Col. Al R. Clark of Port Charlotte, Fla. joined the Oregon National Guard in 1935 at the age of 15. Before his 33-year regular Army career was over, he saw action on the front lines in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
“I tried to join the guard when I was 14. They told me I was big enough, but I just didn’t look old enough,” the 83-year-old recalled at his North Port Square condo.
The next year he lied about his age again and forged his mother’s signature. It worked. Clark became a member of the National Guard. He was in the same unit as his father, who was a platoon leader and 1st lieutenant.
“I wanted to be on the rifle team. I was a good shot and they gave me a Star 1903 Springfield rifle. It was a special rifle,” he said.
By September 1940, Clark’s guard unit was federalized. About that time, he was appointed staff sergeant. When the unit went on maneuvers in southern California, he was told to report to regimental headquarters.
“‘Get those stripes off. You’re a 2nd lieutenant now. Report to Company G,’ I was told. When we got to Hawaii, I volunteered to go with the 27th Infantry Regiment of the 25th Division that was supposedly headed for New Guinea. We got aboard ship and ended up at Guadalcanal,” he said.
“We landed at the canal in 1943 and took the place of the Americal Division. The Japanese were still fighting on Guadalcanal when we went in,” Clark said. “Our regiment chased the Japanese up a ridge line around Henderson Field.
“I was a recon officer for the unit. We got to a place where the ridge line turned to the right,” he said. “I walked over and looked down the hill. About 40 feet below where the jungle began was full of Japanese soldiers.
“I had two bandoleers of ammunition on me plus a cartridge belt of ammunition for my M-1 rifle. I fired all of it at the Japanese below me. Some of my ammunition was armor-piercing rounds. When the Japanese hid behind trees, it would go right through the tree and then through them.
“I charged through enemy fire and killed more than the five Japanese listed in the commendation I received with my Silver Star (medal),” he said. “When I ran out of ammunition I ran back up to the top of the hill and grabbed a buddy’s rifle and went back down to shoot some more Japanese. I pulled the trigger and the rifle was empty.
“I went back up the hill and grabbed the second soldier’s rifle and tried again. The same thing happened. It was empty, too.”
He had known the two soldiers when he was in the guard before the war.
“I said to them, ‘What happened to your ammunition?’” Clark remembered. “They said, ‘We threw it away because it was too heavy to carry.’”
After the fighting was over on Guadalcanal, both soldiers were accused of raping a native woman. They asked Clark to be their defense attorney.
“I turned their request down and told my regimental commander about the incident on the hill when these two men had empty M-1s because they didn’t want to carry ammunition because it was too heavy. The regimental commander told me, ‘I agree with you. You’re excused from handling their case.’ I never found out what happened to them.”
Late in July 1943, Clark and his unit boarded a destroyer at Guadalcanal and headed for New Georgia Island, which was being invaded by Allied forces. More troops were needed for the invasion of New Georgia, so they were sent.
When their unit arrived, the skipper of their destroyer told them they were there and it was time to disembark. Clark jumped overboard into the sea in water up to his neck and struggled ashore with the rest of his platoon.
“When daylight came, we were on a hill all by ourselves,” he said. “We realized that the destroyer captain had dropped us off on the wrong island. New Georgia was immediately next door. They sent over a boat for us. We no sooner got out on the water in the boat when Japanese Zeros showed up. The fighter planes didn’t hit us,” he said.
When Clark’s platoon reached New Georgia, his job was to lead his unit across a path that bisected the island.
“I was in the lead when I stopped for a second to wipe the sweat off my face. I waved to my soldiers behind me to stay down. As I did, a Japanese machine gun got me in my right shoulder,” he said. “I was unconscious when they evacuated me. After I was initially treated, I was put on an LST and taken back to the Solomon Islands for more treatment. The two machine-gun bullets that hit me had gone through my right shoulder. For some reason they did a U-turn and came out beside my shoulder blade.”
Clark underwent additional treatment in Auckland, New Zealand. From there he was taken in a Dutch freighter to San Francisco, Calif., and eventually wound up in McCluskey General Hospital in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, area.
By the time WWII ended, Clark had been rehabilitated and was stationed in Fort Orr, Calif. He decided to give up his commission as a 2nd lieutenant in the U.S. Army and look for a civilian job. He quickly realized the Army had more to offer than trying to find some way to support his wife and two young children in civilian life.
Clark re-upped as a master sergeant in the guard. He was called back into the regular Army as a 1st lieutenant and sent to Fort Lewis, Wash. He spent the next several years working with various units in various capacities until he volunteered to go to Korea during the war.
He reached Korea late in the war and served as a member of the United Nations Joint Observation Team for the Military Armistice Commission. Clark was stationed in Panmunjom, where he attended armistice meetings regularly.
“My particular job was to keep track of what was going on in the Demilitarized Zone,” Clark said. “I walked from one end of the DMZ to the other, all 150 miles of it, but not at one time.
“On one of our inspection tours to the DMZ, the Communists started shooting at us,” he said. “The only place we could take cover was in the river. As the river receded, it left ledges we hid behind.
“They killed the guy on my left. The North Koreans shot my watch off and shot my corporal through both ‘cheeks,’ which made it hard for him to sit.
“After dark the South Koreans sent a boat across the river to get us. By then my legs were so cold I couldn’t raise them up to crawl into the boat. They had to pull me over the side into the boat.”
The North Koreans denied the shooting incident. Clark, who by this time was a lieutenant colonel, cornered a North Korean general who was participating in the armistice talks at Panmunjom and gave him an earful about the shooting within the DMZ he was involved in.
“I walked up to the short little fellow and tapped him on the chest and told him he was a ‘goddamn liar’ in Korean. He almost fainted.”
When the shooting in the Korean War finally ended, Clark moved on with his military career. He attended the Army War College at Carlisle Barracks in Carlisle, Pa. Later, he was assigned to the U.S. Army Experimental Command at Fort Orr, and still later, as assistant director of Research and Development for the Army at the Pentagon.
He volunteered for Vietnam in 1969. Clark was assigned as an adviser to 2nd Corps, a Vietnamese Army unit stationed at Pleiku. During his second tour in ‘Nam, he served as chief of staff of the 23rd Americal Division.
Clark almost bought the farm during a helicopter ride along the Cambodian border to check things out in his area during the early 1970s.
“We could see NVA (North Vietnamese Army) troops on the other side of the Cambodian border shooting missiles at somebody. The next thing we knew one hit right next to us,” he said. “When it blew up, it killed our sergeant major sitting right beside me.”
Col. Clark’s three-decade-plus Army career ended on a sour note when his division was overrun by North Vietnamese troops at “Fire Base Mary Anne” along the coast.
“Some of our troops fell asleep while on guard. The North Koreans came through the wire and got ‘em,” Clark recalled. “Our division commander was blamed for this lapse, and so was I.
“At the time I was 35 miles away and had nothing to do with the incident,” he added. “The Army conducted an investigation, and I was exonerated. “
By then the damage to his career had been done. He retired from the U.S. Army on Jan. 31, 1973. Col. Al R. Clark had received an incredible number of medals for the part he played in three wars and a lifetime of positive memories for service to his country as a career Army officer.
Col. Al R. Clark served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam and received numerous medals for heroism. His decorations include Two Purple Hearts, the Silver Star, four Bronze Stars with V devices for valor –two in Vietnam and one each in WWII and Korea — four Legions of Merit, 11 Air Medals, two Army Commendation Ribbons, American Defense Medal, American Theater Ribbon, Pacific Theater Ribbon with two Battle Stars for two major battles, World War II Victory Medal, Army of Occupation Medal, National Defense Service Medal, United Nations Service Medal, Korean Service Medal, two Vietnam Staff Medals, Vietnamese Gallantry Cross, Vietnamese Commendation Medal, Parachutist Badge, Army General Staff Badge and the Combat Infantryman Badge.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Monday, Feb. 9, 2004 and is republished with permission.
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