By John Van Winkle
Academy Public Affairs
The Academy’s sixth superintendent died Monday at the age of 96.
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Albert P. Clark, a resident of Colorado Springs, was the superintendent from Aug. 1, 1970, to July 31, 1974.
“The Air Force Academy and the entire United States Air Force lost a great leader this week and is deeply saddened by the loss of General A.P. Clark. He was my superintendent when I was a cadet; he was a trusted mentor and friend,” said Lt. Gen. Mike Gould, the Academy superintendent. ”
General Clark was a 1936 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and went on to a flying career after graduation.
He went to England in June 1942 with the 31st Fighter Group, the first American fighter unit in the European Theater of Operations. His unit was flying British Spitfires on July 26, 1942 when his squadron and two other Allied units engaged a group of Luftwaffe FW-109s just inland of the French coast near the town of Abbeville. In the aerial melee, then-Lt. Col. Clark became separated from his flight lead and was pounced on by four German fighters. Eluding these, he later took flak damage and nursed his aircraft into a crash landing along the coast near Cape Grisnez. He was soon take prisoner, interrogated and transported to Stalag Luft III, in what is now Poland, as a prisoner of war.
In the POW camp, the general continued his efforts to resist the enemy. He wound up in the Allied officers’ camp and was one of the first Americans interned with the largely British officer population at the time. The Allied Airmen kept themselves well-organized, dividing up duties to continue their war effort in their ever-expanding camp. Lt. Col. Clark’s job demonstrated his organizational and managerial prowess.
“I became known as ‘Big S,'” General Clark wrote in his book, 33 Months as a POW in Stalag Luft III. “We knew that in the spring, when we moved to the new camp, the Germans would search each of us thoroughly. The task of getting our money, false travel papers, tools, compasses, maps and civilian clothing through the search would be a formidable one.”
While some small escape efforts were made, larger plans were in place. Individual escape efforts were attempted in 1942 and 1943 with varying degrees of success and failure. But the Allied Airmen were working toward a more long-term objective. They spent months digging three underground tunnels to get past the camp’s perimeter and created their own mini-factories with the goal of equipping 200 escapees.
On the night of March 24, 1944 a group of Allied Airmen hazarded a sandy, claustrophobic tunnel to escape Stalag Luft III. The escape tunnel didn’t go far enough outside the wire and was dangerously close to the midpoint of one of the guard’s patrol routes.
“As it turned out, 76 men were able to clear the area and two or three were caught above ground at the exit,” General Clark wrote. “Some 50 to 60 men, still head to toe in the tunnel, had to crawl backwards all the way back … fumbling and thrashing in total darkness.”
Seventy-three of the Airmen were eventually recaptured and 50 were executed by the Germans. Memoirs and histories from that escape attempt formed the basis for the 1963 film, The Great Escape.
Also during his years as a POW, General Clark documented everyday life in the POW camp. U.S. Army Intelligence disguised cameras and other equipment in parcels which were sent to specific POWs and packaged to appear as if the POW’s family had sent the parcel. Because some camps used POW labor with Axis oversight to inspect the high volume of inbound packages to the prisoners, vital pieces of equipment got through to the prisoners and enabled them to continue their escape and resistance efforts.
Through the general’s efforts, some of the compasses, maps and other clandestine equipment are on display in the McDermott Library’s sixth floor, in the Special Collections section here at the Academy. Among those items is a compass made by a POW using part of a broken phonograph record and stamped “Made in Stalag Luft III.” But it was the covert camera use and General Clark’s ingenuity that helped tell future generations about the camp.
“My objective in the use of our secret cameras was to photograph all of the essential elements of life in prison camp including German personalities, the security facilities, the rations, the living conditions, and so forth,” he wrote. “I knew it would be quite a coup and would provide important informal history of the camp if we were able to get these photos home. This vital work was conducted at considerable risk, as most of it would be considered espionage.”
The film was not developed in the camp but kept hidden until after the war.
The general also kept scrapbooks of life at Stalag Luft III: both life in the camp and clippings from German newspapers and magazines on German leaders and military equipment.
“The collection was being mounted in big scrapbooks, the covers made out of cardboard from the Red Cross parcels and pages of newspapers. It was beginning to become more than a hobby, almost an obsession, and it contained a wealth of information that I had vague hopes of someday getting home,” General Clark said.
The general and his fellow Allied prisoners were freed in May of 1945. His post-World War II assignments included staff positions at Tactical Air Command, Continental Air Command, Air Defense Command and Air Force Headquarters. He later served as chief of staff for U.S. Air Forces in Europe, vice commander of TAC in 1965 and commander of Air University in 1968 before taking the helm at the Academy in 1970.
His military decorations and awards include a Distinguished Service Medal, two Legions of Merit, an Air Medal, an Air Force Commendation Medal and a Purple Heart.
After retiring from active duty, the general stayed involved with the Air Force Academy. He became a founding member of Friends of the Library in 1987 and never missed an Academy home football game.
His funeral mass is scheduled for Wednesday in the Catholic Cadet Chapel at 10 a.m. followed by interment at the Academy Cemetery.