The failure of the U.S. to recognize the valor and courage of Black American soldiers, sailors and other military personnel is nothing new, and the topic surfaced again when Carl Clark, 66 years after his heroic act during World War II, was finally honored in 2012.
Fortunately, Clark received the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with the Combat Distinguishing Device before his death March 16, 2017. He was 100 when he died at a VA Hospital in Menlo Park, Calif.
A search of several of the leading books on Blacks in the military provided no information on Clark and therefore we know nothing of his early years. At the center of his long life are events aboard the USS Aaron Ward in 1945, when it was attacked by a squadron of Japanese kamikaze planes.
“They were like flying bombs,” Clark told a reporter of the suicide planes that hit his ship. As a member of an eight-man damage control unit assigned to put out fires should the ship be hit, Clark carried out his mission, and then some. According to military records and his commanding officer, after suffering a broken collar bone Clark bravely rescued other injured shipmates and single-handedly extinguished fires that would have destroyed the ship.
Clark’s heroism would have remained buried had it not been for Sheila Dunec, a writing instructor who learned of his action after he enrolled in her class where her pupils were asked to write about their experiences during World War II.
Enthralled by Clark’s recollections, Dunec contacted Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Menlo Park) and showed her a video of Clark and other writers in her class. The video was part of a documentary “Remembering World War II” compiled by Dunec.
Eshoo, armed with this information, began pressing the Navy to investigate the incident. Eventually, Clark’s heroism was substantiated and then-Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus coordinated a ceremony to honor Clark, noting that it was a “long, long overdue recognition.” The ceremony took place at Moffett Field in Mountain View, Calif., and Mabus observed that Clark was just one of many African-Americans who “risked their lives for their nation” that hadn’t fulfilled its promise of freedom and justice.
When Clark was asked about the long years in which his bravery went unrecognized, he said, “It wouldn’t look good to say one Black man saved the ship.” The captain of the ship, Clark added, tried to make up for the “bigotry” by granting him an extra leave and making sure he was not sent back to sea.
In one way, Clark did go back to sea last December, when he was a participant with other veterans in Hawaii at Pearl Harbor to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack there. According to his daughter, Karen Clark Collins, joining the parade and other activities “was the best time he had ever had.” He enjoyed being “treated like royalty.”
Clark’s valor was reminiscent of Doris “Dorie” Miller’s, the third-class mess man who was awarded the Navy Distinguished Service Medal for his heroism during the attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941. Like Clark, Miller was fearless in his resolve to save his ship and his mates after manning an anti-aircraft machine gun. But unlike Clark, Miller had to wait only five months before he was cited for his bravery with honors bestowed by Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz aboard the USS Enterprise in 1942.
Even so, Miller was not awarded the Medal of Honor, and this citation for Miller is a pursuit that Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson has inherited after previous elected officials failed to accomplish it. One of the changes that occurred after Miller’s courage was the Navy requirement that all mess men and stewards receive anti-aircraft training. “The USS Harmon, launched in 1943,” wrote Gail Buckley in her book American Patriots, “was named for another Navy cross mess man, Leonard Roy Harmon, who had been killed a year earlier in the Battle of Guadalcanal.”
The USS Harmon was the first U.S. warship named for an African-American. Harmon sacrificed his life in saving a shipmate from harm.
An element characteristic of Clark’s resolve was offered by his daughter, who explained that after her father took a fall before the award ceremony he refused to go to the hospital. “He was an old fighter,” she said, and it was good that the old sailor did not exactly fade away, but lived long enough to get at least a semblance of the honor and tributes he deserved.