From ‘La Mer’ to the air: ‘Bloody Hundredth’ B-17 pilot shares impressions of war

  • Published
  • By Karen Abeyasekere
  • 100th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part article on John A. Clark, veteran of the 100th Bomb Group and World War II survivor.

“I arrived at the Las Vegas Army Air Base in the first week of May 1944. On my first night there, I went to the officers’ club to write a letter home, and saw this beautiful lady in a military uniform, with silver wings on her blouse, walking down the hallway past where I was sitting,” said retired 1st Lt. John A. Clark, 98, 100th Bomb Group veteran pilot of 32 missions over Germany during World War II.

“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, she was from Iowa, and was a WASP (Women’s Air Force Service Pilot) – they trained exactly as the men did – and she graduated with her wings about two months before I did.”

63 years

Marie shared with him that she flew fighters and performed mock fighter attacks on the B-17 Flying Fortress aircraft in Las Vegas at the flexible gunnery school. Gunners trained there and tracked fighters making mock attacks on the bombers, preparing themselves for real action over Germany. She also instructed instrument pilots in flying procedure training, and flew as a test pilot for aircraft needing repair and maintenance.

Clark learned that Marie was on her way to the library to listen to Debussy’s “La Mer,” and she was carrying a vinyl record of it under her arm.

“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,” he recalled.

The 100th Bomb Group veteran explained that his purpose for being in Las Vegas was to become familiar with a four-engine bomber as a co-pilot trainee for the B-17.

Full of clocks

“I’d finished my advanced flight school in a very small two-engine airplane, which by comparison was almost a toy,” he said. “When I got in that aircraft in Las Vegas, it felt like sitting in the Grand Canyon, 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 began going out on the gunner runs to become familiar with on-the-job training, or as Clark described it, “learning by just doing.”

He spent the next month in Las Vegas, learning to fly the B-17.

And so it begins

Clark soon built up 50 hours flying time in the right-hand 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 Eighth Air Force operational training, before heading overseas to fly operational missions.

After the training, the newly assembled crews were sent to bases around the country.

“My crew was sent to Dyersburg, Tennessee, and we then flew along with other Fortresses for two months, which gave us the opportunity to become familiar with each other and to advance our knowledge of the aircraft. Then in August 1944, the time came for us to pick up a new airplane in Lincoln and fly it to England.”

The crew then flew to New Hampshire, before heading to England.

“I was assigned with a wonderful first pilot who had 2,000 hours in a B-17 and a B-24 Liberator as an instructor, and he taught me just about everything I knew about the B-17 before we headed overseas,” recalled the veteran. “He was an excellent teacher who gave me plenty of opportunities to fly and land it so I became familiar with everything. That was a positive step forward, as it meant we had two pilots familiar with the aircraft before it went into combat operations.”

Buzzing the house

Clark explained that on their way to New Hampshire, they happened to pass within about 50 miles of his home.

“Well, you can imagine what an Air Force pilot would do in that case! I buzzed the house, and made two low-level flights. My father was working, but my mother and my sister came out and waved towels in the back yard. When we landed in New Hampshire, the flight engineer handed me a small tree branch and said, ‘We dug this out of the landing gear…’ – though I think he was pulling my leg!”

The crew flew on to Goose Bay, Labrador, in Canada, which was the point they left the North American continent. Soon afterwards, set with extra fuel tanks and extra radios, they set off for a long over-water flight, arriving in Reykjavik, Iceland, 13 hours later.

“The aircraft operated perfectly normally, although as pilots will always tell you, as soon as you leave the continental United States and fly over the water, you immediately see your instruments creating some problems! Well, I thought I saw number three oil pressure gauge flicker a bit, so after a little consultation, the pilot said to continue on and the radio operator would keep in touch with Goose Bay to tell them we had a potential problem. But it didn’t turn out to be a problem at all. When we got to Iceland, the flight engineer told me he thought it was just the instrument; they had technicians there who immediately got on the job and reported exactly that – they changed the instrument and we had no more problems with it.”


The morning the crew left Reykjavik for the UK, they encountered 50-mile-per-hour cross winds and heavy rain storms, plus an extra-heavily-weighted aircraft. Undeterred, they went anyway.

“It was a good experience because we encountered many of those types of days during our operations in England,” said Clark. “Our initial destination was RAF Valley, Wales, which took us about seven hours. We went over the Hebrides in Scotland, and by that time the weather was absolutely perfect. We got down to about 2,500 feet and could see the surf breaking and the wonderful sight of the Scottish islands, before coming over the Irish Sea and landing in Wales.

“The pilot asked me if I wanted to land the plane, and said, ‘If you do, be careful because we’re heavily loaded.’ I did land it, and did not disappoint him,” the veteran said proudly. “Once at Valley, we turned it over to the Air Force to go to a modification center, and we never saw that aircraft again. Our job was to ferry it, but I learned later in early 1945, that it was shot down in Hamburg.”

Leaving Wales behind, the Airmen then travelled to a distribution center in central England, and on yet another rainy night, arrived by train in Diss, where they were then picked up by truck and taken to the 100th Bomb Group at Thorpe Abbotts.

Thorpe Abbotts

“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!’ We were then assigned Quonset huts, where we would live for the duration of our stay,” he said.

Clark explained that when they arrived, the 100th BG had been flying missions for a couple of years and were blessed with very experienced ground crew and administrators. The base commander was Col. Thomas Jeffrey.

“He was only about three or four years older than I was, and he was a very fine commander. We met him the next day and he told us about the operations of the 100th BG. Our crew was assigned to the 418th Bomb Squadron, which was one of four squadrons there. In flight, the group was usually composed of 12 aircraft, though sometimes they would add an extra one.”

The B-17 pilot told how a 100th BG mission would be made up of three squadrons, and on a normal mission would consist of 12- or 13-aircraft each. There were several times over the next six months that Eighth Air Force would mount a maximum-effort mission consisting of four or five squadrons.

‘Bloody Hundredth – assemble!’

“The policy of the 100th BG was to have new crew fly three or four practice missions because circumstance in combat squadrons were very different than training in the States,” he said. “Firstly, we had to learn how to assemble; when we took off from our base in England in the morning, it was often in the dark and with ceilings of about 50- or 100-feet, in freezing rain, fog or snow, 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 take-off. 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,” recalled Clark.

“We called that a single-width turn on your turn-bank indicator, which meant turn for about a minute before taking up another heading and climbing to a specified altitude. It’s important to keep in mind that no matter what the weather was like, there were probably 500 aircraft within two minutes flying time of our base, doing the same thing we were doing, but each with a different planned route.”

He explained that once they reached the required altitude, they then circled a radio beacon at around 8,000 to 12,000 feet before searching out the ship they were supposed to fly off of.

Guided by code

“The tail gunner of our lead ship would be flashing a light from the tail position of the ‘color of the hour,’ which was a code, and the Morse code was for the letter ‘D’ in lights, which identified the aircraft as being from the 100th Bomb Group, and being the aircraft we would assemble on,” he said. “The plane would have their navigation lights on and by following this procedure there was rarely any great problem of either mid-air collisions or missing the assembly.”

Clark added that on a couple of occasions when circumstances delayed them and they missed an assembly point, they knew there were two other assembly points and their navigator would just direct them to the next one. They would gradually get into formation with the other aircraft from the 100th Bomb Group before the group leader steered them to the next assembly point to meet up with other aircraft from their combat wing.

“By the time we left the English coast, we’d been flying for two to three hours just assembling,” he exclaimed. “Then we would head out over the North Sea, usually in a wing formation of three groups of 12 aircraft each, headed towards the target, before beginning a slow climb to bombing altitude. During the time I flew, Eighth Air Force never bombed below 25,000 feet. Often, we would go above 30,000 feet, and one time we almost made 40,000 feet!”

All altitudes were determined by a number of factors, including the availability of the target, the weather over the target, and various concerns the High Command would have regarding fighter opposition from the German air force. Each of those things were done by radio from Thorpe Abbotts to the aircraft over Germany, through the radio operators on the lead ship, after which the other squadrons were informed – in code – of the change.

Heading out over the North Sea, Clark’s crew and other 100th BG B-17s then followed the ship they were flying off of 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 impediments was physically very tiring.

Watch out ahead

 “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-calibre machine guns,” said Clark. “Some time before our crew arrived in England, the German air force pilots had learned that coming close to a ‘box’ of 12 Eighth Air Force Flying Fortresses was very hazardous! They had also changed their tactics by not attacking the squadrons from the rear, because the differences in speed between our aircraft and the fighters was not especially great, so they turned to make head-on attacks. But that gave them a disadvantage because they would have just three to five seconds to be within range of our aircraft.”

The German fighters would approach the B-17s from ‘the 12 o’clock level,’ flip over on their back – due to being armored underneath – and swing past the formations at a relative closing speed of 800 miles per hour between our two flights.

“We learned to squeeze the toes in our boots,” laughed Clark. “We were so busy holding formation and watching out for our own aircraft, that we just took it as it came. We knew there was the possibility of getting hit, and every now and then we did, but we never got hit by fighters in a crucial way. The German air force was a little bit fearful of getting too close to the American formations. Our biggest threats, apart from the weather and fuel, was the anti-aircraft fire. But we took followed the Eighth Air Force procedures of flying straight and level for about 10 to 15 minutes as we approached the target.”

He explained that the formations would pick up a fixed point on the map on the way to the target – known as the initial point – then fly in tight formation, as close as practical, to the aircraft next to them. The lead navigator would then make sure his bombsight was on the right target and they went straight to it.

Putting bombs on targets

“The Germans learned our procedure quickly, so would place their anti-aircraft guns along our flight path. As our colonel used to remind us all the time, ‘Fly a formation no matter what, because the reason we’re here is to put bombs on the targets!’ This flight path created our greatest danger of being hit. The most dangerous was when you got a close explosion and the flak hit your aircraft – I always felt, if you could hear it, you were a goner. Most of the time when the flak was coming close, scattering thousands of bits of steel, you’d get a serious hit which could cause a loss of engines, and fire, which was usually the most serious damage that would be inflicted.”

Clark said the anti-aircraft fire from the ground came in teams of four. The explosions would be in a diamond shape.

“We’d just fly right through it, and when it hit a structural member, you could feel the aircraft shudder and dust would fall from the ceiling into the cockpit – those were the bad ones. I got a piece that was dug out of a number two engine after we landed one time. I kept that piece of ragged steel as a souvenir, and still have it to this day.

Feeling the cold

“One thing that concerned me was how to keep warm,” he said. “I knew that when we flew at 30,000 feet, the outside air temperature would be minus 60 to minus 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Sitting in the B-17 is like sitting in an egg shell – there was no way you could heat that aircraft, and the question I had was, how do you keep warm? There was really no coaching on that.”

He asked other crew members who shared his Quonset hut how they kept warm, but found that everyone had a different idea, so he decided to experiment.

“On our first mission, I was sweating and was obviously overdressed, so I began to drop off things,” he laughed. “By the time I reached my fourth mission, I found what I was actually going to use. The B-17 was set up with electric heating – there were electric sockets in the aircraft to plug in a special heated suit that would provide you some control of warmth all over your body and in your flying boots. It was only then that I realised most of the precautions I’d made had no value whatsoever, because I was perspiring in those missions. When we flew the aircraft, the pilot and I would trade off something like five to 10 minutes on, then off, and on the bomb run if we were flying on the left wing of the aircraft next to us, I would fly the aircraft down the bomb run for the whole 20 minutes as I could see better on my side. If we were on the right wing, then the pilot would do it.

“In the first couple of missions when we were on the left wing, I would perspire so much I could hardly see! 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.

War diaries

Clark’s detailed memories of his World War II missions are helped by the fact he wrote everything down while at Thorpe Abbotts.

“When I left the States, my mother gave me a notebook and on the cover she’d written, ‘Record your Impressions.’ Before she was married she was a newspaper reporter, and I think she was implying I ought to give a detailed report, so after every mission – before I even went to dinner – I went back to my sleeping quarters, opened up the notebook she gave me, and wrote a detailed description of everything from the moment of the briefing before the mission, to all that had occurred, that I could recall, from the eight-hour mission we’d just completed.”

During his time in England, he stayed in touch with Marie. He returned to the States in April 1945 and they married in July that same year.

After the war, Clark went on to earn two graduate degrees – a master’s in 1949 and a doctorate in 1953 – at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He returned to the University of Michigan as professor of mechanical engineering, in 1957. He also worked in the nuclear industry for more than 25 years as a consultant, as well as a consultant with several other industrial companies for 50 years after ‘university retirement.’

At the 100th Bomb Group reunion in Dallas. Texas, in October 2021, Clark shared stories of his and his wife’s time serving in the Air Force, ensuring her memory lives on and that her service is not forgotten.

United by their love of flying and adventure, theirs was a story that withstood the test of time, and outlasted the vinyl record which brought them together.