As newly married soldier, New Mexico man survived WWII combat
He cradles her framed photograph in his hands. Lightly, he touches the glass covering her cheek. She has a narrow face and crystal blue eyes, with the distant look of a mind slipped away.
It has been two years and four months since Betty died. Clark Cooley keeps track. Her absence, after almost 69 years of marriage, still hurts.
They had met in Elmira, N.Y., as World War II engulfed Europe.
Clark was 18 and working in construction. Betty, a year older, was working as a press operator at the Eclipse Machine factory.
Clark had fled his family’s Pennsylvania dairy farm as soon as he could. His father had died when he was a baby. His mother, a tough brick of a woman, had raised six children — he was the youngest — and ran the farm.
“I knew I didn’t want to be a farmer,” Clark says during a recent interview at his Santa Fe home.
Betty had fled her own family in Bath, N.Y.
The first time Clark saw her — a beautiful girl with a mass of auburn hair — Betty was getting off a train. He and a buddy offered her a ride.
He called on her the next day, dapperly dressed. Betty was engaged to someone else, but Clark figured he could steal her away.
Asked by a friend later which of the two men she thought she would marry, Betty said she would pick the little guy with the sense of humor, the one that reminded her of Bing Crosby. That was Clark.
A determined young wife
In 1943, as soon as he had turned 18, Clark signed up for the Army. He wanted to see a little of the world. His construction boss told him he was crazy and offered to help get him out of the draft. And later, as Clark watched friends die on distant European shores, he thought maybe his boss was right.
Clark was sent first to Fort Hood, Texas, for basic training. He had warned Betty that Fort Hood was no place for a girl. But Betty, a determined woman, took the train to meet him with $40 in her pocket. “I told her, it’s Saturday, we can’t get married,” he recalls, chuckling. “She said, ‘We’re getting married.’ ”
They took a bus to the closest town and bought a ring. The jeweler knew a justice of the peace who was a little drunk but willing to write out the wedding certificate on a Saturday. He knew a minister in a nearby church willing to perform the ceremony on short notice. Someone poured Clark a big shot of 100-proof Old Crow before they exchanged brief vows.
“I shouldn’t have had it. I was about half-looped by the time I got ready for the ceremony,” he says of the bourbon.
The next day, Clark left for a weeklong training, and Betty had to fend for herself. When he returned, he discovered that she had found a job and a small apartment.
“She had everything under control,” he says. “I thought, ‘That’s a pretty good girl.’ ”
By the time he shipped out for Europe a few months later, Betty was pregnant. Their first son, Craig, was born while Clark was fighting overseas.
Betty moved back with her father in New York.
“He was a miserable old cuss. She hated him,” Clark says. “But she had no choice.”
Ordinary men giving their lives
Clark was part of the 113th Cavalry Reconnaissance Mechanized, the men who used tanks instead of horses. He was part of a team of 80 soldiers who scouted several landing sites along the Normandy beaches on the edge of the English Channel in preparation for D-Day.
Near dawn on June 6, 1944, the main American force landed at Omaha Beach. The Germans were waiting. “The beach turned out to be a deathtrap. They killed more than 1,500 of us. They shot us from the cliffs,” Clark recalls. “First thing I noticed was dead guys floating in the water.”
Men fell around him, he says, men he had befriended. The next day, a bulldozer buried the dead in mass graves. After the war, they were reburied properly at the Normandy American Cemetery overlooking the beach.
The losses continued. Every day, ordinary men gave their lives to save others.
Clark recalls one battle in which a German gunner on a hill in the trees kept knocking out Allied tanks. “The guy in the first tank that was knocked out couldn’t get out,” Clark says. “He was trapped under the turret, and the driver of the tank was dead. He kept firing and killed three people on that German gun. He saved the rest of us.”
The man, who’s name Clark couldn’t remember, died that day. Until then, Clark says, “I never thought of him as anything special. He was just an ordinary guy.”
Clark’s platoon joined the force crossing France, fighting the Germans as they went. Clark remembers it as “a grim time.” But he says, “The French dug up all the old wine they had hid from the Germans and gave it to us along the way.”
Clark was among the Allied troops who endured the bloody German offensive that became known as the Battle of the Bulge, lasting from mid-December 1944 to mid-January 1945. “I got to where I could sleep through the bombs,” he says.
On the day the war ended, Clark was sitting across from another soldier in a half-track military vehicle. The soldier was messing around with a pistol and accidentally fired it; the bullet passed through the seat next to Clark’s head. He had seen plenty of men killed by friendly fire, he says; he was glad to escape becoming one of them.
A family’s joys and heartbreaks
Clark returned home to Betty and his new son. It had been two years since he had seen her.
He had nightmares about the war, but he didn’t dwell on them. “It all disappears after awhile,” Clark says. Like many World War II veterans, he didn’t talk about the war for decades.
Back home, he needed to make a living for his young family. On a counselor’s advice, he attended New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas, N.M., with help from the GI Bill, to prepare for a teaching career. College money from the bill stretched further in New Mexico, and living expenses were cheaper here than in New York.
While in college, he landed a job as an inspector for the State Seed Lab. The job paid $400 a month — a lot of money back then.
Clark was in charge of inspecting seeds for the northern half of the state. It was a big territory, and the Cooleys saw all of it — from Farmington to Taos to Raton and down to Albuquerque. Early on Saturday mornings, Clark and Betty would load up Craig and some food in their Chevy. They would drive to a feed store or other business offering commercial seed. Clark’s job was to take samples and send them to the state lab at the New Mexico Department of Agriculture to check purity and germination. The couple enjoyed touring New Mexico’s rural villages and towns. Betty fell in love with the mountains.
After he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education at Highlands, Clark taught at the Las Vegas middle school for a year. Then he spent a year in Texas teaching new Army recruits before landing a job at the GM Institute in Flint, Mich. He taught social studies, history and economics to GM employees for years. Eventually, he became personnel director.
Betty was busy with the couple’s two sons and two daughters. She taught her daughters to sew and hiked with the children. Every summer, the whole family took a long road trip, usually out West. Betty missed New Mexico.
After their youngest son graduated from high school, Betty moved back to set up their dream home. Clark still had five years to go before retirement. In Santa Fe, Betty designed a solid, passive-solar house and had it built on property off Old Pecos Trail. And when Clark reunited with her here, all seemed right.
They each volunteered with different Santa Fe groups and enjoyed local music. They attended museum lectures and school performances. Clark loved poetry, and at night sometimes, he recited poems to Betty. They took a five-mile walk together every day.
The couple began traveling around the world — Europe, India, Australia, New Zealand. They traveled to Glacier National Park, their favorite, and made several trips to Alaska, camping in an old Chevy van. They took the van down to Mexico. Sometimes Betty went off on her own to Nepal or to Tierra del Fuego. Wherever they went, they made friends.
Then they were hit with heartbreak.
The couple’s youngest son, Bruce, who had developed diabetes as a child, collapsed in their home at age 41. For eight minutes, family members took turns giving him CPR until the ambulance arrived, but Bruce had slipped into a coma. He would never come out of it.
Eventually, the family took Bruce off life support. “I’d never seen my dad cry until that day,” said the couple’s youngest daughter, Sheila Barnett.
The couple forged on. They kept traveling. And Clark was an active volunteer with the Santa Fe Lion’s Club.
A few years ago, Betty began to show signs of dementia. Their lively conversations diminished. She began to forget things. “As my mom’s dementia got worse, my dad counted heavily on Craig to help keep my mom at home,” Sheila said.
The couple’s oldest son had moved back to New Mexico, and was helping to care for them and their home.
But Craig’s heart began to fail. On Sept. 2, 2010, Craig passed away in the middle of the night.
Clark could no longer care for Betty. He took her to a nursing home. He says it was the hardest thing he had ever done.
Clark found himself alone, in the house Betty had designed.
He forged on. He rose each morning at 4 a.m., had a bowl of oatmeal and went to the Fort Marcy gym to work out. Then he would go see his Betty. He would visit with her for hours almost every day.
“I couldn’t tell what she knew, how much she knew,” he says.
“I asked her a few weeks before she died if she knew who I was,” he recalls. “ ‘Of course,’ she said. ‘You are my husband.’ ”
On Jan. 2, 2012, Betty died.
Clark forges on. He still rises each morning at 4 a.m., eats breakfast and goes to the gym. In January, he turned 90, and his friends at Fort Marcy threw him a party.
But without her, it isn’t the same.