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Davis Journal

The Bountiful man who survived two Nazi POW camps

Apr 12, 2024 08:29AM ● By Braden Nelsen
Dr. Clay flew many missions in a B-17 bomber, just like the one pictured here. Public Domain

Dr. Clay flew many missions in a B-17 bomber, just like the one pictured here. Public Domain

BOUNTIFUL—The recent Apple series, “Masters of the Air” reminded many of the sacrifices and service of those in the United States Army Air Forces in World War II, and to hear the story of Dr. Robert Blaine Clay, it would be hard to believe it wasn’t the storyline from one of those episodes: a bomber pilot crash lands in occupied Denmark, spends time in Stalag Luft III, the very camp from “The Great Escape,”and survives to the end of the war, making his way home to friends and family. It sounds like a movie, but it’s one man’s real life.

Born and raised in Willard, Utah, Clay wouldn’t call Bountiful home until after World War II, but would soon become a staple in the community for decades thereafter. Clay joined the service in 1941, at the very young age of 23. After training, and being shuffled around what was then the United States Army Air Forces, the then Captain Clay was assigned to the 351st Bomb Group, 509th Bomb Squadron, based out of Great Britain.

Though trained on several different aircraft, the bomber that would carry Clay through the war was the famous Boeing B-17 G bomber. An immense airplane dubbed the “Flying Fortress” due to its armament and ability to take a beating, the B-17 was a favorite amongst aircrews in the European Theatre of War. Carrying a crew of 10, the heavy bomber was ideal for flying deep into occupied territory, eliminating high-priority targets, and bringing many if not all of her crew back intact.

Captain Clay’s missions would take him all over occupied Europe, targeting such locations as Nazi ball-bearing factories, ports, munitions factories, submarine and aircraft assemblies, railroads, airfields, and more in an effort to curtail Nazi activities across the continent. Across his time with the 509th, Captain Clay would fly 17 missions without incident, creeping up on the requisite missions needed to rotate home. That last mission, however, number 17, would prove to be very unlucky.

“So we took off with our squadron leading the group and flew over the North Sea

and onto Berlin…we flew in and on the bomb run I started to lose oil pressure and I

feathered one of my engines, the right inboard (#3 engine). Ordinarily, I should abort and let the deputy leader take over, but we only had about another two minutes before bombs away so I just upped the manifold pressure to maintain the airspeed. I led until bombs away, then I aborted and headed on back home…So I flew back across Berlin all alone.”

Captain Clay related that, despite his and his crew’s best efforts, he could tell they were going down by the time they reached the coast. He got a heading for neutral Sweden from the navigator, and, flying by only their instruments through the fog, they made their last ditch effort to make it to safety. Following orders, they began ditching important equipment en route – knowing that it would be likely that they were going to crash, things like the newly invented Norden Bomb Sight, could not fall into the hands of the enemy.

After coming down out of the clouds, Captain Clay gave the order to bail out, and one by one, the 10-man crew did just that. He sent his co-pilot to the rear to ensure everyone had made it out and then told him to follow suit: Captain Clay would have to ride the plane in if it was to stay level enough to bail. In a moment that could have been ripped from an adventure film or novel, the co-pilot, 1st Lt. Frank Hatten said that he was staying. 

“I said, “Okay, man. Buckle up.”...I just kept getting lower and I couldn’t see a decent

place to crash-land…Pretty soon I was in a timbered gully with hills on each side…And I thought, “Well, I just follow this down and just slide in wheels up.” We were just clipping tree tops when just ahead was a dirt road filled to exactly my altitude! And I was just flying straight into it! So I just aimed for the top. And just as I started over, the right wing stalled out and hit this dirt road and spun us around. It broke the plane in two and twisted the tail section just outside the co-pilot’s window! I remember nothing but noise and streaks of light and banging and jerking around.”

Not only did Clay and Hatten survive, but so did each and every one of his crew. Despite the adrenaline-filled landing, however, their journey was just beginning. The bomber, appropriately nicknamed “Stormy Weather,” had not landed in Sweden, but in fact, in occupied Denmark. Soon, the entire crew was picked up, and on their way to POW camps across occupied Europe. Captain Clay was bound for Stalag Luft III, from which 76 men had only recently escaped, the majority of which had been executed.

Because of this terrible loss of life, Clay and the other airmen in the camp were instructed to avoid escape attempts. Still, that didn’t stop Clay and others from causing a bit of mischief, such as the time he related when they mopped their floors when a German guard was inspecting beneath their hut. The guard ended up soaked in muddy water, and soon exacted his revenge, making the allied airmen stand outside for hours in the rain while they “counted” the prisoners.

Clay and others would be held at Stalag Luft III only until January 1945, when the soviet advance forced the Nazis to move their prisoners closer to home. That’s when things really went downhill for Clay. He was taken to Stalag XIII in Nuremberg, an old camp that had been in use for years, and showed its age in many ways. Clay and others had to deal with fleas in their bedding, sub-par insulation, and clothing, and not enough food, or good enough food to go around.

Clay would be moved one more time to Stalag VII-A, just outside of Moosburg, where he was reunited with the rest of his B-17 crew. It would only be about three or four weeks by his reckoning that they were there before General George S. Patton’s tanks would liberate the camp. After being recovered by the US Armed forces, Clay was taken for recuperation, given a shower, and clean clothes, and eventually sent back to the States.

Though extraordinary, Davis County’s own “Master of the Air” Clay’s experiences were not dissimilar from the millions of other men and women who served in the United States Armed Forces during World War II. He and the countless other heroes of that generation paved the way at an extremely young age, and their stories, thankfully, will live on


*Quotations from the “Saving the Legacy” Project, and The American West Center