Navy Considers Medal, 65 Years After a Heroic Act

NY Times  December 24, 2010
By Scott James

Carl E. Clark, 94, served in World War II to defend America, not to win glory.

Carl E. Clark in his home in Menlo Park. (Adithya Sambamurthy/The Bay Citizen)

“We just figured it was a war that had to be won,” said Mr. Clark, who lives in Menlo Park.

Now the veteran, a remarkably modest man with a commanding presence, unexpectedly finds himself under consideration to receive the nation’s highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor.

It is an effort, 65 years after the fact, to repair history. Mr. Clark is one of an estimated one million black World War II veterans whose accomplishments were routinely ignored by the military.

Mr. Clark’s valor might never have been recognized, if not for an encounter with a community college teacher.

On May 3, 1945, the destroyer U.S.S. Aaron Ward was on “picket duty” to warn the fleet in Okinawa of impending Japanese attacks. At sunset, a kamikaze plane hit the deck in an explosion of fire. Five more planes followed in the next 51 minutes, killing dozens.

Yet the ship did not sink. As the planes struck, Mr. Clark, despite a broken collarbone, raced into the mayhem and manned a fire hose, one so powerful it usually took four men to control it, to douse flames headed for an ammunition locker, which would have exploded and split the ship.

Mr. Clark was a steward in a racially segregated Navy. His job was to serve, clean and shine shoes — and endure daily slurs from white enlisted men and officers. That he saved those same lives was omitted from the battle report, while white shipmates received the Bronze Star.

“If you put in your battle report that a black man saved the ship, that would be pretty embarrassing,” Mr. Clark said.

To provide for his family, he stayed in the Navy as it integrated, serving for 22 years and rising to the rank of chief petty officer. Racism still ran deep — on his final day, in 1958, a white clerk called him “boy.” Mr. Clark’s deeds on the Aaron Ward would remain unrecorded.

Then in 1999, Sheila Dunec, an instructor at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, invited local retirees to share their wartime memories for an oral history project and videos. In search of more diversity, Ms. Dunec reached out to the local black community, which led her to Mr. Clark.

“When you hear his story, you say this is not our country living up to our ideal,” Ms. Dunec said.

Mr. Clark’s story was featured in this column last year after a public screening of Ms. Dunec’s video. When the ship’s only known surviving officer, Lefteris (Lefty) Lavrakas, a lieutenant who managed the deck guns, now 91, was located for the article, he said, “You go get justice for Carl.”

The remark set in motion efforts to give Mr. Clark his due.

Representative Anna G. Eshoo, a Democrat who is Mr. Clark’s congresswoman, obtained a Congressional decree honoring him, and then began lobbying the Navy for a medal.

Last month Ms. Eshoo’s efforts took a significant step forward when Mr. Lavrakas asked that Mr. Clark “be bestowed the highest military honors,” specifically, “the Medal of Honor and the Silver Star.”

The statement Mr. Lavrakas filed with the Navy said, “Alone, Carl aimed the hose at the smoldering ammunition locker.” The ship stayed afloat. “Carl Clark is the reason why.”

Citing policy, the Navy declined to comment, but documents obtained by The Bay Citizen confirm that an investigation is under way.

The process for awarding the medal is secretive with a statute of limitations of two to five years after battle so that forensics and witnesses can corroborate events, said Dwight Jon Zimmerman, co-author of “Uncommon Valor: The Medal of Honor and the Six Warriors Who Earned It in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

But in cases involving racism, exceptions have been made, Mr. Zimmerman said. In 2000, for example, Medals of Honor were awarded to Senator Daniel K. Inouye, Democrat of Hawaii, and 19 fellow Japanese-American soldiers whose World War II heroics were ignored due to discrimination.

Mr. Zimmerman said that Mr. Clark could receive a decoration other than the Medal of Honor, which is rarely awarded, and that the process could take years.

Considering the advanced ages of those involved, Ms. Eshoo recently petitioned the Navy to speed its inquiry. “We could very well run out of time,” she wrote.

Mr. Clark said he did not believe in bravery. Surrounded by so much killing that night in 1945, “you lose respect for death,” he said to explain why he ran toward the carnage. “I was just out there putting out the damn fire.”

As for receiving a medal, “if something could happen where I could represent all these guys,” he said, referring to his fellow black sailors, “that would make me feel good.”

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