World War II POW and B-17 Pilot Howard Claflin

Posted By on September 3, 2009

While talking with a long time client and friend Bruce Claflin about  the business climate, our conversation turned from that sour subject to our  families.  We both have close ties to living World War II USAF veterans and  have sons heading in a similar direction — AF ROTC. HHoward Clafflinis son being older and finishing up his university program recently and talking with Bruce  seemed like a good place to gain some insight … so father-to-father I picked his thoughts on how to help my son navigate the politics and challenges.

As the conversation progress, we ended talking more about his dad’s experience (Howard Claflin)  as a B-17 pilot than ROTC.  Eighty-eight year old Mr. Claflin was recently interviewed by  Brian Albrecht of the Cleveland Plain Dealer and I found the article interesting enough to pass on to my father-in-law. The interview and video footage below, was done at the  MAPS Museum at the Akron-Canton airport last month, the same place our family visited  a few years ago. Reading and listening to this generations stories leave little doubt in my mind that,  as coined by Tom Brokaw, they were and areThe Greatest Generation.

B-17s over Berlin

A WORLD AT WAR Bomber pilot Howard Claflin recalls his first mission of World War II and the day he got shot down.

As the vintage B-17 bomber landed with a roar of remembrance at Akron-Canton Airport last month, nearly 100 World War II veterans watched and took a slow, heartfelt breath of the past.

An icon of their youth, these bombers once filled the skies from Europe to the Pacific during the war. Bristling with machine guns — top, bottom, front, back and both sides — it was aptly named the Flying Fortress.

The vets would get a chance to get up close and nostalgic in tours of the old “Fort,” plus a B-24 Liberator bomber and P-51 Mustang fighter that also had flown in as part of the Collings Foundation’s Wings of Freedom Tour, barnstorming across the country.

One of those vets just watched with a knowing smile as the others lined up for their chance to soar over the horizon of history.

Howard Claflin, 88, of Silver Lake in Summit County, had already been there — flying B-17s with the 8th Air Force on 16 missions before being shot down on a flight over Hamm, Germany, and spending 53 weeks as a POW.

The restored plane carried a bomb-bay full of memories for Claflin. “It was a good aircraft to fly, one of the best,” he mused, watching as the B-17 taxied to a halt.

Claflin had wanted to be up in the clouds ever since a German zeppelin cruised over his childhood home in Akron. “That’s when I said I want to fly someday,” he said.

When war broke out, the Cuyahoga Falls High School grad enlisted in the Army Air Forces, got his pilot’s training and flew straight into the meat grinder in the skies over Europe. The 8th Air Force’s 47,000 casualties (including 26,000 deaths) represented about half of all Army Air Force losses during the war.

Claflin got an appreciation for the risks on his very first mission — a bombing run to Berlin, the first such raid by the 8th Air Force, that took three flights to complete. After bad weather scuttled their first attempt, the formation had to turn back a second time due to heavy losses from enemy anti-aircraft fire when the sky, as the former pilot recalled, turned black from exploding flak.

“You were just lucky,” Claflin said of what became a routine of running a gantlet of fighters and flak. Once safely back, “all you thought about is, I’ve got another day,” he said.

His biggest worry was his plane being damaged and forced from the protective cover of the bomber formation. Instant fighter bait. “The worst thing that could happen is to get out by yourself,” he said. “Then you’re in real trouble. Then they’d come and get you.”

Yet he remained optimistic. “I was always wondering how it could get better,” Claflin said.

He’d need all the optimism he could muster after flak hit his plane just as it dropped its bombs over Hamm. Claflin and two other crewmen parachuted to safety but were immediately captured.

One of the POW camps where he was imprisoned was Stalag Luft III. Claflin arrived a month after 76 Allied airmen broke out of the camp through tunnels (as popularized in the movie “The Great Escape”). Only three made it to freedom, and 50 of those recaptured were executed.

Claflin said the Germans posted signs at the camp: “Escape is not a sport. You will die. We will shoot.”

But the POWs persisted. Claflin said he was assigned to scraping lead solder from food cans to be reused for splicing electrical wiring to light other escape tunnels.

One of his most harrowing experiences came at another camp near Hammelburg when British bombers hit a nearby target at night.

As Claflin and other POWs stood outside to watch the fireworks, one of the bombers was hit and dropped like a fiery comet straight for the camp. “I thought Boy, it’s going to hit right on us. This may be the end,’ ” Claflin said.

Suddenly, he saw a vision of Christ, clear as day, spread across the sky. The stricken plane roared overhead, just clearing the camp, then exploded.

Claflin said nothing of the vision. Nor has he ever tried to explain it. “I usually don’t tell people about that,” he said. “But it happened. That’s all I can say.”

Otherwise, life as a POW involved long weeks of cold and deprivation. As the number of Red Cross parcels shipped to the prisoners dwindled, food shortages became a major issue.

Claflin recalled that one time a rabbit made the mistake of hopping into camp. It was immediately surrounded by 600 hungry POWs who formed a circle, linking arms, foot-to-foot, so somebody’s dinner wouldn’t escape. It didn’t, nor did Claflin ever get a taste of that German hossenfeffer.

But there were also moments of kindness and understanding from his captors, according to Claflin.

While traveling on a train to be interrogated shortly after his capture, Claflin said he was spit on by an enraged German civilian. Understandable. He shrugged it off. But when his guard momentarily left, an elderly woman sitting across from him gave Claflin a sly smile and slipped him a roll of hard butterscotch candy.

“That was something I’ll never forget,” he said.

As the war neared an end and POWs were marched away from the advancing Allied forces, Claflin said the prisoners helped carry the rifles of their guards — mostly old men in their 60s, the last dregs of Germany’s former military might.

“They all told us the German people would kill us if they could,” he said. “One guard told me, One day when this war ends, I’ll go home to nothing. My home is gone. My family is gone. Everything is gone. I hope you fellows get a better deal than we did. You deserve it.’ ”

Claflin returned home to a career in sales, a marriage to his wife, Margaret, a Cleveland girl (now deceased), and raising four sons.

When he looks back on the war, it’s with a sad sense of the tremendous loss of life but a firm belief in the necessity for military preparedness.

The war also taught him a lifelong lesson, Claflin said. Even when others around are being blown from the sky, even as your own crippled plane spirals toward certain doom, even as your life drains away in the slow starvation of a POW camp . . .

“There’s always a chance,” Claflin said. “Never give up.”

UPDATE: A book that details one of the return B-17 missions that his father talked about — although pricey enough that I’d like to find it in a library: Night of the Intruder: First-Hand Accounts Chronicling the Slauhter of Homeward Bound USAAF Mission 311


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