Tehuacana’s Claude Monk was 20 years old when he arrived in England with the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, ready for missions as part of the 445th Bomb Group, 700th Squadron. Serving as the radio operator, Monk’s “team” as he calls it, became tight-knit during its time together. The 700th spent the winter of 1943 and spring of 1944 in the UK.
The crew shared a quonset hut, a temporary housing unit, with another crew. The building was heated by a potbelly stove, and the bathroom was outside. At first, almost everything seemed tough.
“You’re dealing with moving to different parts of the world,” Monk said. “It’s like leaving home again. You learn to adjust to situations.” And, as he had all his life, he persevered through it all.
The team’s objective was to make bombing runs over France and Germany. Monk interpreted messages sent in Morse code and transmitted information to the team. There were tactical targets, such as oil tanks, railcars, and anything having to do with munitions — anything that could benefit the German war effort.
Flying in formation with other planes of the 700th Squadron — and sometimes other squadrons as well — they would travel together, almost wing tip to wing tip. The entire group would move back and forth to avoid enemies targeting them. Sometimes the flights could be long; leaving at 5 or 6 in the morning, they would take off and sometimes fly for as long as 12 hours.
“I was scared every time,” said Monk. “We were probably praying more than we let on.”
Operating from lofty heights
The B-24 Liberator plane they flew could cruise at 20,000 feet. From that vantage point, there wasn’t much to see when they dropped bombs. But they could certainly see the incoming anti-aircraft fire. Monk, whose job it was to open the bomb-bay doors, once had a scare due to a miscommunication. During the course, some bombs had become loose. The engineer had to get up on the catwalk to manually release the pins.
They took their share of flak from enemy guns, but other than some holes in the plane — and a case of frostbite for two crew members — those in the 700th Squadron always made it back unscathed. There would be quick repairs made, then they were back in action.
Brush with Hollywood
Besides coming back safely, one of Monk’s memories is among his favorites. He met Jimmy Stewart, who was
the leader of Squadron 703. As such, Monk and the crew flew eight missions alongside Stewart’s group.
Another interesting time was observing barrage balloons hoisted in the air by a winch used by the Americans and other allies to ward off low-level attacks and sometimes bring a plane down with steel cables. “There were hundreds of them,” Monk said.
His worst memories are of waiting for those who never came back. Many times, men he knew didn’t return.
“Many were shot down. Crews would die or become prisoners of war,” Monk said. His brother-in-law was a POW. Some would parachute out, where the French underground would try to reach them before the Axis did. “You had close calls for all your people,” he said.
In all, Monk flew 30 missions and served about seven months in the skies over Europe, earning several medals, including the Distinguished Flying Cross awarded to those who “distinguished themselves in support of operations … by heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.”
Discharged in 1945 as a technical sergeant, he returned to Mexia and eventually enrolled in Southwest Texas State Teacher’s College in San Marcos, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in agriculture. He had planned to teach, but got a call from the USDA Soil & Conservation District. He was sent around the state to advise farmers and ranchers. When he retired in 1979, he moved to Tehuacana.
Monk and his wife, Mildred, have been together for 18 years. They will celebrate their anniversary this month, as well as his 94th birthday.
Monk is the last surviving member of his crew. In addition to his many volunteer activities over the years, he serves with the local Limestone-Falls County Soil & Water Conservation District and attends reunions of the orphanage where he grew up.
Even though life has handed him some tough blows, Monk has made it through still smiling. His secret to staying strong is simple: he follows the Golden Rule. “Giving back is what made the difference,” he said. “I think God’s in control. I get strength from God.”