Memoirs of Robert B. Clay På dansk Updated: 25 SEP 2008
Captain Robert B. Clay was Pilot of "Stormy Weather" that crashed on 24 May 1944 at Østerholm, Als. An overview is here, the crash site is here.
For 40 years after the end of the war Clay had not even spoken of his experience. He didn´t wish to relive the anger and the bitterness that the war had caused him so many years ago. In 1999 retired Lieutenant Colonel Robert B. Clay went to the 54th Anniversary Convention of POWs held captive in Stalag Luft III during World War II. Daniel Surprise, former POW, and waist gunner on Clay´s final mission over Berlin, came to visit him while he was in Kansas City during the Conference. Surprise carried the recent edition (March 1999) of the Polebrook Post from their wartime airfield in England. Surprise showed Clay the editorial section that contained a photograph of a crashed B-17. Clay studied the photo and noticed the plane had the familiar triangle J insignia on its tail, that being the insignia of the 351st Bomb Group. A dark and long forgotten memory came sharply into view. A flood of emotion filled his being as he realized that it was his plane, "Stormy Weather" that he was staring at. Tears stung the eyes of this old pilot as he thought how miraculous it was to see this scene after so many years.
This photo and letters giving and asking for details from Mick Austin and Gunnar Hounsgaard started a chain of events. Clay wrote his story published on CD´s. My copy from Gunnar Hounsgaard made it possible to select excerpts for www.airmen.dk.
Robert B. Clay was born on the 29th of June 1918 in Utah, where he grew up on a farm. The 1930´s was a difficult time. After high school and a two-year trade school course he joined the air corps and qualified through hard work. In the fall of 1941 he and other cadets were sworn in at Fort Douglas, Utah, and boarded a train for Ontario, California to begin training at Cal-Aero Academy.
"Because of the hazing by the upperclassmen, which were 2nd Lieutenant West Point grads, the day I graduated, I said to myself, "If I had known cadet life was so unnecessarily miserable, I would never have joined the air corps." But from then on, my lifestyle was so improved that I was glad that I had seen it through."
In 1943 he was assigned to a B-17 photo unit at Colorado Springs, CO and later to the 401st Bomb Group at Glasgow, Montana. Some members of his newly assigned crew followed him to the very end of their active war duty.
They flew to Polebrook in England, and Clay wrote about the start of combat missions:
"At this point in the war, theoretically, every crew would complete 25 missions and not return, but in reality about one fourth of the crews were lost on their first few missions, principally because of flying "Tail End Charlie" (TEC) and lack of experience; yet another fourth were lost during the remaining 25 and about half finished up and went home. Flying TEC you were more vulnerable to being attacked from the rear by German fighters. The tighter the formation, the more protected each plane was because of the coverage of all the 50 caliber guns on each plane." (See The Crew of a B-17) He returned from his first combat mission over the Ruhr Valley with a hole in the middle of the right wing, where an 88 mm AA shell passed through without exploding!
After 4 missions Clay was moved up to Squadron Operations Officer. He made his crew a lead crew. A lead crew would fly a mission only when the squadron was assigned to lead the Group (18 planes) or the Wing (54 planes).
"On my 12th mission I led the Wing over Germany. - - At 28.000 feet over Germany clouds covered our primary target and secondary target. - - Suddenly it dawned to me that we were almost over a very large city, which meant anti-aircraft (AA) guns. I knew we should not risk AA damage unless we were on a bomb run, so I started the gentle left turn necessary to maintain the 54-plane formation. Within about 50 seconds about 100 bursts (called a box barrage) of black flak appeared off to the right, at our altitude and just where we would have been if we had flown straight ahead. - -
I knew that it took the Germans two minutes to follow the formation by radar, and then set the time for the AA shell to detonate at the selected altitude, and finally the flight time for the shell to reach our altitude. I reasoned that the Germans would assume I would zigzag, so I kept turning left. Another barrage of flak appeared off to the right. - - After a 180 degree turn I went back the direction I had come from. Behind me the sky was black with flak, but not one plane had been hit. My evasive actions proved successful and I felt a sense of personal victory for having outguessed those jokers below!"
Final Mission - Captured
On 24 May, 1944 Captain Clay and his Group flew on a bombing raid to Berlin, but as described on the page B17 42-38005 he ended with a crash landing on Als. He tried in vain to burn the plane. A kind old man and his wife provided him with water to wash blood off copilot Hatten´s face. A well-fed German soldier arrived. They were now POWs.
"By late afternoon of May 24th, 1944, a German Army truck had picked up all of my crewmembers, who had parachuted out, and arrived at the house where Hatten and I had been held captive by a German soldier. - - The next day our crew was put on a train with four or five guards armed with fixed bayonets and transferred to Dulag Luft at Frankfurt on Rhine for solitary confinement and interrogation. - - On the seventh day I was lead upstairs for interrogation. I was ready to state my name, rank and serial number. The first question the German interrogator asked was, "Captain Clay, do you think 1st Lieutenant Newman van Tassel can take your place as operations officer?" - - I could see their psychology - since they knew so much, anything I would say wouldn´t matter."
Captain Clay turned down offers of whiskey and even a girl. The interrogator got around to the invasion question. Clay was sure that the Allied would not invade at such an obvious place as across the channel.
"I told the arrogant little interrogator that we were going to invade across the Channel and that we were going to invade real soon. I explained that we were going to invade with one million men and that the Germans were "kaput." To cap it off, I told him that if his leaders were smart, they would give up before it was too late." Later Clay found out that his statement was just two days before D-Day. "I have since learned that my pretentious talk had made no difference."
After days of interrogation he and the other officers were taken on a very unpleasant train journey to Stalag Luft III. Here their 20 feet by 20 feet room had four triple deck bunks.
"The Germans were always giving us a bad time. - - The end result was that we stood for six hours in the rain with no protection from the elements. We could not even break ranks to visit the latrine."
"Some pre-med flying officers in camp calculated that the diet furnished by the Germans was about 1200 calories per day, which I can verify is a starvation diet." The deficiency of food made him develop double vision, until he had been back in the U.S. for three or four months.
In the end of January more than 10.000 Krigies (Kriegsgefangene - POWs) were led out of Stalag Luft III. The Russians were less than twenty miles away and still advancing. The Kriegies came to Stalag Luft XIIID near Nuremburg for two months. The most memorable event was the total destruction of Nuremburg during February 1945. In mid-March they headed southeast to avoid liberation.
"The 100-plus mile trek from Nuremburg to Moosburg was especially memorable. Our guards were agreeable old men who admitted, "Deutschland was kaput." They were more like grandfathers than guards. Since we were younger and stronger than the guards we often carried their knapsacks and rifles."
On 28 April, 1945 five Sherman tanks made the guards surrender. "The two lead tanks drove through the prison gate and were immediately surrounded by thousands of celebrating Kriegies, shouting, jumping up and down with arms flying. (And the guards?) The tank commander answered, "We do not take prisoners," inferring that they simply killed the enemy, then kept going. A Krigie spokesman said, "Let us keep them as POWs until the foot soldiers arrive," and the tank commander said, "Okay." An hour after the spearhead tank column moved off to the east, the Krigie leaders told the guards to "get lost." They had been treating us humanely and now we had the chance to return the favor. This was no occasion for reprisals."
"I decided to forget the entire five years of my life from 1941 through 1945 and never think of it again. That was more than 50 years ago and it took about 40 years to overcome my phobia.
Around 1985, at the urging of my navigator, Marshal Pullen, I began attending POW reunions and 351st Bomb Group Reunions, along with some members of my crew.
After the war I had put GI clothing, papers, letters, pictures, etc. into two footlockers and never opened them. My daughter Karen went through everything pertaining to my military history and decided if I would help her, she would compile a detailed book and memorabilia for our posterity so they could better remember and understand World War II from a first-person viewpoint. These memoirs are the result of those efforts."
Highlights of Trip to Denmark, As recalled by
Robert B. Clay
"On the 24th of May 1944, during World War II, a member of the committee, Gunnar Hounsgaard, a teenager during the time Denmark was occupied by the Germans, had taken a picture of the wrecked B-17 and by a series of improbable events located me in Salt Lake City. Corresponding between Gunnar and my family culminated in the invitation for our bomber crew to visit Denmark for a special commemoration on May 24, 2001. - -
"About one mile from the site we could see cars and bicycles lining each side of the narrow road as far as the eye could see. Finally we arrived at the turnoff to the crash site. The hundred yards to the parking area was filled with spectators. We inched along through the crowd that Gunnar later estimated to be 1500 men, women and children. As we stepped out of the bus one at a time, the people crowded in clapping, taking pictures and gazing at us as if we were strangers from another planet. We finally arrived at the roped-off stage area where we could sit down. The military band was playing martial music and scores of flags were flying. A large U.S. flag was flying atop a high pole, surrounded by 4 angled poles with Danish flags, indicating the exact site of the B-17 crash site. A military plane fly-by was followed by a large helicopter, which landed in the center of the grain field adjacent to the podium. From the helicopter emerged about eight military personnel, the leader, a Colonel, saluted me. There I was in full uniform bedecked with ribbons and medals surrounded by my crew in uniform and returning the salute. I really felt as if I was really a returning war hero.
Several dignitaries gave speeches honoring us, which were spoken in Danish, then translated to English. After that our crew was awarded honorary members of the Danish Home Guard by a ribbon with an attached medallion placed around our necks, together with an impressive certificate. I promised to accept the same award for each absent crew member and present it to the member or family to the best of my ability. Then I was asked to speak. I gave tearful thanks to our sponsors and the large crowd and told them this overwhelming 57th anniversary commemoration was repayment for the bitterness I felt for the one year I was forced to endure as a German POW.
At the conclusion of the program, we were surrounded by a wave of spectators. They all wanted a handshake, or an autograph, or a photograph, or an answer to a question. They gave me parts of the B-17, a hose clamp, a strip of aluminium, a piece of Plexiglass, my headset and throat mic, and a part of a wedding dress made from a parachute. But more importantly, they gave my crew, both present and missing, the most sincere honor and praise possible.
I now know how a hero really feels, but I still don´t feel like a real hero."
Speech of Tom Clay on the 60th Anniversary in
2004, when the monument had been unveiled (Source:
I am the son of Robert Clay. He sends his kind regards and love to the people of Als and Denmark. Unfortunately his health does not allow him to travel great distances, but he wishes he were here. I speak for the family and crew members of Stormy Weather in thanking the committee, the local municipalities and private organizations that have made this possible. We appreciate the effort that has gone into the monument. It is a beautiful monument, thank you.
Robert B. Clay died on 22 December 2007, while he with his family was watching a video from the Reunion in 2001. The appreciation from Danes meant a lot to him.
The text above was sent to Karen Cooly and Tom Clay to get their approval to my use of their father´s memoirs, maybe even of the complete version, which is a story of much more than one man.
A Pilot´s Story pdf 11,9 MB was added to Allied Airmen www.airmen.dk after this kind answer of 25 September 2008:
Dear Mr. Straarup,
Thanks for the note. You are very welcome to use any or all of A Pilot's Story for your website. My dad would be proud and happy to share his story with anyone willing to read or listen to it.
Thank you for documenting the stories of all of these brave young men. They truly were the 'greatest generation'. We owe them a debt of gratitude that we can't repay, but by telling their story to all future generations, as you are doing via your website, we in a small way return what can't fully be reciprocated.
- - -
Furthermore, I have two small corrections:
The entire crew became POWs in Germany, but only
Captain Robert B. Clay and 1st.Lt
Frank Hatten were sent to
Stalag Luft III.
The medals were from Danish Defence Brothers.
It is correct that the Danish Home Guard, the Army NCO School in Sønderborg and other branches of Danish Defence, regular or voluntary forces,
had their part in making the Reunion in 2001 a very special event together with many civilian authorities, organisations, companies and individuals.