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Cedar Rapids man flew 53 missions as B-17 crew member in World War II

Robert Clark of Cedar Rapids enlisted in the Army when he was 17 years old and flew 53 missions in World War II. Photographed Friday in Cedar Rapids. “I’ve seen some of the worst days anybody has ever seen, and I never complain,” he said in an interview. “When you wake up, it’s good. There’s always something to look forward to. I kind of hope I live to be 100. I got a lot of living to do yet.” (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Robert Clark of Cedar Rapids enlisted in the Army when he was 17 years old and flew 53 missions in World War II. Photographed Friday in Cedar Rapids. “I’ve seen some of the worst days anybody has ever seen, and I never complain,” he said in an interview. “When you wake up, it’s good. There’s always something to look forward to. I kind of hope I live to be 100. I got a lot of living to do yet.” (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Robert Clark flew 53 missions as a ball turret gunner on B-17 bombers in World War II — one of the most dangerous assignments with only a glass bubble protruding from the craft to protect against enemy fire.

Today, Clark is 95 and a stern believer that “every day is a good day.”

“I’ve seen some of the worst days anybody has ever seen, and I never complain,” he said from his Cedar Rapids home. “When you wake up, it’s good. There’s always something to look forward to. I kind of hope I live to be 100. I got a lot of living to do yet.”

When Clark enlisted in the Army in 1942, B-17 crew members were required to do 25 missions before being eligible to come home. When Clark reached his 25th mission, he was given the option of a 30-day furlough and returning to England to continue as a gunner, or 90-day furlough and being sent to the South Pacific. He chose the 30-day furlough and a return to England.

“I had friends over there, and I knew quite a few people,” he said. “I wouldn’t like (the South Pacific) because of the amount of water you had to fly over.”

It was during that 30-day furlough that Clark met his future wife — Mary — in Monticello. They married on Jan. 27, 1946, after Clark again returned to the United States on a day warm enough to wear short sleeves, he said. Two days later, there was an ice storm. The couple went on to have two sons and a daughter.

After returning from furlough, Clark flew another 28 missions — completing an almost unheard of run of 53 missions flying over Germany and dropping bombs.

Finally, his duty was complete, and he was sent home.

‘JOIN THE ARMY’

Clark grew up on a farm in Earlville, completing only a 10th grade education before joining the military.

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One day after school in 1942, he decided to hitchhike to Dubuque, where he tried to enlist in the Navy. When he told them he was only 17, recruiters turned him away and dropped his application in the trash.

From there, he hitchhiked to Cedar Rapids where he saw a sign that said, “Join the Army.”

This time, when he was asked how old he was, he said 18.

The application required his father’s signature, so he took the papers home, But his dad didn’t want to sign.

“I said, ‘I know somebody who will,’ and I went over to see the neighbor and he signed it,” Clark said.

He said his dad was “madder than a wet hornet” when he left for the Army. His oldest brother and brother-in-law recently had been drafted. Clark thought, “If they’re there, I guess I can go, too.”

Soon after, Clark was shipped off to infantry school in Florida, where he said he met the movie star Clark Gable. Gable had also enlisted in the Army that year and underwent training in Florida.

Clark was later transferred to Kearney, Neb., where he was trained to be a ball turret gunner — a duty that went to someone small enough to fit in the tight confines.

“I was a gunner because I was a little guy. I was the short one of the bunch and also the youngest,” he said. “It was no picnic up there in the air.”

TRADITION OF SERVICE

Clark lost some friends in WW II. He learned to “live today, not tomorrow” and has no regrets about enlisting at such a young age.

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All of Clark’s brothers served in the military. His oldest son was in Korea and his youngest son was in Vietnam.

Clark’s great-great grandson currently is serving in the Navy and is stationed in Spain.

“I am very proud of my sons and my grandchildren,” he said.

Comments: (319) 368-8664; grace.king@thegazette.com

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