Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Makings of a Paratrooper

 

Roots

Bill grew up on his parent’s farm in Preble County, Ohio near the town of Eaton with three brothers and two sisters. The Clark’s farmed corn, soy beans, chickens and pigs. Bill worked hard juggling school and farm work. He liked guns, becoming an expert shot at an early age. In his spare time, he loved to hunt in the woods on the farm. Of an evening, he would run along a network of country lanes that crisscrossed the county. He had a deep affinity for trees. He hated to cut any down and would plant them wherever he could.

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The farm house where Bill was raised

Bill planted the tress on either side of the house

 

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The barn where Bill spent many hours helping his father

One of many quiet country lanes in the area

 

Always cracking jokes, Bill had a keen sense of humor. He was humble, non-judgmental, forgiving, and generous. With these traits it was easy for him to make friends. He made plenty of time for people. Even as a youth, Bill was known for his charity and was fast becoming widely respected in the community for helping those in need.

“The House by the Side of the Road” by Sam Walter Foss was Bill’s favorite poem and one which he often recited.  It captured his character well and perhaps inspired it. House by the Side of the Road  

Bill attended Dixon Township High School where he achieved above average grades and was awarded a position on the track team. He graduated on May 17, 1940. 

Afterwards he was hired as a back tender at the Aetna paper mill in Dayton, Ohio. He had every intention to settle down in the area; maybe go to college, marry and raise a family, but the coming war in the context of his family background was to change all all those ideas.  

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All that is left of the Dixon Township High School

Looking out over one of the fields on the Clark farm after a soy bean crop harvest

 

Pearl Harbor

It was a Sunday when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The Clark family went to church during the day returning home with family friends for a fried chicken dinner that evening. Because of the guests, the radio was turned off so everyone missed the news of the attack.

Bill and his older brother, Henry Jr. went to town after dinner and returned home at 11:00PM. The brothers walked into the living room wearing stony expressions. Without a word, Henry held up a newspaper. The Japanese attack was spelled out in big black headlines. A pall fell over the family at the news. It did not lift until after the war was over.

Being of draft age, Henry Jr. knew he would be called up soon, so he volunteered for fighter pilot training in the Army Air Forces. At 19, Bill still had some time up his sleeve. Both brothers felt it was their duty like so many other young men to join up, but their father’s influence drove their desire to enlist in front line combat units ahead of the draft .

 

Jim, Henry Jr Henry Sr Henry Clark Jr. in uniform (center) His brother James (left) His father Henry Sr. (right)

 

The Power of a Father’s Influence

Henry Clark Sr. demonstrated a taste for adventure early in his life. At the age of 16, he signed up with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. He became friends with several of the show’s performers. Their stories of how the West was won whetted Henry’s appetite to make his own mark. His opportunity came with the outbreak of World War One. He enlisted in the Rainbow Division (42nd Division) and fought extensively in France. He was a close friend of fellow soldier and renowned poet Joyce Kilmer, author of the poem “Trees” which you may read here http://www.risingdove.com/kilmer/love_trees.html

Joyce Kilmer is well recognized for his affection for trees. His granddaughter has this to say about him:

“Nevertheless, I am thankful for the popularity of "Trees," because its captivating lyrical simplicity drives home this profound message: we humans can never hope to surpass the awesome beauty of nature. This is why I think of my grandfather as an early environmentalist. Countless trees have been planted in his honor, and for that alone he deserves to be remembered. The Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest was dedicated in his honor.”  - Miriam A. Kilmer (http://www.risingdove.com/kilmer/Trees.asp)

As was mentioned earlier, Bill had a deep affinity for trees and I can’t help wondering if Henry Sr. instilled in him a love of trees in remembrance of his friend. Joyce Kilmer died in the second battle of the Marne at the age of 31 on July 30, 1918.

An avid story teller, Henry Sr. would talk for hours recounting to his children and later his grandchildren, and great grandchildren unabridged stories of his battles during the operations of the Champagne-Marne, the Aisne-Marne, the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. There were gripping tales of gas attacks, lightning fast machine gun fights, tortuous trench warfare with unending shelling, anxious intelligence missions behind enemy lines, and fierce human wave assaults ending in gruesome hand to hand combat.

Henry Sr. would counter these with copious amusing tales of happenings during the quiet times between battles. His stories spared none of the details of war’s horror and absurdity. At the same time, he deftly related much of the honor in serving his country that went along with his experience as a soldier.

Given the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Germany’s subsequent declaration of war upon America, their father’s stories of the Great War sparked in Bill and Henry Jr. their own desire to serve their country and protect America’s freedom. Like their father, they were only interested in front line combat service.

It did not take long for Bill to start looking at the different options offered by the various branches of the service. Initially, he thought about joining the Navy, but his brother Henry Jr. talked him out of it sending him a letter trying to persuade him to join the Army Air Forces instead.

 

LETTER TO BILL FROM HENRY JR. 

Air Force Advanced Flying School

Victorville, California

July 13th, 1942

Hello Bill,

I received that letter that mother wrote. She said you were planning to get in the Navy. I just thought I would tell you what you are getting into. I still think that you are too hasty about getting into anything, but the Navy is a dog’s life you don’t want any part of it. The Coast Guard is the same. What you want to do is get into something where you can get a commission such as officer’s training or aviation cadet. Personally, if I were you I would get into the aviation cadets. I know you can pass the mental. The bars have been dropped a lot on it since I took the examination. You can also pass the physical if your eyes are alright as I think they are.

If I were you I would go to the optometrist and have him (give you the works) on your eyes if he says they’re OK you’re a cinch to make it. Not that I think there might be something wrong with your eyes but that is the stiffest part to pass before the cadet board.

If you get into the cadets you will have it tough for about 2 or 3 months then things will start coming your way they give you (the works) to see how much desire you have to go through with it. Not that they mistreat you or anything during your rookie days but they just see if you can take orders. The pay, living conditions and everything are much better. If you get into the aviation cadets you cannot go on the inactive reserve anymore I don’t think anyhow that’s what I have been told. They would send you to Ft. Thomas for a week or two then would either be sent to a field in the south east training center or in the west coast training center for basic air corp. Training such as I have completed (takes three weeks) which every man in the air corp goes through whether he is a cadet or a grease monkey. Then after you have completed that, when they get an opening at the cadet induction center (Santa Ana in California and Maxwell Field Alabama) the only two in the U.S. It is a slow process from there on.

I don’t expect to get hold of the controls before the last of Sept. if they don’t classify me as a bombardier or navigator (what they need is what you get). We are told that the classifying process takes about 6 weeks. We are given refresher courses in arith., geom., algebra, trig., at Santa Ana. It’s the same at Maxwell field. I think I have a good chance of getting a pilot classification because of my…

[the letter abruptly cuts off]

 

Sparacio Family Leonard in Seabees1Clark family relatives. Leonard Sparacio in seabees uniform. Perhaps the source of Bill’s initial consideration of the Navy. 

The Airborne Siren

Bill took heed of Henry Jr.’s advice and steered clear of the Navy and Coast Guard. Although his grades were good enough, his brother’s efforts at persuasion were to be in vain.

Henry Sr. commended his son’s desire to enlist in a combat unit. If he didn’t want to join the Army Air Forces, he encouraged Bill to join the regular infantry. Bill listened to his father’s advice and duly looked into what the infantry offered. When Bill brought up talk of joining the 82nd Airborne Infantry Division, his father sternly forbade it, calling it a suicide outfit.He told Bill the nature of airborne divisions meant they would be the first ones sent to hotspots and on risky missions. Their casualty rates would be much higher than the regular infantry. Once more he advised Bill to join the regular infantry. 

The months passed by and soon Bill turned 20. In late October 1942, a recruiting sergeant with a keen eye for talent, from the 82nd Airborne Division, spotted Bill at an event in Dayton, Ohio. Bill was fit from a life of manual labor, he could shoot, had 20/20 vision, no maladies, and at 5’ 7” he was the just the right height. The sergeant enticed the young farm boy, telling him he had “the makings of a paratrooper.”

The recruiter had a fine sales pitch which he used to great effect on Bill. He explained that paratroopers received advanced training when compared to the mediocre training offered by other service branches and that this would make him safer. The Airborne Divisions were the elite forces – the most prestigious of any US service branch. Then, there was the attraction of additional jump pay which paratroopers received for jumping out of airplanes. To top it all off, he would get to wear the stylish and exclusive paratrooper jump boots which were already the envy of other non-airborne service men.

The sergeant explained to Bill that since he had only just turned 20, he would have to get his parents to sign for him. Bill told him that would not be possible given his father’s anti-Airborne position. The sly and opportunistic sergeant countered with a way around the problem.  All he had to do was get his parent’s to sign for him to enlist in the regular infantry and then later he could transfer to the 82nd Airborne.

This was all Bill needed to know to make his decision. He signed the paper work then and there.

Bill’s sister Doris, remembers how he maneuvered his way into the 82nd Airborne Division:

“After Bill enlisted we (Mother, Daddy, Doris, Rebecca, Howard, and Jim) drove to Fort Campbell, Ky, to see Bill as we had to see Henry when he was there. He had already shipped out to Camp Wheeler, Georgia. You had to be 21 to enlist of your own accord so Mother and Daddy had to sign for him. They wouldn’t agree to do that until he assured them that he would enlist in the infantry. Evidently he had arranged with the recruiting sergeant to enlist in the infantry and after his parents signed he could easily go directly to the paratroops. The folks were definitely chagrined over that turn of events but it was out of their hands. They were also mildly amused at how gullible they had been. He was the optimum stature for a Paratrooper. He didn’t even get a furlough after boot camp, but was sent directly overseas after finishing the Airborne training. Probably because Paratroopers were in demand.

After Henry enlisted we had one blue star in the front window and after Bill enlisted we had two. They were about 12 inches square, white background with a blue star. Thank goodness we never had to change to a gold star because that meant a soldier had been killed.”

Bill’s sister Doris, 24 June 2005

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