This story on World War II veteran Clay Wilson originally was published in the Raleigh South Connection in 2007.
Although he spent less than a year in Europe during World War II the memories of Clay Wilson are enough to fill a book.
In fact, his time spent flying bombing missions over enemy territory and hiding from German soldiers after being shot down in France read like the script of a Hollywood movie.
But those experiences were not a work of fiction. Sadly, they were all too true.
Wilson was a B-17 gunner during the early days of America’s involvement in the war. The fighter escorts that would one day famously protect Eighth Air Force bombers deep into Germany didn’t exist yet. The bomber squadrons flew missions alone and the staggering casualty rates bore witness to the danger of their duty.
Nearly 70 percent of Wilson’s original squadron mates were killed, wounded or shot down and captured.
Wilson was one of the lucky. He was shot down but managed to elude the Germans for six months before being arrested in Spain and sent back to England.
The difficulty of those tasks, however, paled with the gut-wrenching discussions he had with parents of dead crew mates upon his return from the war.
He contacted the parents of tail gunner Albert Williams who was just 22 years old when he was killed. Stationed just a few miles from their home in Jasper, Fla., Wilson would frequently visit them.
When the war ended the Williams family decided to travel to France and bring home their son’s body.
“He was an only child and they had gotten over the worst part of their grieving,” said Wilson. “They went over (to France) and it was so peaceful they decided to leave him over there.”
The saddest meeting was with the elderly mother of navigator Lewis Utley, 24, of New York. Devastated by grief she couldn’t accept the fact that her son would never come home.
Wilson vividly remembers the mission when Utley was killed and can recall seeing Utley’s dead body in the crippled B-17 before bailing out. But Mrs. Utley refused to believe him.
“When I was stationed in Charlotte she found out I was there and contacted me,” said Wilson. “She wanted to know if she could come down and talk to me. I told her all about it. I saw him dead in the craft before I got out.
“I said, ‘Ms. Utley, your son was killed. I’m sorry.’ She said, ‘I don’t believe it. I think he will come home after the war.’ I couldn’t convince her. She had some kind of faith that he would (return) but he didn’t. It was sad.”
Looking back at his days in the war, Wilson marvels that his parents never had to face a similar reality.
Man with a plan
Born on May 27, 1918, Clay was one of 12 children raised by Willie and Mattie Wilson on a tobacco farm just outside of Angier.
Wilson became a bit of a rarity among rural boys in Harnett County by maintaining an interest in his school work and eventually earning a high school diploma.
Upon graduation, his sister and brother-in-law asked him to run their service station in downtown Holly Springs. They also promised that he would eventually inherit the business as his own.
It was a wonderful offer for a new high school graduate during the tough economic times of 1936.
“The garage was in Holly Springs where the current town hall stands,” said Wilson. “There was about 300 people there then. I was kind of bent mechanically so it was a good spot for me.”
For the next five years, Wilson pumped gas, repaired engines and kept the business thriving. He even met a local girl and the couple had plans for a wedding. All of those plans changed on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941.
“It was a Sunday afternoon and I was (driving) about halfway between Holly Springs and Apex,” said Wilson. “I ordered a radio from Sears and Roebuck and installed it myself in a ’40 Chevrolet. The news of Pearl Harbor came on. I said, ‘Gal, we’ve got to change our plans.’ The next morning I went and volunteered. Things didn’t work out (with the girl).”
Not thrilled with the idea of being at sea with the Navy or marching endless miles with the Army, Wilson volunteered for the Army Air Corps on Dec. 8, 1941 and was called for duty on Jan. 5, 1942.
Hurrying to get men ready for combat, the Air Corps limited basic training to a couple of weeks at Wichita Falls, Texas, and then Utah. Because he had a high school diploma he was chosen for gunnery school in Las Vegas before returning to Utah and being assigned to a crew.
Since he stood just five-foot-six-inches, Wilson was assigned to the ball turret position on the belly of the bomber. The small, dangerous bubble was widely considered the worst job on any aircraft.
“It would turn around 360 degrees and 90 degrees vertical,” said Wilson. “It operated on hydraulics on this big ring gear. If something happened you had to crank it by hand and get back into the airplane. You didn’t carry a parachute with you, there wasn’t room for it. It was perilous really.
“It suited me. It was like flying an airplane. You had to use both hands and both feet with your controls. It was rather complicated, like driving a tank or something.”
By August, the 423rd Squadron of the 306th Bomber Group was crossing the Atlantic headed to England. Their home base was near the small village of Thurleigh, about 10 miles outside of Bedford.
“We knew we were getting ready for the big fight,” said Wilson. “We were all anxious. We had been training for it and it’s exciting flying and shooting your guns.”
Into the war
On Oct. 9, the squadron flew its first combat mission, hitting a massive railroad terminal in Lielle, France.
On the next three missions the squadron targeted German submarine pens along the coast of France. It was on their fourth mission, to the heavily fortified area of Saint-Nazaire, that Wilson’s crew suffered their first casualties.
“We dropped our bombs, took a left turn off the target and headed back to England,” said Wilson. “We lost an engine (to flak) and we started going down some.”
Once the bomber fell out of formation with the other B-17s it became an easy target for swarming German fighters.
“There were about six fighters and they were coming in from all directions,” said Wilson. “A shell hit the top turret and blew the boy’s head off. We lost another engine and we got way down (close to the ground) so the fighters couldn’t come in on us too much.
“But they got another shell in and took half of the navigator’s face off. It didn’t kill him. Another came in and hit one of the waist gunners in the leg.”
Riddled with holes from flak and machine gun fire, the hardy B-17 made it back to England where it crash-landed on a Polish fighter field in south England.
“The boy who got shot in the face was from Vicksburg, Va.,” said Wilson. “I saw him later and he told me it took them 12 years at Walter Reed Hospital to get his face back to normal. He worked at the Pentagon for years and he looked pretty darn good when I saw him.”
On Feb. 16, Wilson flew a mission to Saint-Nazaire for the fourth time. It was his 13th and final mission in the war. German fighters shredded his B-17 and seven of the 10 crewmen were killed.
“We were leading our formation and dropped our bombs,” said Wilson. “We took a left turn and saw the fighters coming in. Unfortunately for us, the pilot got it right through the forehead. He was a big man and when he fell over on the controls we took a dive because his weight was on the controls.
“By the time we got him off the controls we (fell) four or five thousand feet. (The Germans) really gave it to us. They knocked out an engine and one shell killed both waist gunners. The tail gunner didn’t answer on the radio so he was either dead or wounded.”
When a second engine caught fire the co-pilot told the crew to bail out. Wilson, who had been promoted to flight engineer and now sat in the top turret, looked below and saw his badly wounded radio operator struggling to get out of the plane.
By the time he helped his crew mate out of the door the plane had fallen from 24,000 feet to about 10,000 feet.
Wilson jumped from the plane and opened his parachute and watched as a German fighter closed in on his position. What happened next came as a surprise.
“When I was falling in my parachute one of the fighters circled me and waved,” said Wilson. “He was radioing my position (to ground troops) but at least he didn’t shoot me. They were winning the war when I was over there. Later on they started shooting them in parachutes when they were losing the war.”
Wilson believes the veteran German pilots in the early years of the war had a respect for other fliers even if they were the enemy.
“I think those pilots were gentlemen,” said Wilson. “They were well educated. The Germans are smart people and they were doing what they were told to save their country even if Hitler was crazy.”
On a gorgeous, sun-splashed Sunday afternoon, Wilson made a soft landing on muddy ground and began to plan his next move. As he was hiding his parachute among the hedgerows he realized he was bleeding. Fortunately, the wound wasn’t serious.
A hunted animal
Walking at night and following the road signs, Wilson headed south and searched for someone in the French underground who would help him elude the Germans.
“By the third day I felt like a darn animal being hunted,” said Wilson.
He finally approached a small farmhouse that he had been watching for several hours and knocked on the door. He spoke to the middle-aged man and woman in high school French and showed them his dog tags.
Knowing that the Germans would sometimes pose as American fliers in an attempt to infiltrate the resistance fighters, the French couple used extreme caution with their new guest.
“I asked them if they knew anyone with the resistance and they said, ‘Maybe,’” said Wilson. “He went and got a schoolteacher and she could speak English. She left and came back with a priest. They checked me out every way in the world to make sure I was an American.”
Wilson was moved around to several other farmhouses over the next few weeks to keep French collaborators from discovering his location.
The French decided to put Wilson in a safe house in Paris. He and two resistance fighters boarded a train filled with Germans and made the journey to the French capital.
Wearing old clothes and a beret, Wilson played the role of a deaf mute while his two companions sat nearby.
Once in Paris it was discovered the Germans had arrested members of the group who were supposed to help Wilson. So he was once again take back into the French countryside.
For a month he was kept at a massive chateau owned by a New York woman who had married a French count. He and two Canadian pilots stayed in the home at night and hid deep in the woods during the day.
After the Germans became suspicious of the American woman, Wilson stayed with Trappist monks at an ancient monastery.
“They all risked their lives for me, every single one of them I met,” said Wilson of the countless French who hid him from the Germans.
The final plan set in motion by the French resistance was to smuggle Wilson into neutral Spain where he could find help at the American embassy in Madrid. The grueling journey over the Pyrenees Mountains ended as a Spanish border patrol arrested him.
He remained in prison for over a month before he was driven to Gibraltar and flown to England in a C-47 cargo plane.
It was at Gibraltar that Wilson was able to send a brief telegram to his family and let them know he was safe. In the seven months since Wilson’s plane had been shot down his family didn’t receive any information about his fate.
“They thought I was dead,” said Wilson. “I wasn’t reported missing or killed and the government didn’t report that I was a prisoner. They said it about drove my mother crazy.”
Back in London, Wilson was kept under guard until he was thoroughly debriefed by Allied intelligence officers.
“They wanted to know everything they could about my escape route so they could pass it along to other boys in case they were shot down,” said Wilson.
After a one-on-one meeting with a three-star general who promoted him to master sergeant, Wilson returned to his airbase in Thurleigh for a final visit. He took along a bottle of whiskey and gave it to the ground crewman who had rigged his parachute before that fateful mission.
“He said, ‘Damn, you’re the first one to ever come back and thank me for their chute,’” said Wilson. “But that was a wasted trip because I didn’t know anybody but the ground crew. Everyone else that had gone over with me had been shot down or killed.”
Wilson was told that he could never fly another combat mission because the Germans would execute him as a spy if he was shot down and captured. So he was returned to New York and given a job at the Pentagon.
In late 1943, he was also granted his first leave since joining the service nearly two years earlier. He used his much deserved free time to visit his family in Holly Springs.
“I never had seen my people since I went in,” said Wilson. “I got a leave and went to see my parents. That’s the only time I saw my daddy cry. It was very emotional.”
While at home Wilson discovered that his sister and brother-in-law had kept his 1940 Chevy in good condition for him. But they also told him he couldn’t drive it much because of the strict rationing of gas.
The owner of Mitchell Chevrolet in Fuquay knew Wilson from years earlier and heard what he went through in the war. He told Wilson he’d never have to worry about his gas tank running dry.
“He told me he would fill my tank for me for all I had done in the war,” said Wilson. “He said I had earned it.”
It’s a fact that no one can ever argue with it.