It took more than 66 years, but Menlo Park’s Carl E. Clark, 95, was finally honored Tuesday for extraordinary heroism in World War II — recognition he had previously been denied because he is black.
In an august ceremony in an aircraft hanger at Moffett Federal Airfield in Mountain View, in front of a cheering crowd of more than 600, Clark received the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with the Combat Distinguishing Device. The medal was pinned to his chest by Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, who had flown in from Washington, D.C., to bestow the honor.
“Simply put, Carl Clark was and is a hero,” Mabus said.
The crowd shouted, “Clark! Clark! Clark!”
The ceremony was a remarkable, and rare, public rewriting of military history — a reflection of changing times, and the result of efforts to fix what those who heard Clark’s story felt was a terrible wrong.
Clark saved his ship, the U.S.S. Aaron Ward, and hundreds of sailors’ lives during a series of kamikaze attacks in the Battle of Okinawa on May 3, 1945. Wounded, he risked his life in the heat of battle to douse a raging fire before it reached the ship’s ammunition locker, which would have destroyed the vessel.
But because Clark is African-American and was only a low-ranking ship’s steward, and because the Navy was deeply segregated at the time, his heroics were never noted — not even in the battle report.
“Racism robbed Carl of recognition,” said Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Palo Alto), who had pushed the Navy to correct the record and honor Clark since hearing his story two years ago.
“Today we correct that omission,” Mabus said. He read aloud a detailed account of Clark’s actions that will now become part of the military’s record.
Appearing in his old uniform and looking decades younger than his age, Clark said, “I’m so overwhelmed.”
He then spoke of other African-Americans who served in WWII and whose deeds and deaths were never noted. “Those men went down with their ships,” he said. “I want to share this honor with all of those men.”
Clark also thanked Sheila Dunec, an instructor at Foothill College, who, first heard Clark’s story while documenting the wartime memories of local residents in 1999. A former Department of Veterans Affairs employee, Dunec felt Clark’s case represented a tremendous injustice and eventually brought it to the attention of Eshoo and others. In 2009, when I wrote about Clark in my column, I located the ship’s only known surviving officer, who confirmed Clark's heroics. The Navy launched an investigation, and, just before Christmas, announced the medal.
“She started this whole thing,” Clark said of Dunec.
Sitting in the audience, Dunec wept.