|Bay Citizen - The Making of an American Hero|
|Wednesday, 25 January 2012 12:39|
Scott James, a reporter for the Bay Citizen and an integral part of the Carl Clark story, wrote an article detailing the process that went into making sure that Chief Petty Officer Carl Clark, an African-American who served during World War II, received the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with the Combat Distinguished Device. The article is below:
We live in a media-saturated world where celebrity is all too often manufactured by armies of publicists who wage cynical, manipulative and expensive battles to grab the spotlight for their clients.
This week's rise of Menlo Park's Carl Clark from obscurity to American war hero is not one of those stories.
The remarkable scene this week of the 95-year-old World War II veteran receiving a combat medal 66 years late received worldwide media attention, including from the CBS "Evening News" and ABC's "World News Tonight." Diane Sawyer called Clark's heroic deed "an incredible act of bravery."
It's possible that Clark will be the last living WWII veteran to receive a combat medal. A look at some of the complex feelings and issues raised by this week's events is the subject of my latest column.
Because my reporting played a role in the awarding of the medal, it's worth explaining how this all unfolded. If not for a few twists of fate, Clark's heroics would have remained unrecognized.
Clark risked his life to save his ship, the U.S.S. Aaron Ward, and hundreds of lives during a kamikaze attack in the Battle of Okinawa, but his actions were ignored because he's black — a common practice in the deeply segregated and institutionally racist Navy of the time. He wasn't even mentioned in the battle report.
Clark knew that was wrong, but didn't talk about it. "Who would have believed me?" he said later.
His own daughter, Karen Collins, said, "I never heard about it growing up." Like many World War II veterans, Clark kept his war stories to himself.
Then, in 1999, Sheila Dunec, a Foothill College instructor, was working on a project to document wartime memories from people in her local community. The project was going well, but lacked racial diversity. So she reached out to the African-American community and was introduced to Clark. She got him to tell his story, and that set in motion a 12-year quest for justice.
By 2009, Dunec's project had evolved from public readings to video. Judy Miner, president of Foothill, viewed a clip featuring Clark. Miner was the first San Francisco native I became friends with when I moved to the city 15 years ago, and we happened to have dinner together that same week. She was moved by what she had seen in that video. I told her that I had just started writing a newspaper column. Was this a possible story?
I spoke to Dunec, and then learned that Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Palo Alto), Clark's congresswoman, had taken an interest in the case, asking the Navy to investigate.
The involvement of a member of Congress made the story newsworthy. But I was concerned. After all, at the core of the tale was a troubling accusation: that the U.S. Navy had purposely perpetuated a lie for decades in order to discredit the heroics of a man who had risked his life for America.
That's an inflammatory statement. In the world of fact-based journalism, I felt I needed more than just one man's side of the story.
To be clear, Clark's recollections were vivid, detailed and consistent — and his persona carried a weighty gravitas of truth. He was all the more believable because he did not want anything, except to set the record straight. He sought no medal, and he disagreed when others referred to him as a hero.
I studied the official records from the time. I tracked down another elderly African-American veteran, living in Brooklyn, who had served on the ship with Clark during the attack. He confirmed parts of the story, but, understandably, he didn't know everything that had happened on the ship that day.
I realized that I needed to get to the officers of the U.S.S. Aaron Ward. They were the ones who had written the battle report. In the aftermath of the attack, the officers sat down to share and dissect every moment of that fateful day, making each one of them uniquely privy to all that occurred. They collectively decided what went into that report — and what was purposely left out.
However, most of the officers had long since passed away.
The ship's doctor had done an audio interview with Dunec years before he died. I listened to that recording for clues. Buried far into the tape, the doctor talked about what Clark had done. He confirmed the story. Clark had saved the ship.
Then I tracked down Lefteris "Lefty" Lavrakas, in his 90s and living in Oregon, who turned out to be the only known surviving ship's officer. Finally, I thought: someone who can answer questions.
But Lavrakas did not want to talk about the U.S.S. Aaron Ward or the attack. Every time I broached he subject he would talk about something else. Since we're both Massachusetts natives, he preferred to gab about the Red Sox, or reminisce about his days growing up as the son of working-class immigrants. He would not talk about the war, the battle or Carl Clark.
I kept at it. I told him what I had discovered. He still would not bite. After half an hour I concluded that the interview was a complete bust — a waste of time.
Yet, as time wasting goes, it was pretty delightful. Lavrakas was an engaging storyteller, and it was great fun talking to him. So I didn't end the call. Instead, the conversation lasted about an hour. Then, just before he hung up, he paused and said quite plainly, as if giving me marching orders, "You go get justice for Carl."
They were words that would have great impact. Not only was it confirmation that there had been an injustice, but Lavrakas would later file the paperwork to describe in detail Clark's bravery and request a medal.
Eshoo suddenly had a living witness, and with the help of an admiral, the Navy investigation continued. This week, the secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, publicly admitted that the U.S. military had wronged Carl Clark, perpetuating a lie for more than 66 years. It was a stunning, and rare, rewriting of American history.
"Your actions were timely. Our recognition of them was not," Mabus told Clark during the ceremony when Clark finally received his medal.
As I sat in the crowd and watched, I recalled the fateful turns that had led to the event: a college teacher driven to tell a more complete history, a congresswoman who cared about the welfare of one elderly constituent, a perfectly timed dinner with a friend, and a conversation with an elder that lasted as long as it took until he was ready to say what was really on his mind.
If any of those events had not occurred, Carl Clark's heroism could have remained unrecognized.
To read the article online, please click here.
|Thomas Bill Search|