Almanac

News - December 28, 2011

Carl Clark belatedly honored for World War II heroism

by Renee Batti

Carl Clark, a 95-year-old African-American war veteran and longtime Menlo Park resident, received an early Christmas gift Thursday afternoon, Dec. 22, in the form of a phone call from Congresswoman Anna Eshoo: Mr. Clark will be recognized, for his heroic, life-saving actions 66 years ago, aboard a ship attacked by kamikaze planes during World War II, the congresswoman informed him.

Ms. Eshoo had been informed of the development that afternoon as well, and following her phone call, her office sent out a news release hailing the decision by the U.S. Navy to award the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with the Combat Distinguishing Device for his heroism in the aftermath of the May 3, 1945, attack on the USS Aaron Ward.

"Today I'm proud to announce Carl Clark is at long last being properly acknowledged by his country as a true American hero who has saved the lives of many of his shipmates and played an undeniably significant role" in saving the Aaron Ward, she wrote.

"It is a singular privilege to be in a position to correct the record for those who have fought to preserve our freedoms," she said. "Carl Clark served our nation during a time when the Navy was deeply segregated and a culture of racism was prevalent.

"His courage stands as a symbol of the greatness of our nation, and this award, also given to Senator John McCain, calls out Mr. Clark as a true American hero."

Saving the ship

The belated recognition is largely the result of Congresswoman Eshoo's efforts over the last two years, and Mr. Clark, reached by phone in his Belle Haven home late Thursday afternoon, acknowledged those efforts.

"It makes me feel so grateful that somebody had enough faith in what I did and what it meant to our country," he told the Almanac.

Mr. Clark joined the Navy in the 1930s, when blacks could serve only as mess attendants — essentially, officers' servants, he explained.

He was one of six black men aboard the Aaron Ward when it was attacked around sunset by six kamikaze planes, which turned the ship "into a junkyard," Mr. Clark said in an earlier interview. He was also the only black man in an eight-person damage-control unit, which was to spring into action during any attack to put out fires and take on other urgent roles.

When the first signs of the attack were apparent, Mr. Clark recalled, the seven other men in the unit huddled in one area of the deck, yards away from him. When the first plane hit, all seven men were killed. Mr. Clark was flung up against an overhead structure, breaking his collarbone; his helmet and shoes were blown off his body. The second plane's hit "blew me right across the ship."

In spite of his injuries, Mr. Clark grabbed a fire hose, usually manned by a team of at least two, and began a long fight against the fires that were spreading on board the ship. He carried the hose, often by himself, sometimes watching as sailors jumped overboard in an attempt to save themselves. "I stayed with it until the last plane hit," he said.

A critical moment occurred when a plane flew into the ammunition locker, setting it ablaze. Mr. Clark went into the locker and put out the fire, he said. A similar hit to the ammunition locker on the USS Little, part of the group of five destroyers in the water that night with the Aaron Ward, also caused a fire. But that fire wasn't extinguished, and the resulting explosion tore the ship in half, causing it to sink. "I saw it go down," Mr. Clark said.

After the attack, Mr. Clark worked through the night, single-handedly carrying a number of survivors to the medic ward, in spite of his broken collarbone.

Although the ship's captain told Mr. Clark he would make every effort to have him awarded for his heroism, those efforts were unsuccessful. Mr. Clark, supported by the historical record of racism in the military, attributes the denial of a commendation to his race.

Two-year effort

Congresswoman Eshoo was approached in 2009 by writing instructor Sheila Dunec, who teaches local "life stories" classes. It was in Ms. Dunec's World War II stories class that Mr. Clark told the harrowing story of the ship's attack and his unrecognized efforts to keep the ship from turning into an inferno and sinking.

After hearing the story, Ms. Eshoo set out to ensure that Mr. Clark's heroism finally be acknowledged.

She managed to secure testimony from one of the few surviving officers of the ship, retired Navy Captain Lefteris Lavrakas, and in a November 2010 letter she sent Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, she wrote: "The Aaron Ward became one of only two ships in naval history to endure so many kamikaze hits and survive — and Carl Clark is the reason why. (His) efforts that night are why so many survived and one of the main reasons the ship did not capsize."

She also asked Secretary Mabus to expedite the review to complete it by year's end. In her letter, she cites the comments of retired Captain Lavrakas, who recommended the award: "Please hurry up, Carl and I are both in our 90s and we need to correct this injustice for Carl."

Although it took an additional year, the award is now on its way. According to Congresswoman Eshoo's office, a local public ceremony is being planned to present the award sometime in January.

Lucky — and grateful

Mr. Clark, a 57-year resident of the Belle Haven neighborhood, said he is deeply grateful to Congresswoman Eshoo, and also to Ms. Dunec for "starting the ball rolling."

"She's the one who saw there was something there (to recognize), and I love her for it."

Although he suffered a broken hip two years ago, Mr. Clark laughs when asked how his health is now. "My health is perfect — I don't even catch a cold," he replied energetically.

"I thank God every morning that I don't have anything wrong with me. The man's looking down on me."

But Mr. Clark didn't reserve those sentiments for the here and now. Referring to that hellacious day 66 years ago, he added: "I was lucky. God was looking after me on that day, too."

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