On this Independence Day, consider the experiences of Benjamin Clarke Jr., who paid a very high price to help assure our freedom and independence. Clarke Jr. spent three years of his life in the infamous Stalag 17-B prison camp in World War II.
His career started with flight training in 1943 in Walla Walla, Wash. Overseas in England, he was an original “Hell’s Angel” radio man and waist gunner with the 360th Squadron of the 303rd Battalion in the First Wing.
His aircraft, “Shangrila Lil,” flew missions over Holland and Germany. Clarke Jr. remembers the missions as “milk runs.” “We were 15 minutes in, 15 minutes out, over V2 rocket installations and German submarine bases.”
His plane was shot down over Germany in August of 1943. The crew bailed out and seven were captured. He was among 1,400 prisoners of war who were sent by boxcars to Stalag 17-B.
We were 15 minutes in, 15 minutes out, over V2 rocket installations…
It was a rough trip. The sanitation was very bad and they were packed in like sardines for the couple of days it took to travel from Camp 7-A to Stalag 17-B.
“We couldn’t talk to the other prisoners. They were French and Polish and Russian.”
According to Clarke, the movie, Stalag 17, was part true and part fiction. “The scene where the man was on the water tower did happen and he was killed. There were a lot of tunnels being dug throughout the camp. There was a man called the ‘Grey Ghost’ and he did manage to escape a couple of times but was caught.” Clarke remembers that there was word around camp about an informant but this did not take place in his barracks, 36-A.
As the end of the war approached, Clarke Jr. was one of over 4,000 prisoners who were sent on what they called the “Death March” for 18 days, 280 miles, through the Weidhard Forest, to Austria. They were liberated by General George Patton’s 3rd Armored Division on May 3, 1945.
Benjamin Clarke Jr. has a unique distinction as an American Veteran. He was born on November 11, 1919, the first Veterans Day.
He will be spending 4th of July with his family. He is a true citizen soldier and “American Hero” to his family and friends. His children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and extended family are very proud of him.
Clarke is very proud of the men and women who are fighting today’s war. “They are doing a great job. They are fighting a different type of war than mine and I hope they all return safely.”
There were 4,237 enlisted men, most from the Eighth Air Force, rescued from the camp at the end of the war. Here is a photo of the surviving members at their last reunion.