Hope, optimism buoy bomber pilot through POW camp

by Andrew Schunk | Editor Published:

Hiram -- Optimism in the face of overwhelming odds tells a lot about a man -- especially a wide-eyed 20-year-old lieutenant fighting the controls of a crippled bomber over the heart of World War II Germany.

Hiram resident Keylon Clarke, now 90, started Sept. 28, 1944, at a U.S. Army Air Corps airfield in Glatton, England, as a pilot readying for one of the largest bombing runs of the war for the mighty Eighth Air Force. Close to 1,000 B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators were to fly south to bomb the Krupp Steel plant in Magdeburg.

Clarke ended that day -- and every day for the next nine months -- in a prisoner of war camp on the coastline of northern Germany.

Clarke's B-17 and its nine-man crew were charged with dropping a unique payload for the mission -- counterfeit food ration books and railroad tickets to encourage residents to leave the industrial target.

But the bomb bay doors never opened as Clarke's aircraft took a direct hit from a German 88 about 30 miles outside the city. The massive anti-aircraft gun whose signature black explosions were otherwise commonplace for bomber pilots had found its mark.

"It was bombs bursting in air, that's for certain," Clarke said from his home Sept. 25, nearly 69 years to the day after his fateful flight.

Streaming flames from its four, 1,200 horsepower Wright-Cyclone engines, missing its tail and plummeting out of 26,500 feet, the doomed aircraft literally threw a semi-conscious Clarke out of the cockpit when a secondary explosion -- possibly another 88, possibly a gas tank -- finished the heavy bomber. Clarke, the last to bail out, likely saved lives by wrestling with the aircraft for as long as he did, he was later told by surviving crew mates. Two of the nine crew members were killed.

Parachuting down in an eerie calm after the chaos at 26,000 feet, Clarke watched his "Falling Fortress" descend.

"The plane began rolling slowly, but almost as if it had dignity, kept itself parallel to the Earth," he wrote in a published account of the flight. "The wings were now sheet metal falling like autumn leaves."

Immediately after Clarke landed on German soil, uninjured, he was picked up by a German soldier and taken to Stalag Luft I, an American prison camp in the town of Barth on the northern coast of Germany. He would spend the next nine months with 20 other American officers in a living room-sized facility, sleeping in a bottom bunk and subsisting on blood sausage, black bread, turnips and rutabagas.

"Beautiful Barth on the Baltic," Clarke mused from his Hiram living room, a model of a B-17 proudly displayed on a nearby coffee table.

Throughout his time as a POW, Clarke never lost hope -- a virtue that buoyed the officer in his darkest hours, said Keylon's wife of 16 years, Vesta.

"He really is an eternal optimist," she said.

"I was always the cheerleader for all 20 of the guys ... I would always tell them, 'We will make it back to our families ... we will make it back to our families,'" Keylon said.

Clarke said he tried to joke with the German guards as well, but his complete inability to speak the language made for some circular conversations.

"Nicht verstehen?" the guards would ask Clarke, "You do not understand?" And Clarke would respond with the only German he knew: "Nicht verstehen?"

At one point, the strong-willed Clarke helped a fellow POW from Wisconsin fashion a scale model of an imagined restaurant from cardboard, one that the Wisconsinite promised to build when he returned to America.

Though Keylon could not say whether the restaurant came to fruition, the 20 men did make it back to their families, liberated by the Russian Army May 5, 1945, and motivated through their hunger, sickness and loneliness by Clarke's remarkable reservoir of hope.

Several years ago, Keylon and Vesta visited Barth and the site of the prison camp, now a small airfield with nary an echo of the POW barracks or guard towers.

"There was nothing there," Keylon said. "It was all torn down."

There was, however, a single, inconspicuous rock quietly indicating that a prison camp had once existed there.

"So many were killed for nothing," a young guard patrolling the airfield told Keylon and his wife on their recent visit.

Members of the Greatest Generation who sacrificed for their fellow soldiers, families and country might tend to disagree.

Perhaps Clarke should have responded to the young guard, "Nicht verstehen?"

Email: aschunk@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9424

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