GREENWOOD - Second World War air gunner Clark Montgomery smiles as he proudly displays the good luck charm that accompanied him on every mission.
“This little man here he made every trip with me when I was flying overseas... and the crew would not fly without him,” the 95-year-old Greenwood resident said.
Aptly – and fondly – referred to as “little man,” the stuffed airman is decked out in a flight suit, goggles and, in case of emergency, a parachute.
“My crew believed that as long as we had this little fella with us, nothing's going to happen,” he said.
“I always had him in my flying suit. I had a big pocket and he was in there.”
It was a gift from one of Montgomery’s sisters, who sent him a care package containing a Bible with a steel plate inside and little man prior to his first mission as a mid-upper gunner in a Canadian-built Lancaster bomber in 1943.
“Even when I went flying civilian on airplanes, I wouldn't fly without that,” said Montgomery, a member of 428 Ghost Squadron.
“Aircrew are always superstitious.”
Yearning to fly
Montgomery joined the war effort with ambitions of being a pilot. He enlisted in 1941, and was eager to serve overseas.
“I wanted to fly so bad it hurt.”
Originally from Milltown, N.B., he ended up being registered in an eight-week gunnery course before he had a chance to be trained as a pilot.
“I was a pretty good shot, and I had a pretty good record,” he said.
He didn’t smoke, drink or party. He understood how crucial it was to treat his role with the utmost importance, and made a point of shining his own turret in between runs knowing that the smallest fleck of dirt could be mistaken as an aircraft during flight.
Montgomery flew his first mission in the Lancaster as a tail gunner, but the crew had to make a switch after the original mid-upper gunner, a former cop from Toronto standing at six-foot-three, was uncomfortable in the tight quarters.
“He had a big handlebar mustache and he looked like he could tear the side off a wall,” said Montgomery, noting that the mid-upper gunner had to be able to move fast in the confined space in the event of a bail out.
“In the mid-upper turret you can't wear your parachute, you have to put it on the wall and you've got to come down out of that.”
The crew’s skipper, a former mid-upper gunner, made Montgomery repeatedly practice getting into the bail out position until, on the seventh attempt, he demonstrated that he was able to do so in less than five seconds, three seconds faster than his skipper’s best time.
“It was a hard place to get out of.”
Montgomery didn’t pine after the pilot’s seat for long after he became the mid-upper gunner. In fact, he preferred to not be in a position where he had to rely on someone else to be a good shot.
“At least if you're back there you can do something about it... I figured I was in the best position,” he said.
“When I got to mid-upper I was satisfied because I had a better view.”
Life on the line
The seven-member crew faced many close calls, returning home on two or three engines at the close of some missions.
“You would come back and you would count the holes in your aircraft,” he said.
He vividly remembers the day the crew was running late and left to wonder if they’d successfully cross the English Channel on two engines to reach an emergency landing spot in England.
“(We were) in the bail out position three times. We didn't think we were going to make it,” he recalled.
To make matters worse, the crew encountered enemy fire amid thick cloud cover.
“They shot the heel off of the skipper's boot.”
Montgomery said his training taught him how to remain focused on the task at hand when faced with grave danger, but for years after the war he fought to forget the disturbing images of downed Lancasters and comrades killed in action.
“It wasn't very pleasant.”
Pushing past the past
Years after his role as a sergeant in the Second World War ended in December 1945, Montgomery could be heard shouting orders to the other gunner on the Lancaster in his sleep.
He didn’t make a habit of sharing war stories when he came home, and opted to turn his attention to other things: raising a family, being a good husband, serving in the military until his retirement in 1971, playing sports, hunting and fishing.
Montgomery remembers his young son coming home from school one day and asking why his father didn’t serve in the war like the other dads.
“I said I'm trying hard to forget about that and I hope to God that you'll never have to go through what I went through,” he said.
When legions invited him to share what he learned in the war with students attending local schools, Montgomery declined.
“I said I learned to take a machine gun apart in the dark and put it back together again. I learned the 12 best ways to kill a man and, if you get me on the ground and get me in trouble, I had four commando courses teaching me hand-to-hand fighting… would you like me to teach kids that?”
Some things, Montgomery stressed, are best left unsaid.