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.

by Renee Batti / Almanac

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.

Carl Clark, a World War II veteran who was honored for heroism in January 2012, accepts congratulations on his 100th birthday on July 30. Photo by Natalia Nazarova

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.

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