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Airmen Missing in Action to Be Honored in New Memorial

Twenty POW/MIA flags wave in a steady breeze during a retreat ceremony commemorating National POW/MIA Recognition Day Sept. 16, 2016, on Dover Air Force Base, Del. (U.S. Air Force photo/Roland Balik)
Twenty POW/MIA flags wave in a steady breeze during a retreat ceremony commemorating National POW/MIA Recognition Day Sept. 16, 2016, on Dover Air Force Base, Del. (U.S. Air Force photo/Roland Balik)

For six days, Maj. Leonard Clark and five other airmen drifted in the Pacific Ocean as the sun beat down on their bruised and bloodied bodies.

Saltwater stung each time a large wave washed over the side of their inflatable raft. Sharks crept precariously close, retreating only when the battered airmen mustered the strength to swing their boots at them.

The airmen survived a crash and beat away sharks, but it was just the beginning of the horror they would withstand as they became prisoners in Japan during World War II.

Clark, a bomber pilot, flew missions over the Pacific theater during World War II for the 5th Air Force's 403rd Bombardment Squadron, 43rd Bomb Group, which is the modern-day 43rd Air Mobility Operations Group at Pope Field. He and other members of his squad taken by Japanese forces at Kyushu island in 1945 will be among 31 airmen honored in a new POW/MIA memorial at Pope Field on Friday.

"I think about the freedoms that these men fought for," said Susan Clark Lanson, the pilot's daughter. "It's important to remember and honor these men. We're not going to forget their sacrifices."

Clark died in 2003 at the age of 86. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Since his death, his daughter has pieced together his service through service records and letters he sent to her mother during his tour to the Pacific.

Lanson is working with historians and other families to research and track down airmen who were part of the 403rd Bombardment Squadron who may have been declared missing. Because the squadron pre-dates the Air Force and fell under the now-obsolete Army Air Corps, complete records of service members are scarce.

Clark served in the Air Force from 1939 to the mid-1940s. He began his service as a test pilot assigned to the 43rd Bomb Group's 403rd Bomb Squadron.

Clark took a seven-year break and went home to Ohio to work for family businesses. He returned to the Air Force as a major and retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1968.

During World War II, units under the 5th Air Force engaged the Japanese throughout the Pacific. Its 403rd Bomb Squadron became one of the primary occupation forces in Japan.

The Japanese nicknamed the squadron the "Mareeba Butchers," a nod to Mareeba, Australia, where the unit was stationed and pushed out from.

In total, Clark participated in 73 combat missions against Japanese forces in the Pacific theater during World War II.

The mission that ended in a crash and water landing ultimately ended his tour in the Pacific.

From what Lanson has pieced together, there was a mechanical issue with the B-25 medium bomber her father was flying, she said. The aircraft was performing missions to clear and neutralize towns in the Japanese islands ahead of infiltration by American soldiers and Marines.

The aircraft was headed from Tokyo to Okinawa when it went down.

At that time, officers often elected to go down with the aircraft if a crash was imminent to avoid capture by the Japanese, who were known to behead American military officers.

Clark, however, successfully landed the faulty aircraft on the Pacific. There were eight American airmen aboard; two drowned trying to swim to the raft.

The six men who survived were bruised from the crash, Lanson said. She remembered her father broke his collarbone and left leg. Yet, the men pulled their bodies over the side of the raft.

They opened Red Cross survival kits hoping to find fishing hooks and collapsible cups, but were devastated to discover the kits were empty. Clark always said the lack of nutrition and water weakened the men, Lanson recalled.

For the next six days, the men floated in the ocean with the sun beating down on their bodies. Lanson remembered seeing scars on her father from where the sun and saltwater gnawed at his broken leg.

The raft eventually caught a current that pushed the airmen closer to land -- Japan's Kyushu island. It would have been a haven, if it wasn't filled with the extremist Kamikaze pilots and civilians who survived an American bombing just three weeks earlier.

When the airmen reached Dort Beach in the southern part of the island, they were greeted by Japanese forces. And although Japan had surrendered at that time, the Americans were beaten and left to die.

For several days, fellow American airmen circled the skies above searching for the wreckage. The men were declared missing, and telegrams and letters were sent to families.

Clark's wife, Anna Mae, received a letter before a telegram. She was distraught, Lanson recalled.

"This letter is to confirm my recent telegram in which you were regretfully informed that your husband, Major Leonard H. Clark, 0402342, Air Corps, has been reported missing while on a routine flight in the Pacific Area since 20 September 1945," according to an Oct. 15, 1945, letter from Maj. Gen. Edward Witsell.

Japanese civilians found the beaten Americans and loaded them onto a train to take them to a Kamikaze base in Kanoya. When the train reached its destination, it was discovered that two more men had died.

Lanson said her father thought the men succumbed to their injuries from the beating because they were too weak from the time on the ocean.

"He always said, 'They didn't have to die'," Lanson said.

In the meantime, American soldiers and Marines had arrived in the northern part of the island. The soldiers pushed south and eventually received the four surviving airmen.

"That, in my opinion, is why any of them were alive," Lanson said, noting the Army's role in rescuing the surviving airmen.

The men were put on a hospital ship, which took more than three months to reach the United States.

Even after the crash and seven-year hiatus from the Air Force, Clark was drawn back into service.

He served as a bomber pilot in the Korean and Vietnam wars.

"He was patriotic," Lanson said. "He believed in what he was doing. He believed what they were doing was the right thing for the world."

--This article is written by Amanda Dolasinski from The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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