The U.S. military usually honors its best and bravest, but not always. Sometimes the failure to do so is a case of oversight that arises from the confusion of combat or from bureaucratic oversight. Less frequently, the failure to honor a noteworthy deed is purposeful, the result of prejudice rooted in social mores of the time. The latter certainly seems to be true in the case of Steward First Class Carl Clark a World War II Navy veteran.
Clark, 95, was honored earlier this week for heroism on May 3, 1945, when he served aboard the USS Aaron Ward off the coast of Okinawa. Clark, according to eyewitnesses, saved his ship and hundreds of his shipmates when he risked his life to douse fires that threatened his ship's ammunition locker. If the blaze had reached the locker, the ship would have been destroyed.
Several of Clark's shipmates were decorated for their deeds that day, Clark was not. The reason: He is black, and the Navy, a very segregated service during the war, was reluctant to publicly honor a member of his race. "Racism robbed Carl of recognition," said U.S. Rep. Anna Esho, D-Calif., who urged the Navy to right that wrong.
The Navy finally did so. Secretary of the Navy Roy Mabus personally presented the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with the Combat Distinguishing Device to Clark, who was wearing his old uniform. "Simply put," Mabus said, "Clark was and is a hero." How true.
Clark joined the Navy when the only job available to him was as a steward. "Taking care of officers, feeding them their meals, cleaning their rooms, shining their shoes," Clark recalled. Clark didn't say it but all the officers he served were white. When a ship was attacked, though, stewards were expected to man a battle station. Clark answered that call.
When kamikazes attacked his ship, Clark took his station as a firefighter. He was there when a plane hit the ship, blowing him across the deck and breaking his collarbone. The only survivor in his team, he continued to battle the flames alone -- an act corroborated by his captain and shipmates. He was never recognized for that brave deed.
Mabus finally put things right during the week the nation honors Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who publicly fought the hatreds that Clark has faced in his lifetime. Clark said that he didn't think he'd live to see they day when his service was honored, adding that he was "overwhelmed" by the honor, that "it was a different country then" and that "things have changed." Thank goodness for the latter.
The honoree called attention to other blacks who served in the Navy and whose acts and deaths were never properly noted. "Those men went down with their ships," he said. "I want to share this honor with all of those men."
Clark's sentiment is apt, and serve as a powerful reminder that the historical wounds inflicted on some Americans by other Americans are sometimes slow to heal.