The following story was originally published in The Herald on June 7, 2008. Clay Wilson was the guest of honor at Monday’s media day for the Liberty Belle B-17 fighter plane at Sanford-Lee County Regional Airport.
By BILLY LIGGETT
SANFORD — It all happened 65 years ago, but to hear Clay Wilson recall in detail his eight-month Missing In Action journey through France and Spain during WWII after he parachuted from his shotdown plane, you’d think it all happened yesterday.
But Wilson, who turned 91 years old in May, has told the story so many times, it’s like he’s memorized the pages of a book. Only his heroic tale — which included hiding in the woods for weeks to avoid German soldiers, a search to find the underground “la resistance” movement, staying in a chateau with an American countess, pretending to be a deaf mute on a train full of Germans and finally, internment in a Spanish prison camp — is more riveting than most books and movies from that era.
Some might say you couldn’t make this stuff up.
Wilson was a guest of radio host Burke Buchanan and Grace Chapel Church Pastor Rudy Holland to recall his WWII experience on Friday, the 64th anniversary of D-Day on the beaches of Normandy.
The North Carolina native who grew up in Angier began his story at the beginning — recalling the day he, a 20-yearold mechanic in Holly Springs at the time, first heard on his car radio about the bombing of Pearl Harbor — Dec. 7, 1941.
“Honey, we’ve got a change of plans,” he told his girlfriend at the time. “They’re gonna draft me.”
Less than a month later, Wilson was on his way to Fort Bragg with other draftees and was soon shipped to Wichita, Texas, a placed he recalled to be the “muddiest on Earth.”
After a few months of basic training in the Air Force, Wilson took a train through the Rockies to Utah, where he was assigned to his first B-17 bomber crew. His stint in Utah soon turned into a stint in Vegas, then another stint in Utah.
Though he wasn’t the pilot, Wilson flew on countless training missions — both during the day and at night. The training was constant, and there was no time to return to North Carolina for family leave. In fact, Wilson wouldn’t see the Tar Heel state until after his time in the war.
When the Air Force felt Wilson and his crew were war-ready, they were flown to Newfoundland, where they took off in the middle of the night to fly across the Atlantic to Scotland and eventually their permanent base in England, just north of London.
Wilson’s first memory of England was the weather.
“Never a sunny day, always in the fog,” he said. “It was just plain awful.”
In October, 1942, Wilson and nine others flew their first bomber mission in France.
“There were several planes, and I think we lost one,” he said. “We had 10 men on each plane and 10 machine guns … we were heavily armed.”
Early missions included bombing submarine pens, heavily reinforced concrete structures used to house German U-Boats, which were causing havoc for the U.S. military. German fighter pilots would attack his plane on one mission, wounding four and ruining the plane, which had to make an emergency landing at a Polish fighter base.
In January of 1943, Wilson’s plane flew its first mission into Germany … a much more dangerous task than previous missions.
One month later, on his crew’s 13th mission of World War II, their plane dropped bombs on German soil for the last time.
“The Germans learned that we didn’t have guns at the nose of our plane,” Wilson said. “So they learned they could come in at eye level with us and be protected.”
He said a bullet hit his pilot between the eyes, killing him instantly. As the co-pilot and Wilson went to grab him, the pilot fell on the controls, sending the plane into a nose dive.
Other shots killed the plane’s gunners. Bullets knocked out one engine, then another.
“We really lost altitude,” Wilson said. “The co-pilot said maybe we could get it back up. Our radio operator had been shot in the hip, and he was bleeding. Eventually, we decided we had to bail out.”
Seven of the 10 men on the plane were killed, Wilson said. The injured radio operator parachuted first, then Wilson, then the co-pilot.
“I fell a good 1,000 feet before I opened my chute,” Wilson said. “The (German) pilot flew by and saw me, and I remember he just waved at me. At that time, they were winning the war. Later on, I learned they were shooting at the parachuters.”
That incident marked the first in several fortunate incidents for Wilson after he landed on French soil. The day he parachuted, he waited in the woods all night, drinking from a nearby stream only so he could take pain medicine. Armed with a map, a compass and a little bit of French he learned in high school, Wilson walked alone at night — jumping into the woods at the sight of any bicyclist or car that came by — and walked for three days until he came upon a solitary house occupied by a French family and a small child.
“I watched them a whole day to make sure it would be safe,” Wilson said. “I finally walked up to the door and knocked, asking ‘Parlezvous Francais?’ He said, ‘American?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ They knew there were Germans coming by pretending to be Americans to see what they would do, so they were still pretty unsure about me.”
Joining ‘la resistance’ But he would gain their trust, and after a big breakfast — his first real meal since the crash — he asked if the family knew of “la resistance.”
Many European countries had their own resistance movement during the war, dedicated to fighting the Axis invaders. Even Germany had its own anti-Nazi movement.
Resistance groups comprised of small groups of armed men and women, publishers of underground newspapers and escape networks that helped Allied soldiers. While the family Wilson met were not part of it, they, of course, “knew somebody who knew somebody.”
Wilson was taken to what he called “a large stone house” and met with a man who could introduce him to somebody in the movement.
On his fourth day there, they were drinking a barley coffee (the war prevented Colombian coffee from reaching Europe), when there was suddenly a knock on the door. On the other side — German officers.
“They hid me upstairs for three hours,” Wilson said. “And after having drank all that coffee, I really had to go. I saw an urn in the room there and when I couldn’t hold it any longer, I used that urn. When I finally left that house, I never did tell them what I did to that urn. That kind of always worried me.”
Wilson stayed with a corn farmer for another week before being moved to a chateau owned by an American woman who married a French count. He stayed with the count and countess and two French-speaking Canadian soldier for three months before the “chief” of the local underground movement was able to work a deal where Wilson would be interred at a camp in Switzerland … which for American soldiers, wasn’t such a bad thing at the time. But to get there, they had to take a train. Wilson dressed like a Frenchman and played the role of a deaf mute on the train, which was occupied by several German soldiers. But the planned hand-off in Switzerland didn’t go as planned, and Wilson had to take the train again back to the chateau … where he would end up celebrating his 25th birthday.
Imprisoned in Spain
As if it couldn’t get any weirder for Wilson, he learned he would be handed over to a smuggler in Spain after a failed attempt to meet up with a speed boat near the Chateau. He rode on a train to Spain with a few French teenagers and the chief.
“When we got there, (the chief ) told me, ‘I’ve done my job,’” Wilson said. “But eventually, we were captured by a Spanish patrol and taken to Pamplona. I was put in a prison that was full of Spanish generals they’d captured during the (1936) Spanish Revolution. I wasn’t mistreated or anything, but the beans they served us had as many white worms in them as beans.
“But at least it was food.”
After a few weeks, a prison general asked Wilson to tell him his story. After Wilson told his tale, the general left for a few days and came back in a black station wagon. He and Wilson went on a threeday drive through Spain and arrived in Gibraltar, where medical crews checked him and cleared him as still healthy.
He then boarded a cargo plane and flew all night back to his base near London … worried the whole time that the unarmed plane could still fall victim to German fighters.
“Before that, Leslie Howard (the man who portrayed Ashley in ‘Gone With the Wind’) was riding a cargo plane that was shot down, so I was a little worried,” he said.
Back to safety
By September, 1943 — eight months after being shot down — Wilson was back at his base, though the faces were unfamiliar.
“I didn’t know anybody,” he said with a laugh. “Everybody was either shot down or imprisoned.”
He stuck around for a few days, telling the other men of his journey, and he was eventually sent back to the states via Iceland, Greenland and eventually, New York City. He boarded yet another train to Washington, D.C., and was then stationed at the Pentagon, where he was to brief the military on his escape.
“I still hadn’t been home all this time,” he said. “But they wanted to keep me around. They wanted to send me all over the country to tell other soldiers my story, to let them know that even when you’re caught, there’s always hope. I was supposed to be a big morale-booster for the Air Force.”
And so he did travel the nation for six weeks, staying in nice hotels and being treated with what he called a semicelebrity status. But the travel finally wore him down, and Wilson requested that he be stationed close to home.
In early 1944, Wilson was stationed in Charlotte, which allowed him to make several drives to and from Sanford. It was in Charlotte where he first heard of the D-Day invasion, and it was in Charlotte where he learned the Germans and Japanese had surrendered.
And it would be in Sanford where Wilson would settle down and begin working for Home Supply.
Born in the middle of a family of 12 children, Wilson still has four siblings alive today, including a 97-year-old brother in Angier, and 85-yearold brother and two sisters, ages 88 and 80.