Recognition for heroism may be near for Carl Clark
• Rep. Anna Eshoo seeks Medal of Honor for Menlo Park man.
Carl Clark is a survivor, many times over. On Dec. 7, 1941, he was awakened by the sounds of war, and barely escaped serious injury or death as the Japanese strafed his quarters at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, on their way to Pearl Harbor, just minutes away.
Three and a half years later, he survived horrific kamikaze attacks on his naval ship during the Battle of Okinawa — and was instrumental in the survival not only of numerous crewmen but of the ship itself.
Last year, the 56-year resident of Menlo Park's Belle Haven neighborhood suffered a broken hip, which led to surgery and life-threatening complications.
While Mr. Clark has survived close calls and other challenges to reach a robust 94 years of age, a once-bright flame of hope that he would receive the promised recognition he earned for his monumental heroism during the Battle of Okinawa had all but fizzled out over the years.
Now, 65 years after the captain of Mr. Clark's ship, the USS Aaron Ward, labored in vain to win military recognition for Mr. Clark's actions, that flame has been rekindled. Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, D-Menlo Park, has succeeded in securing testimony of Mr. Clark's heroism from one of the few surviving officers of the Aaron Ward, and in late November sent a letter urging Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus to expedite review of a recommendation to bestow on Mr. Clark the highest award possible — the Medal of Honor.
"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," she wrote. "Carl Clark's efforts that night are why so many survived and one of the main reasons the ship did not capsize."
Congresswoman Eshoo is also asking Secretary Mabus to expedite the review to complete it by year's end. In her letter, she cites the comments of retired Navy Captain Lefteris Lavrakas, who was an officer onboard the Aaron Ward and who recommended the award: "Please hurry up, Carl and I are both in our 90s and we need to correct this injustice for Carl."
Behind the injustice, Mr. Clark and others familiar with the military culture of the times say, was the prevailing racial bigotry that existed in the military.
Mr. Clark, an African American, joined the Navy in the 1930s, when blacks could serve only as mess attendants — essentially, officers' servants, Mr. Clark said.
During his service before and during World War II, he and other black men were "segregated aboard ship, used and abused," he wrote some 10 years ago as part of a local "War Stories" writing project.
He was one of six black men aboard the Aaron Ward on May 3, 1945, when it was attacked around sunset by six kamikaze planes, which turned the ship "into a junkyard," Mr. Clark said. 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.
Of the five destroyers, the Aaron Ward was the only survivor. During the 51 minutes of the attack, 42 men were lost, he 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.
The day after the attack, the ship's captain, W.H. Sanders, approached Mr. Clark, who was seated. "He squatted down in front of me, and he said, 'I want to thank you for saving my ship.'"
Captain Sanders, other officers, and the ship's doctor, who was assisted in his urgent-care work immediately after the attack by Mr. Clark and other mess attendants, conferred in the aftermath of the kamikaze attack, Mr. Clark wrote in his "War Stories" memoir. The captain told him that "when we got back to the States he was going to make every effort to get us some sort of commendation. He went all the way to Washington, D.C., to the War Department, but was unable to get even a letter of good mention."
After a time, any serious effort to pursue recognition for Mr. Clark's heroism faded. But when Mr. Clark signed up for the War Stories project led by writing instructor Sheila Dunec about a decade ago, his story triggered talk that perhaps it wasn't too late.
It was Ms. Dunec who approached Congresswoman Eshoo's office and, encouraged to make an official appeal, initiated the effort by writing a letter detailing Mr. Clark's heroism.