The Sidney Sun-Telegraph - Serving proudly since 1873 as the beautiful Nebraska Panhandle's first newspaper

By Larry Nelson
For The Sun-Telegraph 

Veteran's History Project - Clark E. Wicks


Clark E. Wicks


U.S. Army Air Corps


EDITOR'S NOTE: Veteran's History Project author Larry Nelson is taking a few weeks off. During that time, we'll re-run previously published features about local veterans. The following story about Keith R. Rieken first appeared in the Sun-Telegraph on June 23, 2012.

Clark Wicks was barely sixteen years old when World War II began. Much before that, he was helping work the family farm near Colome, South Dakota. He knew first-hand about the long hours, the hard physical labor, the dust constantly blowing, and the John Deere General Purpose tractor's exhaust system that seemed to blow into the face of the operator.

He informed his father that he was going to find a job in "town". But he was just seventeen. There weren't many jobs to be had. Not far away was the Army Air Force Recruiting Office. Clark wanted to be a flyer. Being a sailor or a marine didn't quite have the appeal that flying did. With the permission of his parents, he signed up. Then, he had to wait a few months until he was eighteen. He worked on a crew assigned to maintain 25 miles of track on the Union Pacific railroad.

In January 1944, the Army Air Corps notified Clark that it was time. In that he had already passed the physical evaluation, he was sent to training in Missouri. The endeavors of basic training weren't a big deal for Clark. He had been working hard most of his young life and already knew what early morning was all about. Moreover, the high school superintendent had been a soldier in WWI and ran the school in a way the military would have been proud of. Clark had also had a few months of ROTC. He knew the drill.

Toward the end of basic training, the Army Air Corps decided that they would not need the 30,000 cadets that they had in the pipeline for further training. The wars in Europe and in the Pacific were still raging, but cutting back was in order at least where Clark was.

When Clark heard that information, he immediately went to the orderly room and got his name on the list for gunnery school. If the flight training was out, the next best thing would be working as a gunner on one of those fine airplanes.

When the list for gunnery school was published, Clark's name wasn't on the list. But, he had been the first to sign up for it? First Sergeant, there's a problem! In digging into the matter, inaccurate information had been entered into Clark's medical record that must have pertained to someone else. He was advised that if he was smart, he should stay where he was because his records indicated he was not deployable. Well, the information wasn't true and it wasn't what he signed up for. He had been a competitor in track meets just five months earlier, and now this? Fortunately, he got another look. Clark received a new physical and was "good to go", and first on the new list.

From Missouri, he was headed to a training base near Las Vegas, NV. The trip was on a train and it passed through North Platte, NE. Clark was present at the famous canteen which fabulously served so many of America's soldiers.

At his new training station, the trainees had several things on the schedule. The most pressing would have been the disassembly and assembly of the 50 caliber machine gun that they would be firing in combat. This training consists of learning the names of the various parts (upper receiver, lower receiver, adjusting the head-space and timing, trigger mechanism, etc) and how all the parts worked together. There were days of breaking the weapons down several times and re-assembling them. The soldiers had to perform a function check and if they heard the correct "click", they were good. Usually, at first, not many clicks were offered. That means, tear it back down and do it right! (Expletive deleted)

Another part of the work was cross training. In combat, if a crew member was injured (or worse) someone would know what that man's job was then be able to do it as well. Clark's initial firing position was the tail gun on a B-17 the "Flying Fortress". He would also have to know how to operate the chin guns, the ball turret (under the airplane) guns, the side guns, and the bombardier's assignments. A couple of things about that... Clark and many others were very hesitant to be the operator in the ball turret. This position was in the middle of the fuselage, on the underside of the aircraft. It was very important, but... if the plane was damaged and might crash, the panic on-board often meant there was no one to get the gunner out of his station. If the plane lost electric power, someone had to use a crank to lift the man out. The gunner here could not get out by himself. He had to be helped. These gunners were beyond brave.

The B-17 was also newly equipped with radar for bomb delivery purposes. This was new technology for this plane and required additional training.

The training needed to be continued over some water. Big water. Clark and others were sent to MacDill Air Force Base at the south end of Tampa, Florida. (This is now the Headquarters for U.S. Central Command and US Special Operations Command and the 6th Air Mobility Wing.) At this installation, the flight crews were picked/named. Now, a small group of ten men began working together. They fly training missions out over the water west of Tampa and lots of other places. Moving out of the classroom and into real situations is much better. When the plane is in the air, Clark wanted to be able to fly the plane. It was his job, kinda. He spent plenty of time in the cockpit of the B-17, flying and living the dream.

Clark's combat position was at the tail of the aircraft. There was a small door that the man crawled into. It was a chore getting in there, especially with your parachute. Once in place, it was OK. The training there was good. The crew learned teamwork. (Clark has a good photo of his crew. They stand in their sheep skin jackets, in front of a B-17. Names are written on the back of the picture.) He is assigned to the 482nd Bombardment Group, 8th Air Force.

Things happen though. One of the first flights, the plane was being readied. The engineer, new like the rest of them, failed to read the fueling process right. He thought it was full but it wasn't. Luckily, the pilot caught it. In time, the Army Air Corps moved the crews northward, into cold, snowy weather and last staging before heading to Europe. The aircraft there were assigned were brand new. It was essential that they do shake-down flights to get the kinks worked out. The onward flight took them to upstate New York. The first location was filled up. Their secondary site was Syracuse, New York.

Here, Clark's first job was to secure the airplane, overnight. He said they used forty blankets to stay warm. At first, they didn't know how best to apply the layers, but soon found a way to make a human sandwich...with blankets under and over them.

The crew's Captain was experienced with aircraft. He heard something he didn't like on one of the engines. He went to the controls and revved it and quickly, the engine seized. Hot oil ran out of the block and onto hot manifolds resulting in a fire that was quickly put out. In a couple of days, another engine failed. They had to be replaced. It was better to find out here, than in the air, no? It took quite a bit of time for the replacement engines to get to upstate New York. The other planes in their group had left for the war. Finally, they are able to fly to England. In March 1945, The group was placed at Station 102, Alconbury, Huntingdonshire, England.

The big fights against the German Forces were pretty much winding down. Clark and his crew didn't get to do fulfill what they had been trained to do. This crew is on the ready line. Instead, they made themselves useful on the ground.

Clark stayed in touch with home by letter writing. The living accommodations would have been better if the guys didn't have to walk quite a ways to the shower. There were no outside entertainers that visited. Passes to get off the base were not available.

Victory in Europe was announced. Clark's group was quietly informed that there was still a war being fought in several islands in the Pacific Ocean. They prepared to depart for that. Luckily the flights for Japan were called off. Hopefully, it was time to head home. Clark reached the rank of Sergeant and had seen quite a bit of the country and had been overseas, trained and ready for the fight.

Once back in the U.S., Clark was discharged. He had already met and soon married the "prettiest woman" named Ruth. Clark found work in the retail grocery business and hardware business but made his mark in the field of life insurance sales. He is a lifetime member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Thank you for your service, Sergeant Clark Wicks.


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