WWII veteran awarded medal 66 years later

January 17, 2012 9:55:23 PM PST
A moving and memorable ceremony took place Tuesday honoring a Bay Area man who should have been honored decades ago. A World War II sailor, who stood his ground in the face of danger, was overlooked until now.

It was a ceremony so long overdue the secretary of the Navy himself made the presentation. Carl Clark accepted the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal for combat action during World War II.

"Simply put, Carl Clark was and is a hero," said Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus.

Clark joined the Navy when he was 19, at a time of segregation. He was aboard the USS Aaron Ward on May 3, 1945. Six kamikaze pilots and three bombs hit the destroyer ship during the battle of Okinawa. After the first plane hit, Clark's collar bone was broken, but he went on to drag other men to safety and put out a fire near the ammunition locker. If the locker has caught fire, the explosion would have cracked the ship in half. Clark says after the battle his captain went to Washington to lobby for some kind of recognition for Clark and his men, but his request was denied.

"He put out raging fires and carried wounded shipmates to safety, shipmates who routinely disrespected him with racial slurs," said Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto.

The Menlo Park man knows what many said on Tuesday... that racism had robbed him of the recognition he so deserved.

"I knew in my heart that I did save the ship because if I hadn't put out the fire on that magazine, it would have blown up and the ship would have sunk," said Clark.

A project by DeAnza College and two years of work by Eschoo's office finally resulted in a medal. It comes 66 years after Clark's bravery during combat. His family says the delayed military honor shows the public what they have known all along.

"He's always been a hero. He's been a civil rights activist, a community organizer," said Karen Collins, Clark's daughter.

"It's almost enough to be overwhelmed because I never expected anything like this," said Clark.

Clark is now 95, young enough to remember and old enough to appreciate when a wrong has been made right.

Katie Marzullo contributed to this report