Menlo Park war hero turns 100


You don't have to be a hero to live 100 years. But when a hero turns 100, it's party time on a royal scale.

Carl Clark of Menlo Park, who was finally recognized in 2012 for heroism aboard a U.S. Navy ship struck by six kamikaze planes in May 1945, was honored by friends, family and neighbors on July 30, the day he reached the century mark.

"It was wonderful to see him holding court for his gathered retinue -- adoring people, people who mean everything to him," said Sheila Dunec, a writing teacher who led the two-year effort to secure the commendation medal awarded to Mr. Clark, 66 years after his heroic actions prevented the USS Aaron Ward from total destruction after the kamikaze attack.

That award was decades late in coming because of an ugly reality: Blacks in the military, like him, fought and sacrificed alongside their white comrades but, in Mr. Clark's words, "got very little recognition for what they did."

The Saturday celebration was held in the backyard of Mr. Clark's Belle Haven neighborhood home. In attendance was his only living sibling, Korea Strowder, 96, of Washington, D.C., and her two daughters. Mr. Clark's daughter, Karen Collins, oversaw the festivities, although Carl clearly ruled the day.

Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, who has attended most of Mr. Clark's birthday celebrations of the last few years, sent her regrets and her well-wishes -- she had commitments on the East Coast in the aftermath of the Democratic National Convention, Ms. Dunec was told.

It was Rep. Eshoo who led the charge in Washington, D.C., to secure Mr. Clark's medal, which was presented to him by Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus in a ceremony at Moffett Field on Jan. 17, 2012.

Ms. Dunec had sent a letter of appeal for the award to Rep. Eshoo's office in 2009, and submitted "stacks of evidence" of Mr. Clark's heroism. She learned of his actions in the late 1990s when he participated in one of her "life stories" classes at the Menlo Park Library -- this one focusing on World War II stories.

Mr. Clark's story was a compelling one: He was part of an eight-man damage-control unit on board the USS Aaron Ward; when the first Japanese plane hit, the other seven men were killed.

Mr. Clark was flung up against an overhead structure, the blast tearing off his shoes and the impact breaking his collarbone. Ignoring his injuries, he worked through the night to extinguish the fires resulting from the six plane hits, sometimes manning a fire hose by himself that typically requires multiple people to control.

"I put out every fire on that ship," he recalled during a recent interview at his home. "I took control," he said, and after the fires were extinguished, "I picked up wounded men" and carried them to the infirmary.

"But ships were almost like a Southern state" during that time, he said. He and the few other blacks on board were called "boys," and he was told that he was belligerent when he looked an officer in the eye.

Although Mr. Clark had given up all hope of ever receiving the medal he was promised by the ship's captain shortly after the ship was saved, "I wasn't going to let go of this," Ms. Dunec said.

Rep. Eshoo responded enthusiastically to the appeal, and went to work on what was to be a long process. When word arrived just before Christmas in 2011 that formal recognition from the U.S. government was finally going to happen, she called Mr. Clark with the news.

In a written statement, she said: "His courage stands as a symbol of the greatness of our nation, and this award ... calls out Mr. Clark as a true American hero."

So the "adoring people" at Mr. Clark's birthday party had much to honor the centenarian for. After Salena Dixon, in flowing white dress, performed a "praise dance" in honor of Mr. Clark, Alesia Stokes, a sailor stationed in Southern California, gave a particularly moving speech as she stood next to the honoree.

She said she was determined to meet Mr. Clark after seeing a report about his heroism on television news several years ago, and with a friend traveled north to shake his hand and thank him for what he did. Mr. Clark was an inspiration to her -- a black woman serving in the United States Naval Construction Forces, known as the Seabees.

She told the party-goers that she now has achieved a rank of note: the first black female senior chief equipment operator. "He made a way for me to do that," she said.

Ms. Stokes notched up another success: Determined that Mr. Clark would receive more than the correspondence from the White House that people turning 100 typically receive, she managed to secure a special certificate, signed by President Obama, acknowledging Mr. Clark's bravery in wartime service to the country. The framed document was on display at the party.

Also in attendance was New York Times writer Scott James, who took on a key role in securing Mr. Clark's medal in 2012. It was Mr. James who, learning of Ms. Dunec's efforts, found and interviewed the few living witnesses who were on the ship with Mr. Clark when it was attacked.

And Rita Williams of Portola Valley was also there. Before retiring from a long career as a journalist at television station Channel 2, Ms. Williams had learned about Mr. Clark from an article in the Almanac, sought him out for an interview, and reported on his heroism and belated recognition.

Ms. Williams said she came to the party after having attended an altogether different kind of event: the funeral of a young man, a former Portola Valley resident. The chance to celebrate a life, she said, was a welcome turn.

Hear Carl Clark tell his story in his segment of the video project that evolved from the World War II stories project of Sheila Dunec.

Read an earlier Almanac story on the January 2012 award ceremony at Moffett Field, recognizing Carl Clark's heroism.

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5 people like this
Posted by Calypso41
a resident of another community
on Aug 2, 2016 at 12:31 pm

Calypso41 is a registered user.

I'm so glad Mr. Clark finally got the recognition he so rightfully deserved.

2 people like this
Posted by whatever
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Aug 2, 2016 at 3:37 pm

Congratulations on your centennial Mr. Clark and thank you for your service. In our eyes your actions were meritorious of the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross.

4 people like this
Posted by Hank Lawrence
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Aug 2, 2016 at 11:15 pm

Below is a copy of the speech I made to the Menlo Park City Council in late January 2012. I attended the ceremony at Moffett Field and was awed by his bravery.

Last week two great American heroes were honored. On Monday we honored Dr. Martin Luther King and on Tuesday we honored Carl Clark. Both made vast contributions to the freedom and liberty of our country. Dr. King, the noble orator, spoke out for freedom and liberty for oppressed African Americans. Carl Clark, through his selfless disregard for his personal safety saved the USS Aaron Ward and hundreds of sailors’ lives.

On May 3, 1945 during the battle of Okinawa the USS Aaron Ward was attacked by a series of Kamikaze pilots. There were 8 men on the Damage Control Team. Seven were taken out in the first Kamikaze strike. The first zero’s impact hurled Carl Clark into an overhead structure with such violence that it broke his collar bone and blew off his helmet and shoes. This left Carl Clark as the lone man on the Damage Control Team. There were five more Kamikaze assaults which rained fire and shrapnel on the Aaron Ward’s deck, while the shoeless and severely injured Carl Clark continued to disregard his personal safety so that he may save the ship and the lives of his fellow sailors. For the next several hours he dragged the extremely heavy fire hoses across the deck putting out fire after fire while enduring the searing pain of a broken collarbone and cuts to his shoeless feet.

Then one Zero made a direct hit on the Aaron Ward’s ammunition locker. If the fire was not put out the ship would have exploded in blazing fireball causing all the ship’s sailors to burn an agonizing death and then slowly sink to their watery graves. Again, Carl Clark rose to the occasion. Playing Russian roulette with his own life, he bravely advanced into the searing heat of the ammunition locker and sprayed water on the boxes of ammunition and ordnance and eventually quenched the raging fire.

But he was not yet finished. After the fires were extinguished and working relentlessly through the night, the exhausted and severely injured Clark singlehandedly carried other injured sailors to the aid station so that they would receive proper medical attention. Quick medical attention was required, as many of the sailors suffered deep wounds and would have died from exsanguination had they not been attended to. They owe their lives to Carl Clark

The next day Carl Clark was personally thanked by the ship’s captain for saving the USS Aaron Ward. But when the ship report was filed there was no mention of Carl Clark’s bravery. Why? Because Carl Clark was an African American and racism was pandemic in the Navy at that time.

World War II had two positive outcomes. Most recognize the first as the defeat of Nazism and tyranny throughout the world. But the second, not widely recognized, was the end of colonialism in Africa. One by one, the African colonies were granted their liberty. France, Belgium, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Portugal, and Spain relinquished their colonies and African nations were born.

Meanwhile, in the United States, we had a colony of African Americans whose rights and freedoms were subordinated. It was ironic that so many African Americans fought bravely for their country to enable freedom throughout the world but they themselves were not free. This fact was not lost on the Leaders of the Civil Rights movement. With great passion and determination many laid down their lives so that their fellow African Americans could be free.

The Irish Statesman Edmund Burke once said: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing”. And that was what was happening in the White America. Good Men were doing nothing. But that was about to change. Colonialism had to end in America or our country would be torn asunder.

The courageous Medgar Evers valiantly tried to gain freedom for the oppressed African American and was murdered by Byron de la Beckwith for his efforts on June 12, 1963. All he wanted was for America to acknowledge the humanity of the African American and give them the freedoms the rest of America had. What is wrong with that?

Dr. Martin Luther King took notice of Medgar Evers’ courage and ultimate sacrifice and eleven weeks later, at great personal risk, made an impassioned plea on the Washington Mall on August 28, 1963 in his historic and memorable “I have a Dream” speech.

If you haven’t read that speech I implore each and every one of you to do so. It is a very moving and beautiful speech. If we deny the humanity of any person we are in effect denying our own humanity. We become hollow soulless shells devoid of feeling. Every man deserves to be free. Every man deserves to be treated as an equal to his fellow man.

Carl Clark, we honor your service to your country. You gave of yourself when your country was willing to take from you but wasn’t even willing to acknowledge your bravery and humanity. For that we are in your debt. And for that we also owe you our deepest apologies.

4 people like this
Posted by Henry Organ
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Aug 3, 2016 at 6:00 pm

It is my honor to know Mr. Clark. I was introduced to him by his fellow navy veteran, Isaac Stevenson. Mr. Clark, Isaac and JoAnn Stevenson and I spent many enjoyable evenings playing dominoes in the Stevenson (both deceased) home on Westminster in East Palo Alto.

My best wishes, Mr. Clark for many more good years. Domino!

Henry Organ
Menlo Park, CA

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