Unit: 20th Airforce, 73rd Bomb Wing, 498th Bomb Group, 873rd Bomb Squadron
War fronts: Served April 22, 1943, to Sept. 30, 1945. Flew on the first B-29 bomb raid over Tokyo on Thanksgiving Day 1944. Credited with 10 missions; he flew many more, but the airmen only got credit if they hit their primary targets.
After war: Worked 30 years in Wyoming law enforcement -- two years with the Highway Patrol; 20 years with the Natrona County Sheriff’s Office, including more than 12 years as undersheriff; and eight years for the state Division of Criminal Investigation.
His words: "You’d be surprised, you people. There’s a lot of comedy mixed up with all this. If there wasn’t, I’d be dead a long time ago." Like a comment he used to hear when telling about his two times ditching into the ocean. The first was in about 600 feet of water. The second, about 14,000 feet. People will actually say he was luckier the first time. "They knew you could drown in 14,000 feet, but they thought it was pretty nice to only be in 600. I shake my head. I could drown pretty well in about 6 ½ feet of water."
Twice, the B-29 Superfortress carrying Staff Sgt. Ray Clark ditched into the Pacific Ocean. This is the story of the first time.
But first, some background.
Clark was a radio operator with about 20 hours of EMT training. The Army Air Force was getting a new plane, officials told the airmen, a B-29. The plane could fly so high, flak and enemy planes wouldn't be able to reach them. It would be pressurized and heated, no need for those heavy flight suits. To Clark, it sounded like the Waldorf Astoria.
His B-29 was called Devil's Darlin'.
On Thanksgiving Day 1944, on the first bombing raids over Tokyo, they flew through the thickest flak imaginable, even at 38,000 feet. Japanese fighters swarmed all around. So much for flying above the fray.
As the missions continued, the B-29s had to fly lower and lower. Of the first 10 B-29s that went over with Clark's wave, only one was still flying by the time he came home eight months later. A lot more replacements also went down.
On Feb. 4, 1945, Devil's Darlin' dropped to 27,000 feet to bomb an ordnance depot near Kobe, Japan. It was hit just before starting the bomb run.
Here, Clark's story begins. He tells it best:
“We lost an engine, so we were no longer in the formation. That was the Japs' way of doing things, they'd get a cripple and then they'd go after it.
“This is what we got for being at 27,000-foot altitude that day. We thought we were being abused when we went in at 37. It was a different world when you came down a little ...
“At one time, I had two engines on fire. We were just flat going down, that's all there was to it."
In the cockpit, Malone was hit by a .37 mm shell. Malone, the aircraft commander, the pilot who asked Clark to be on his crew before he'd asked anyone else. The pilot who had married a girl two days before shipping out.
The first Superfortresses were electric, and one wrong hit could take out entire systems. Seven or eight bombs wouldn't drop. Clark climbed to the bomb bay and began to release them by hand.
His foot slipped. He dangled out of the plane, one arm wrapped around the bomb rack. He didn't have a parachute.
"It was cold, I remember that. It was really cold ..."
He pointed to his crew photograph: "This old man here was 33 years old. We called him Pappy. He was up on that center section tank trying to (fix) a flap that was down … He saw me going through all this acrobatic, whatever you want to call it. I didn’t know he was there until some years later… He saw me, he squealed, and that’s why I got this.” He pointed to the certificate for his Distinguished Flying Cross.
“Anyway, one of my crew members was a little bit panicky and in a rush to make things as light as possible, he was in the process of throwing things overboard, including my parachute ...
“We had a guy, a really old guy -- he was 45 -- piloting another airplane. He saw that we were in trouble. He got rid of his bombs and he came back against all orders there were about breaking your formation. And he came back and he helped fight off the Japs for, I’d say, about 15 or 20 minutes.
"Finally we got away from them. We were out over the water, on our way home, but we were losing altitude ...
“That’s when I had to go to work. We had no navigation instruments, except I had one radio that worked. Thankfully it was the long range one.
"And for nine hours we just sat there and got one radio bearing after another. And about midnight, we went down to about probably four or five hundred feet and we were losing altitude …"
Finally, they saw lights: Saipan.
The airstrip was on a high plateau. The crew members didn't know if they could make it. If they climbed, they stalled.
"My pilot -- my pilot was my co-pilot then, of course -- he decided that maybe we could make it. My engineer said maybe we got enough fuel ..."
They had plenty of fuel, but no power to transfer it. They ran out just as they were deciding to try for the airstrip.
“It got awfully quiet. We did some scrambling, you wouldn’t believe. And we tried to get him to a ditching position just about the time we hit.”
When a B-29 ditches into the ocean, it goes in tail first, breaking in two. Then the nose hits, and the pieces fill with water.
Outside, Clark pulled the raft releases on either side of the bulkhead door. One floated away in the darkness.
“We had one raft, and it was about half inflated. Five guys were hurt really bad, the rest of us bugged up and we’d be bleeding a drop or two, but nothing serious.
“It was nice warm water that sharks love. It wasn’t a very appetizing thought, but we knew the raft wouldn’t hold us all. So there were five of us swimming. Five of them that were bleeding bad were in the raft.
“We were completely disoriented. It looked like maybe from here over to the Hilltop Bank we could swim and we’d be on shore. Actually those lights were about 15 miles away. But we're swimming and we're thinking sharks. We’re thinking sharks hard enough that I think we saw, maybe, some sharks that weren’t there.”
The Army Air Force had been honing in on Clark’s radio signals before they went down. They swam for about three hours when a patrolling mine sweeper found them.
“It loomed up out of the black and hit us with a search light and just like to have scared the pea wad out of us."