Clad in his Navy dress uniform, 95-year-old Carl Clark needed the assistance of his cane and two Naval officers to help him get on stage at Hangar 4 on Moffett Federal Airfield Tuesday.
Despite his frail body, on this brisk day after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Clark's poise and humility demonstrated the same strength and valor he exercised 66 years ago when he risked his life to aid his shipmates while under attack in Okinawa, Japan.
"I stand here this afternoon and I think about all those Stewards on all those ships during World War II, who fought the enemy from the decks, from the ammunition magazine locker deep down in the bowels of those ships, and those men, many of them went down with those ships," said Clark, a Menlo Park resident, in a quiet voice almost drowned out by the clicks of cameras and the hums of machines. "Many were Afro-American men because that was the only job that was afforded us in the Navy."
"This afternoon, I want to share this honor, this medal, with all of those men who were doing their part with little recognition for what they did."
Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus pinned the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation medal with its green ribbon on Clark's coat breast, but just before he did, Mabus acknowledged that while Clark's swift actions helped save lives "our recognition of them sadly was not."
Mabus said that finally, Clark's DD-14 form, which encapsulates in one sheet "all of a service person's time in the military, will have one more entry that had been missing almost two-thirds of a century."
Clark received the commendation for his courage on May 3, 1945, when the U.S.S. Aaron Ward took direct hits from six Japanese kamikaze planes and two separate bombs. From aboard the ship, Clark, an E-6 Steward First Class, used a fire hose to control a smoldering ammunitions locker, preventing a fatal explosion, and then – despite a broken collar bone – carried wounded soldiers to the aid station, all while still coming under fire.
This piece of American military history came to the public's attention because of the work of Sheila Dunec, an instructor at in Los Altos Hills. Dunec teaches memoir-writing courses and 12 years ago began to collect the oral histories of area World War II veterans. Clark was a student in one of her classes.
"I'm thrilled. How can I be anything but?" Dunec said. "It's a wonderful day."
Judy Miner, president of Foothill College, exclaimed how appropriate that the climax of Dunec's work was the justice given to Clark the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
"I'm so proud of Sheila and her dedication to this project," Miner said. "This is what can happen when a single person decided to make something happen."
Between Dunec, an enterprising columnist named Scott James and Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, enough research and collaborative stories from the few remaining eye-witnesses were gathered to prove Clark's almost unbelievable story.
"To say that someone saved a ship and that it was a black man, is kind of unbelievable," said Karen Collins, Clark's daughter. Collins, 60, added that though her father did share some wartime stories with her and her siblings, "he didn't share this one because maybe he didn't think anyone would believe him."
Clark's daughter felt very proud of her dad and shared that though he might appear stoic, he does get emotional about the commendation because he remembers the men who didn't make it. Collins, who has a home in Portland, OR, now lives with her dad because of his advanced age.
Annette Clark, a great niece, choked back tears.
"I think it was absolutely wonderful for him to be alive and receive it," she said. "It's outstanding."
Though many friends and family members couldn't hold back their tears, the reserved Clark did and, when asked, didn't admit to getting emotional over the praise he has gotten.
"I'm certainly glad to feel that this honor has been bestowed upon me," Clark said. Clark, a widower whose wife of 50 years, Florence, died in 1992, added she'd be proud of him. But still, he remained humble.
"I am grateful and it's hard to explain how I feel about this."