|New York Times - 66 Years After He Saved a Navy Ship, Another Battle Is Won|
|Friday, 20 January 2012 00:00|
Scott James, a reporter for the New York Times and Bay Citizen, recently wrote about the medal presentation ceremony for Chief Petty Officer Carl Clark at Moffett Field. Clark, an African-American who served during World War II, was presented with the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with the Combat Distinguished Device by Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus. The article is below:
Carl E. Clark, 95, stood before a cheering crowd of 600 on Tuesday at Moffett Federal Airfield in Mountain View to receive a combat medal for bravery in World War II, an honor he was originally denied because he's black.
"This has been a very, very long day coming — 66 years plus," said Representative Anna G. Eshoo, a Democrat who is Mr. Clark's congresswoman. "Racism robbed Carl of recognition."
"I'm so overwhelmed," said Mr. Clark, who wore his old uniform, only slightly tailored to fit again after so many years.
Ray Mabus, the secretary of the Navy, flew in to bestow the honor, the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with the Combat Distinguishing Device. "Simply put, Carl Clark was and is a hero," Mr. Mabus said.
The ceremony represented a rare public rewriting of military history — a reflection of changing times and America's long struggle with racism.
On May 3, 1945, in the Battle of Okinawa, Japan, six kamikaze planes hit the U.S.S. Aaron Ward, engulfing the ship's deck in a deadly inferno. As the fire approached an ammunition locker that would have exploded and destroyed the ship, Mr. Clark — who broke his collarbone in the attacks and was the only survivor of a damage control team — grabbed a hose typically operated by several men and doused the flames.
His actions saved the vessel, but they were not mentioned in the battle report. In the deeply segregated Navy of that time, Mr. Clark was just a servant — a ship's steward — and it was common practice then for the heroics of blacks in the military to be ignored or discredited (most notably the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of black pilots who were reviled in the news media as cowards despite remarkable battle bravery).
Mr. Clark's deeds would have remained unrecognized except for Sheila Dunec, an instructor at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, who met him in 1999 as part of a project to document veterans' remembrances. She eventually brought the matter to the attention of Representative Eshoo, who pressed the Navy to investigate.
Then I wrote about the story in 2009 in this column, and during that reporting I located the ship's only known surviving officer, Lefteris Lavrakas, known as Lefty, who corroborated events and asked the Navy to award Mr. Clark a medal.
A few days before Tuesday's ceremony, Mr. Clark sat in his modest ranch home in Menlo Park's Belle Haven neighborhood and reflected on the medal and its larger meaning. "I feel very proud that things have changed enough in this country, and the Navy has changed enough, for them to do this," he said.
For Mr. Clark and other black servicemen in 1945 the war raged on two fronts: the battle against the enemy, and the relentless racism within the military. The constant struggles led to a complex view of the war.
"I couldn't hate the Japanese," Mr. Clark said. "I couldn't have the same feelings toward the enemy as the Caucasians because of the way we were treated at home."
Yet when the kamikazes hit, he walked toward the flames — to save the same men who had shown him hatred.
"I don't see it that way," he said. "I know all those men weren't racists."
He dismissed the notion of being a hero. "I wasn't doing anything to be heroic," Mr. Clark said. "I knew if the ship sank we were going to perish."
At Tuesday's ceremony he accepted the medal on behalf of other black servicemen whose deeds and deaths were never noted. "I want to share this honor with all of those men," he said in his speech.
He stayed in the Navy after the war to provide for his family, rising to the rank of chief petty officer to command 175 men. He finally retired in 1958, but he said in the 22 years he served the racism never relented. When he received his discharge papers a young white clerk said, "Here you go, boy." Embittered, he left without saying goodbye to his men.
Tuesday's honors helped make up for that, easing a long burdensome weight. "Ten years ago Carl rarely smiled," Ms. Dunec said. "Now he laughs so easily."
And now Mr. Clark, who appears decades younger than his age (his driver's license was just renewed for another five years), finds himself looking forward — hoping his story teaches younger blacks, who he said don't fully appreciate his generation's struggles.
"Racial relations in the country have come a long way," he said, "but I know it has quite a way to go."
To read the full article, please click here.
|Thomas Bill Search|