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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / World War 2 veteran Rev. Robert Norman Clarke poses for a portrait on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020 in Blue Ridge, Georgia.

The first time Robert Norman Clarke went to the U.S. Navy School of Music, he did so on purpose.

The second time, he just got lucky.

Clarke grew up in Arlington, Va., where he played piccolo and flute in his high school marching band and orchestra. As World War II raged, he auditioned at the Navy music school in nearby Washington, D.C.

"I thought I'd love to be in the Navy Band at some point," he said.

He passed his audition and was presented a letter recommending that he return to the school after induction – but that letter came with a caveat.

"They told me that, even with the letter, there was no guarantee that the draft board would assign me there," he recalled. "You're in a line [at induction] and it just depends on who you see."

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Norman Clarke

Clarke got his draft notice in March 1944, on his 18th birthday, and went to Richmond, Virginia., for induction. When he reached the head of his line, he presented his letter.

"The man read it, stamped 'Navy' on it and gave it back to me," he recalled.

So after eight weeks of boot camp in Maryland, Clarke returned to the Navy School of Music. He eventually found himself on the USS Idaho with about 20 other musicians.

"We'd play for different occasions," he said. "The Idaho was sometimes used as the admiral's ship, so we'd play for him whenever he came aboard. I'd play the organ for Sunday services, and we'd play if we had a death at sea."

His rehearsal and performance responsibilities aside, though, Clarke was a sailor first.

"I was assigned below decks, to the medical group," he said, "and I'd done my share of chipping paint and swabbing decks on my way to the Idaho.

"We had to rehearse, but we had to stand watch as well. Because we rehearsed during the day, I had to stand many a watch from midnight to 4 a.m.," he said.

BIO

Name: The Rev. Robert Norman Clarke

Age: 94

Branch of military: U.S. Navy

Years of service: 1944-46

(Read about other local veterans in our "21-Veteran Salute" series here)

Clarke was aboard the Idaho when she sailed for the Battle of Okinawa. That fateful encounter marked both his closest call and the beginning of the end of his service.

"We got hit by a kamikaze," he said. "Our 5-inch guns hit that plane while it was coming in. The pilot was killed, but the plane hit the water, then our ship."

The Idaho limped to Guam for repair, but was beyond salvaging. It was on Guam that Clarke and his shipmates learned of the war's end.

After 23 months of active duty, Clarke was honorably discharged in June 1946. He went to Westminster Choir College, in Princeton, New Jersey, on the GI Bill and earned an undergraduate degree in choral music. He then served for 46 years as music minister at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Decatur, Ga.

Along the way, Clarke earned a master's degree in Christian Education in Atlanta, at Emory University's Candler School of Theology. He retired from Decatur First Christian on Easter Sunday 1996, but not from ministry.

"A preacher I'd known at Candler asked me if I'd help start a church near Blue Ridge, Georgia," Clarke said. "I organized the choir – I'd drive up from Decatur on Thursday, come back on Friday, then go back up on Sundays.

"My wife had always wanted to live in the mountains, so we wound up moving [to Blue Ridge] in 2001," he said.

One of Clarke's fonder recollections of his military service came long after his discharge.

"When my group left the Navy School of Music, we thought we'd never see each other again," he said. "But I'm visiting family in New Jersey years later and stopped in a little town.

"There's a bandstand there, and I see three or four of my buddies from the Navy School of Music playing at that bandstand. That was a lot of fun for me," he said.

Contact Bob Gary at news@timesfreepress.com.

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