Museum volunteer shares story of service

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Zachary Cacicia
  • 436th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
It was January 1945, and 21-year-old Lt. Donald Clark found himself piloting a C-47A Skytrain over the Western Front as the Battle of the Bulge was coming to an end. The aircraft was on its way to resupply Lt. Gen. George Patton's 3rd U.S. Army, and its tanks, with fuel and ammunition, as they began their push into Germany.

Fast-forward 70 years and Clark has long since moved on from his C-47A days. Now you can find this 91-year-old volunteering at the Air Mobility Command Museum here, educating and sharing his stories with the younger generations.

Clark's story started years earlier on a quiet family farm in the heart of Delaware. It only took an early graduation, a white lie and a few rigorous months of training for Clark to find himself in the cockpit of the C-47A.

As a young child, Clark's passion for all things aviation began to sprout.

"I was a farm boy and I always wanted to fly," Clark said.

As Clark progressed through school, his studies focused primarily on an agricultural vocation. Nonetheless, his passion for aviation continued.

"When I was in high school, the war was already going on," Clark said. "I would skip classes, take my grandfather's car and come out here (Dover Army Air Field) and sit on the west side of the field. I'd watch the B-25s as they flew in and out of here while they were going on patrols over the Atlantic."

Clark was like most young men of his age at that time - swept up by the war. As a high school senior, he applied and was accepted into an aviation cadet program.

But before his acceptance was made official, he had to receive his parents' permission, but more importantly, their signature.

"I only lied to my parents one time," Clark said. "I told them that I had to go, even though I didn't."

Because Clark came from a farming family and their farm exceeded a certain acreage, Clark would have been exempt from the draft and military service.

After telling this white lie to his parents, all he had to do was wait for graduation and he would be sent off for cadet and flight training.

"It was February 1943 and the principal called me down to his office," Clark said. "He said, 'get out of here, you're supposed to report on the 13th of February.'"

Clark said he was confused by this. He previously believed he would not be called up until after he graduated a few months later. His principal informed him that he was lucky that the Delaware State Legislature had just passed a law allowing schools to give students in good standing an early diploma in an effort to support the war.

Within a few weeks, Clark was in Birmingham, Alabama for pre-cadet training. Training was six demanding months of college classes, primarily focusing on physics. Upon completing this, Clark was sent to a classification center in Nashville, Tennessee.

"It was three days of physical, academic and psychological tests to determine if I would be a pilot, a navigator, a bombardier or wash out," Clark said. "I was selected to be a pilot."

Initially, Clark was assigned to fly A-26 Invaders, but was transferred to the newly activated 1st Troop Carrier Command, where he would soon learn to pilot C-47s. Clark completed all three required phases of training, racking up over 200 flight hours, and was selected to become a 1st pilot, what is known today as a command pilot. Clark was now fully trained to be sent to Europe.

When Clark arrived in war-torn France on Jan. 1, 1945, it had already been seven months after the Allied invasion at Normandy; the Germans' last ditch counter-offensive (the Battle of the Bulge) was crumbling and the Allies would soon be entering Germany itself.

Stationed near the front, just outside of Paris, Clark and his crew were broken up and assigned to different aircrews.

"We all became co-pilots and joined different crews," Clark said. "It was a real big letdown, but after flying two or three resupply missions, we realized we weren't as smart as we thought we were. It was a good thing we went through that period with the older people."

For the next five months as the war went on, Clark flew a total of 81 missions, 27 of those being credited as combat missions. The majority of these missions saw Clark and his crew flying their C-47 to the front lines, loaded with ammunition and gasoline. On their return flights, their aircraft was usually loaded with the wounded for transport back to France or England, depending on the severity of the wounds.

"We did most of our supply work for Patton and his 3rd Army," Clark said. "The armies were moving so fast that the trucks couldn't keep up with supplies. That's when the Troop Carrier Command came in with 900 airplanes."

Clark recalled one of his most unforgettable and adrenaline pumping missions.

"The clerk came to me and told me to unload my cargo of gasoline, that I've got a special mission," Clark said. "Oh, Jesus, right off the bat, we thought this is good; maybe we're going to fly to Yugoslavia and drop off supplies for the partisans."

Clark and his crew were instructed to fly to a field just outside of Reims, France, and wait.

"It was just a farmer's field," Clark said. "We landed and there we waited about a half an hour, and finally a couple of trucks came down the road."

Hoping for something exciting, Clark was humorously surprised with what he had to do.

"An officer jumped out of one of the trucks and said, 'Are you guys on special mission 1-2-3-4 or whatever,'" Clark said. "Yeah, that's us, I said. 'OK, we got a priority load here,' he said. 'Your orders are to load this as quick as you can and waste no time in getting to your destination.'"

Clark could not believe what his cargo was.

"A whole load of toilet tissue!" Clark said. "We had to take it to the 1st Army up north. They had dysentery."

Returning from the mission, he and his crew became the subject of many jokes from the other aircrews.

"Beforehand, we were bragging to the other crews," Clark said. "After that, we received a lot of flak."

With the war in Europe ending in late spring of 1945, Clark continued on in Europe, flying for the newly created European Air Transport Service (EATS). Even though this service acted as a civilian airline, transporting people all over the continent, the aircraft and crews were from the Army Air Force.

During his time in EATS, Clark was given the opportunity to fly around many VIPs and was eventually offered a pilot job from Trans World Airlines. They wanted him to fly a converted C-47, based out of Geneva, Switzerland. But Clark decided against this.

"It had been over two years since I'd been home," Clark said. "I was homesick, so I went home in August 1946."

Returning home and not wanting to give up his passion of flying, Clark utilized his knowledge of both aviation and agriculture to start a successful business.

"Being a farm boy, I started a crop dusting business," Clark said. "I did it for 10 years and had six airplanes."

He sold this business to start Clark Seeds, a seed business that still operates to this day in Clayton, Delaware.

Besides this, over his lifetime, Clark served on the board of directors for two Delaware banks, on the board of directors for the Federal Reserve Bank in Philadelphia, on two school boards and was eventually elected to the Delaware House of Representatives for 12 years.

However, Clark always maintained a love and interest in aviation. This is what brought him to the AMC Museum.

"I brought my grandchildren out here one day, about 10 or 12 years ago, and I was taking them around," Clark said. "This guy was following me around and asked me, 'Why don't you come out here and volunteer?'"

The individual who approached Clark was Mike Leister, the AMC Museum director.

"Don Clark is an American original," Leister said. "He's one of two remaining World War II veterans who work here at the museum. Here, you get to actually talk to the people, like Clark, who lived that history. To get the first hand experiences is awesome."

After retiring, Clark began volunteering at the AMC museum.

"I love airplanes," Clark said. "And I love to talk to about them, especially to people who are interested."