Harold Clark served as a 3rd Mate in the Merchant Marines during World War II. He sailed the Atlantic and Pacific in slow-moving Liberty and Victory ships filled with life-saving cargo for the war front and the home front.
His most memorable trip was the third one he made aboard the Lew Wallace, a Kaiser built Liberty ship put together at the Richmond Shipyard on San Francisco Bay.
“She was a ‘30 Day Wonder.’ That’s what they called them because they were built in 30 days. There were a lot of interesting stories told about these Kaiser ships,” the 88-year-old Punta Gorda mariner said.
“It was 1943 and the Lew Wallace was anchored in the harbor at Adak, Alaska. A squall came up out of no where with hurricane force winds. We were ordered to pull anchor, get out of the harbor and sail for San Francisco,” Clark recalled.
“We hoisted one anchor and started to pull the second one when it got fowled in the submarine net protecting the port. The anchor chain was clipped and left our starboard anchor in the sub net,” he said.
“We were a couple hundred miles from the coast headed for San Francisco when a crew member complained to the captain, ‘I have a draft in my cabin.’ The he skipper said, ‘Let’s go see.’
“When the captain checked the seaman’s cabin he found a crack in the wall that formed the ship’s side and the crack continued down the other side of the ship, then across the boat deck above him. Worse, the crack kept opening closing as the ship rolled in heavy seas.
“We had all our pumps working trying to keep the water out of the ship. By this time the ship was listing at a 15 degree angle and we lost our steering. We had to put a man on the wheel with the emergency steering in the stern of the ship,” Clark explained.
Somehow they reached the entrance to San Francisco Bay without the ship breaking up at sea. At that point they took aboard a harbor pilot to guide the Lew Wallace into port.
“’Stand by the starboard anchor,’ the harbor pilot yelled. ‘Captain, we don’t have a starboard anchor,’ we told him. ‘Then stand by your port anchor!’
“We were going under the Golden Gate Bridge into port and weaving back and forth because of our steering problem,” Clark said. “The pilot was a nervous type and finally he said, ‘How can I communicate with your man at the wheel when you don’t have a coxswain in the wheel house?’
“We had to tell him we were steering from the back of the ship as we zigzagged under the Gold Gate. By this time the harbor pilot was a basket case and our skipper had to take over,” Clark said. “Our captain guided the Lew Wallace right into the dry-dock at Richmond where she was built. They repaired her in a hurry and sent her back to sea.”
“’What about enemy submarines?’” Clark was asked.
“It was aboard the Lew Wallace and I was still a cadet when I saw my only enemy sub. We were sailing in the Allusions when we picked up a submarine that seemed to be following us,” he said. “We winked at him with our blinker lights to see if he was an American sub. No response!
“We put our aft five-inch gun on him and fired. No response, so we knew he was probably a Japanese sub,” the old salt said. “The gun we had mounted on the stern of the ship was a five-incher with a maximum elevation of 15 degrees. To scare him off we fired 10 shots at him, but we never hit anything. “I think the skipper of the enemy submarine must have gotten scared that we might get lucky with one of our shots and hit him. He disappeared.
“One of my first trips to the war zone was to Guadalcanal to deliver landing craft to the troops. Our ship was loaded with LCMs and LCVPs,” Clark noted. “I remember there was a lot of enemy air activity. I was in charge of a 20-millimeter gun crew in the bow of the ship.”
In addition to the Lew Wallace, Clark sailed aboard the Clarence Darrow, Halaula Victory, Cape Cleare and the George B. Selden.
“I went to Guam in the George B. Selden. I was there when the war ended,” Clark said. “We had a cargo of beer and Cokes, but the people on shore said they had enough beer and Cokes and told us to anchor off and wait.
“As we waited for a couple of months the crew began sampling our goods,” Clark said. “The skipper put out an order: ‘If you dump beer cans over the side open both ends with a can opener so they’ll sink.’ He didn’t want the empty beer cans floating around the harbor.
“We traded beer for paint so we could repaint our ship in civilian colors. When we sailed out of the harbor at Guam headed for San Francisco, the hull of our ship was black and the upper decks white,” Clark said. “We also left the harbor with our lights on. This was a novelty after four years of war.”
Before joining the Merchant Marines and going to sea in 1943, Clark had a degree in chemistry. So when the war was over he went to work as a researcher in Shell Oil Company’s research lab. He worked for them for 26 years before retiring.
He and his wife, Arnell, moved to Punta Gorda Isles in 2003, to be near their eldest son, Dennis Wesley Clark, who also lives in PGI. They have a daughter, Karen, in Glenndale, Calif., Scott in Washington, Utah and Gregory in Salt Lake City.
If Clark has a beef with the military and his contribution to World War II, it’s that those who served in the Merchant Marines were not considered part of the military until long after the war.
“Even though the percentage of fatalities in the Merchant Marines was higher than any other service branch we weren’t considered military,” he fumed. “Furthermore, we didn’t get VA benefits or the G.I. Bill until a few years ago.
“It still bugs me,” he said.
Name: Harold Clark
Hometown: San Francisco, California
Currently as of June 2010: Punta Gorda, Fla.
Entered Service: 1942
Rank: 3rd Mate in the Merchant Marines
Unit: USS Lew Wallace
Children: Dennis, Karen and Gregory
This story was first printed in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on June 17, 2010 and is republished with permission.
Click here to view Clark’s Collection in the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project.
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