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Bigger and bigger bombers
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December 23, 1944, Podington, England: Two of eight “Recommendation for Award” excerpts for Captain Raymond V. Clay, 92nd Bomb Group, 326th Bombardment Squadron, 8th Air Force.

“On September 11, 1944, Captain Clay flew No. 4 of the High Squadron “C” Group to Merseberg, Germany. On the bomb run Capt. Clay’s B-17 was badly hit suffering 72 large flak holes knocking out #2 engine, the oxygen system, the hydraulic system, radio and VHS and wounding the waist gunner. Despite the damage, Capt. Clay remained calm as lead bomber and completed the bomb run. On the return trip to base, #3 engine ran dry on approaching the field. Without hydraulic pressure and relying on two of the four remaining engines, Capt. Clay made a perfect landing.”

“On October 7, 1944, Captain Clay led the High Squadron of “A” Group to Ruhland, Germany. Cloud cover obscured the target. Capt. Clay led his squadron through the target area twice before leading the squadron to the secondary target. After a successful strike, Capt. Clay’s B-17 was hit over Osnabruck, knocking out the aileron controls on the left wing. Due to low fuel and aileron damage, it became necessary for Capt. Clay to choose the first field available in England, the fighter base at Leiston. Deprived of aileron control it was almost impossible to line up with the runway. He came in from the right, jumped over four P-51 Mustangs in a dispersal area then hit the runway at an angle. The ship skidded into the grass, but no further damage was inflicted on the B-17 which was in operation in a few days.”

Raymond V. Clay enlisted in the Army Air Corps on Aug. 12, 1942. He worked as a bank teller until called for duty and training on Jan. 28, 1943, but failed the physical because he didn’t weigh enough. Told by the Flight Surgeon to gain some weight then come back, Ray stuffed his body with bananas and gallons of milk. Reporting back for testing, Ray barely met the weight requirement and was finally accepted for flight school.

Courage and patriotism are not measured by weight: Ray Clay became a career Air Force officer, piloting the B-17 Flying Fortress into heavy air combat over Europe and eventually finished his military days behind the controls of a nuclear-laden B-52 jet bomber.

The story of Newton County resident Ray Clay is worthy of a book. This valiant warrior of the skies was born in North Bend, NE in 1920. “I lived with my grandmother and uncles, first in Nebraska, then Wyoming, and finally in L.A., California where I graduated high school,” he said. “After Pearl Harbor, I wanted to join the military but I was too young. I finally got a chance for flight school in 1943.”

Tex Rankin’s Aeronautical Academy, March of 1943, Tulare, CA.: “I first flew the BT-17 Stearman Bi-plane. The Stearman was a terrific trainer, but if you turned it upside down the thing would quit running. We flew from fields, no paved runways. My next stop was Marana, Arizona. We flew the BT-13 Vultee Vibrator. It sure earned its nickname, but it was a bigger plane.”

Yuma, Arizona: “My next step was the twin-engine AT-17 Bobcat, and I thought that was big, then we flew the even bigger all-metal AT-9 Jeep twin-engine plane. But then I went to Hobbs, New Mexico to train on a four-engine B-17 Flying Fortress. Now, that was a big plane.”

Podington, England: “I liked the B-17. It was easy to fly and reliable. I think Boeing builds the best bombers. It brought me and my crew back from 30 missions over Europe, including Berlin.”

Ray’s first mission came a few days after D-Day, flying a low level bomb run in support of Allied troops. “We dropped fragmentation bombs on that mission,” he said. “That was my last low level mission. After that we went back to high altitude bombing, and we seldom flew the same aircraft into combat. The Germans were running short on aviation fuel so their cities were heavily protected by flak. You learn to respect and at the same time hate flak. Those seemingly harmless black ‘poofs’ in the sky are actually thousands of metal pieces called shrapnel. They can rip a plane to shreds, and a direct hit will destroy the plane and its crew.”

When asked about his missions, Ray modestly replied, “Oh, I flew thirty of them.” With permission to review his flight records, this journalist quickly realized a real American hero was being interviewed. Ray Clay flew into the hell of some of the deadliest targets in WWII – Cologne (at least three times), Stuttgart, Kassel, Hannover, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Berlin, and the infamous killer of flyboys: Schweinfurt.

He recalled one mission: “Flak was thick, you could walk on it. A piece of flak came though the aircraft, whizzed around a bit, and landed right between my legs. I still have that piece of flak.” On another mission, “I saw nothing but bombers in front of me, over 1,000 planes bringing the war to Hitler.” On high altitude bombing: “About -70 outside the plane; we had heated suits later in the war, didn’t help much.” On the cost of war: “I never lost a crewmember, but one radio operator just couldn’t take the pressure. He cracked up and had to be replaced.” On another type of loss: “Coming back to England could be hairy. Other groups and squadrons are trying to get home, crisscrossing each other in the sky, it was dangerous. Forming up for missions over Europe was also costly. I remember seeing two B-17s collide. The bombers and those poor boys just disappeared in the explosion.”

By the end of World War II, the 92nd Bombardment Group had flown 308 missions and lost 154 aircraft and their crews from the Podington location.

Sent home after completing 30 missions, Ray Clay gripped the controls of an even bigger bomber: The Boeing B-29. “It was huge, pressurized, the guns computerized, the crewmembers in T-shirts at 30,000 feet. It was quite an impressive aircraft,” Ray recalled. “We were preparing for the invasion of Japan. Thankfully, that never happened.”
After the war Ray returned to civilian life as a banker. “Not a great way to support a family in those days,” he said. “I went back on active duty during the Korean War flying B-29s. I was assigned a radar calibration squadron. We made bomb runs on our West Coast to challenge radar sites set up along the coast, basically trying to sneak in without being caught, probing our national defense systems.” Asked if he managed to sneak in, Ray responded, “Nope, got caught every time.”

By 1953 Ray and his family moved to Bermuda. “That was good duty,” he said. “The kids loved Bermuda.” Asked his duties, Ray responded, “Oh, I hunted hurricanes.” Explaining his responsibilities, Ray said, “We flew the B-29s into the eyes of hurricanes. It’s very quiet inside an eye, we circled around for about six hours collecting data. However, flying in and out of a hurricane can be a bit hairy, it’s rough, with very heavy turbulence. We lost a few hurricane hunters. If caught on the ground, we’d face the bombers into the wind and rev up the engines to match the ground speed of the hurricane. That way we prevented the B-29s from flipping over.”

Ray was reassigned to the B-50s. “Yep, a bigger plane,” he said. Special secret missions were flown out of Saudi Arabia. “We were rigged with sensitive gear to pick up air samples containing nuclear particles from Soviet A-bomb tests.”

Barksdale AFB, LA – 1956: “Well, there it was, the biggest airplane I’d ever flown, the Boeing B-47 Stratojet, six engine, turbojet powered strategic bomber, America’s first jet bomber. I didn’t like it. The B-47 had a tandem cockpit, the pilot in back, copilot in the front seat, and a navigator/bombardier in the nose. It was easy to get sick on a B-47, I mean you are strapped in a seat for seven or eight hours, no room to maneuver….I didn’t like it. Then in 1958 I was assigned an even bigger bomber, the biggest I ever flew, the B-52 Stratofortress. Now that, is a big airplane.” Eight engines, a 48’ tail, wing span over 170 feet, nuclear or conventional bombs, the B-52 is still in service and is considered the best strategic bomber ever built. Today, no B-52 pilot is older than the aircraft under his/her control.
During the Cold War, Ray Clay did his part to keep our enemies at bay. He was on a 30 day alert during the Cuban Missile Crisis and ready to fly his B-52 to safety or hit an assigned target if America came under attack from foreign missiles. Airborne alerts, called ‘Chrome Dome”, kept Ray airborne for 24 hours. He recalled, “We were nuclear armed and ready to hit Russia if ordered to do so. A ‘Chrome Dome’ flight required two in-flight refuelings, about 120,000 pounds of fuel each. The fuel was pumped through a boom from a KC-135 jet tanker. When hooked up, we flew about 15 feet from the tankers’ tail for about 30 minutes. It took a 27 hour day for a B-52 crew to spend 24 hours in flight.”
Ray Clay retired from the Air Force on March 1, 1968 after serving his country for 26 years. He worked for another 15 years as a simulator instructor in civilian commercial aviation before retiring in 1983.

Honor Flight Conyers was delighted to have Lt. Col. Raymond V. Clay as one of our veterans for the April flight to Washington, DC. Indeed, the Lt. Col. was a hit with an admiring public, wearing his Air Force dress blues for the trip.
A job well-done sir. Our country thanks you.

Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at or