequent flying in other than a passenger status or individuals who perform a particularly noteworthy act while performing the function of a crew member but who are not on flying status. These individuals must make a discernible contribution to the operational land combat mission or to the mission of the aircraft in flight. Examples of personnel whose combat duties require them to fly include those in the attack elements of units involved in air-land assaults against an armed enemy and those directly involved in airborne command and control of combat operations. Involvement in such activities, normally at the brigade/group level and below, serves only to establish eligibility for award of the Air Medal; the degree of heroism, meritorious achievement or exemplary service determines who should receive the award. Awards will not be made to individuals who use air transportation solely for the purpose of moving from point to point in a combat zone.
Oak leaf clusters are used to denote subsequent awards of the Air Medal. Dad received 2 Silver Oak Leaf Clusters representing 5 each and 2 Bronze Oak Leaf Clusters representing 1 each.
Presidential Unit Citation
The Presidential Unit Citation is awarded to units of the Armed Forces of the United States and co-belligerent nations for extraordinary heroism in action against an armed enemy occurring on or after 7 December 1941. The unit must display such gallantry, determination, and esprit de corps in accomplishing its mission under extremely difficult and hazardous conditions as to set it apart and above other units participating in the same campaign. The degree of heroism required is the same as that which would warrant award of a Distinguished Service Cross to an individual. Extended periods of combat duty or participation in a large number of operational missions, either ground or air is not sufficient. This award will normally be earned by units that have participated in single or successive actions covering relatively brief time spans. It is not reasonable to presume that entire units can sustain Distinguished Service Cross performance for extended time periods except under the most unusual circumstances. Only on rare occasions will a unit larger than battalion qualify for award of this decoration.
European/African/Middle Eastern Campaign Medal
The European-African-Middle Eastern (EAME) Campaign Medal was awarded to personnel for service within the European-African-Middle Eastern Theater between 7 December 1941 and 8 November 1945 under any of the following conditions:
(1) On permanent assignment.
(2) In a passenger status or on temporary duty for 30 consecutive days or 60 days not consecutive.
(3) In active combat against the enemy and was awarded a combat decoration or furnished a certificate by the commanding general of a corps, higher unit, or independent force that he actually participated in combat.
A bronze star is worn on the ribbon to indicate participation in designated campaigns:
Air Offensive, Europe 4 Jul 42 - 5 Jun 44
Normandy 6 Jun 44 - 24 Jul 44
Northern France 25 Jul 44 - 14 Sep 44
Rhineland 15 Sep 44 - 21 Mar 45
Ardennes-Alsace 16 Dec 44 - 25 Jan 45
World War II Victory Medal
The WW II Victory Medal was awarded to all military personnel for service between 7 December 1941 and 31 December 1946.