Many people believe that life is what you make it. Claude Monk, who will celebrate his 94th birthday next month, is a perfect example of this philosophy.
From growing up during the Great Depression, to living in an orphanage, from a family drowning, to fighting during World War II, the Tehuacana resident has faced adversity and never let it get him down.
Raised in Limestone County, life was tough from the start. When he was 3, his father died. At 6, the country was thrust into the Great Depression. The Monk family was hit hard by hard times. When Claude was 9 years old, his younger brother drowned. But through it all, he managed to persevere.
With three children to support and another on the way, his mother couldn’t feed her family on her meager income from two jobs. Thus, Claude and his brother, J.W., went to live in the Corsicana State Orphans Home in 1929. His older sister, who was crippled, stayed home.
“It was tough in the beginning. I didn’t feel so good about it,” Monk said. “We missed our mother, of course.” A couple of years later, his sister joined them at the facility.
Once adjusted, Monk enjoyed it. The facility was on 250 acres, which the children were free to roam; there were chores for the boys, including a 100-cow dairy where they learned to milk. There also was a swimming hole, an on-site hospital, sports and plenty more. They had an independent school district that went through the 11th grade. His mother moved to Corsicana to be near the children. Though not perfect, life was OK.
A roof, bed and hot meals
“We had three meals a day and a place to lay our heads,” Monk said. “We had plenty to eat, plenty to wear and we were warm.” Huntsville prisoners made their shoes and some of their clothing.
However, it was also the place where his brother, J.W., drowned in a local stock tank. “Not a day goes by that I don’t think of him,” Monk said.
Still, Monk persevered and went on to graduate high school in 1942.
In November 1942, he and a buddy went to Waco to join the military. His friend chose the Navy, and Monk the Army Air Force. “I didn’t want to swim,” he said.
Through training, he became a radio operator and a gunner. He had never flown before, and the only time he had ever been anywhere away from home was when his mother had taken him to Iowa.
Training across the U.S.
He learned many skills, including Morse code. He traveled throughout the country while training. He practiced on 50-caliber guns in Florida, where he would shoot at an air sleeve pulled by a plane.
In 1943, he was in South Dakota, where they prepared the plane they would fly — the B-24 Liberator, a twin-tailed, four-engine heavy bomber that usually carried a crew of 10 and as many as 12.
Monk became part of the 445th Bomb Group, 700th Squadron, the same Bomb Group famed actor Jimmy Stewart flew with during the war.
While in South Dakota he experienced first-hand what a plane crash was like. They were training on another crew’s plane. The trouble started when the new B-24 began leaking oil. It was dangerous, because it could explode if it crashed. They were too low to use parachutes, so they prepared to land, with the pilot giving instructions.
“We crashed it,” Monk said. “It came in on its belly, and fire trucks came out.” The other crew had to take a boat overseas. Other than a few bumps and bruises, everyone on the crew was relatively unhurt.
The 700th left Florida for Puerto Rico, then British-controlled Guiana in South America. After stopping in Brazil, the squadron crossed the Atlantic to South Africa before moving on to Marrakesh. There Monk met some of the natives, who took the Americans fishing.
From there, they went to the newly built Tibenham Airfield in England, which Monk said was just a pasture converted to a runway. There they made their home base.
“Bombers take close to a half of a mile just to get up and off the runway, especially when they’re loaded with bombs,” Monk said.
The crew of the 700th Squadron named their plane Shoe Shoe Baby for the crew’s engineer, whose wife was expecting a baby when he left the States; she sent a pair of baby shoes after the child was born.
Now, they were ready for their first mission: targets over Germany and France. Monk was 20 years old.
NEXT WEEK: Monk served almost three years before leaving the military. He attended college and went on to work for the U.S. Soil and Conservation District.