On June 25, 1950, about 75,000 soldiers from the North Korean People’s Army crossed the 38th parallel, a boundary that separated the north’s Soviet-backed Democratic Republic of Korea and the south’s pro-Western Republic of Korea, initiating the start of the Korean War. By the next month, the United States entered the war on behalf of South Korea.
A current photograph taken of Clark in January, 2018. (Photo by Micha Green)
The war wouldn’t end for another three years, and part of that time, my grandfather, Willie Clark, served in the Army, fighting for his country, and moreover, his people.
While periods of conflict are often difficult, the struggles associated with these times, can also offer opportunities to learn, expand and start anew. For Willie Clark, of Washington, D.C., the Korean War, while trying, was an eye opening experience that afforded him the ability to learn new skills within the medical profession, meet people, begin life as a newlywed with his young bride and prepare him for a fruitful career and life.
After graduating from Maryland State College, now University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Clark married, Constance Eldean Hill Clark, on September 5, 1952. Since Mrs. Clark had to complete her senior year on the eastern shore, her young, newly degreed husband, set out to fulfill his civic duty to serve during the Korean Conflict. Ten days after his marriage, Clark entered the Army’s volunteer draft. Because he wanted to start early and finish quickly, he enlisted into voluntary induction which allowed him to only serve two years versus the normal three.
A native of Muskogee, Ok., Clark was processed in Fort Sill, Ok. and sent to basic training in Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., a United States Army installation, located in the Missouri Ozarks. Clark was in the 44th Armored Infantry Battalion, 6th Armored Division, 3rd Platoon.
Four years after Truman’s 1948 signing of the executive order requiring the military to integrate, the President’s Committee on Equality of Treatment in the Armed Services, Clark entered into a not-so desegregated barrack that revealed the racism woven into the United States’ fabric.
“We still had a rough time, but the services were ‘supposedly’ not segregated.” Clark told the AFRO.
Willie Clark, pictured as a soldier in Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., served in the Army during the Korean War. (Courtesy photo)
Clark said that while Blacks and Whites stayed in the same barracks, they segregated themselves within the building.
“All the Whites were at one end and the Blacks were primarily at the other end of the same barracks,” he said. “We used the same restrooms, showers, etcetera, but they made sure there were no Blacks around when they used it. They’d get up very early so they wouldn’t have to come behind us. But that’s the way it was in those days,” Clark said.
Even a White person Clark knew from his hometown began bad mouthing Blacks once they got to Fort Leonard Wood.
“It was hard to believe because I knew of this guy’s family. My father used to do plumbing work… for this boy’s family. And, yet, he was telling this joke, and just about every Black sitting in there got up and walked away,” Clark said.
The transition into military life was trying at times, filled with the gruelling work that comes with basic training, poisonous snakes and trips up and down the mountain they called Old Baldy, in reference to a mountain in Korea where they were training to eventually fight. Still, Clark worked hard, becoming a squad leader until it was time for him to go to Korea. He received a 10-day pass so he could see family before shipping out overseas after Christmas.
“I had orders in my pocket… to clear post and that I would be sent to Far East Command ,” Clark said. “And I told my father, ‘I’ll be shipping out. I’ll be going to Korea.’ Pop said, ‘You’re not going to Korea.’ I said, ‘I got my orders right here.’ Pop said, ‘No, you’re not going.’… I said, ‘He got to be crazy,’” Clark recalled laughing.
Between his day-passes, Clark stopped back in Fort Leonard Wood before going to visit his new wife in her hometown of Stuart, Va.
Clark surrounded by his daughters and granddaughters. From Left to Right, Micha Green, Washington, D.C. editor, Tanya Copeland, Paula Clark, and Joy Copeland. (Courtesy photo)
After a lively night of drinking spirits with his fellow soldiers off-base, Pvt. Clark fell asleep in uniform in the barracks. Still fully clothed, with a hangover to boot, Clark received a surprising early-morning jolt.
“Somebody was shaking me and it was the first sergeant… And he said, Lt. Kremer wants to talk to you,’” Clark said.
“Lt. Kremer I knew well,” he recalled of Kremer, who was a White man. “He went to University of Missouri and he knew I was a college graduate, and we used to talk a lot.”
Kremer gave him orders to report to the post hospital to a colonel who would give him orders.
The colonel had reviewed Clark’s files and realized he was on pre-med track in college, having majored in Biology, minored in Chemistry, and studied math and history. After probing Clark for a while, the colonel rescinded his original orders to go to Korea. Because of his pre-med experience, Clark was assigned to the post hospital, with the 5th Platoon.
“The first thing I thought about was my father. How did he know?” Clark said, remembering his dad’s premonition about him staying in the United States.
Suddenly Clark’s day-pass was canceled and, unable to visit his wife, he began working the following Monday.
“This was Saturday, and that Monday I had to report… and they sent me to the place that they most needed help,” Clark said.
Clark, a squad leader in the 3rd Platoon, left his squad to serve in the hospital, a change that quite possibly saved his life. He later learned that only 2 members of his squad of nine survived the War.
In the post hospital, Clark served in radiology, as an X-ray technician. There, Clark moved up the ranks, becoming a sergeant.
One of Clark’s most memorable comrades in the hospital was a White man named, Richard “Dick” Gardener. A son of a tavern owner in a suburb of Chicago, Gardener had a new car and was afforded White privilege. Yet Gardener did not care about color, allowing Clark to use his car and serving as an ally to his Black friends.
Clark recalled a time where he, Gardener, and some fellow soldiers went to a bar in town for beers. Two of the soldiers, including Clark, were Black, while the others were White. The bartender refused to serve Clark and the other Black soldier, their beers in the bar.
“Here we are in uniform fighting for them,” Clark recalled sullenly, as he explained the irony in not being allowed to drink in the bar.
Both the Black and White soldiers took their drinks to go, but before they left, Gardener threw his beer towards the bar breaking a mirror and many bottles.
The soldiers hopped in the car shocked and empowered after Gardener stood up for the two Black soldiers. When the soldiers got back, they saw police cars searching for them, but they were never caught.
Unlike the discriminatory experience at the bar outside of Fort Leonard Wood, Clark received respect in uniform in certain instances.
Once, after visiting his wife in Stuart, he boarded an empty bus from a nearby North Carolina city, and took a seat behind a White driver. Though his father-in-law looked concerned and sat in his car peering into the bus before it took off, Clark had no idea why. He later learned from his wife that, he was supposed to sit in the back of the bus, yet the driver, nor later boarding White passengers, said a word. “Because I was in uniform, may have been why” they never said anything, Clark said.
Not even a full year into his service, the Korean War ended, yet Clark remained at Fort Leonard Wood treating various patients.
His time in the service, Clark said, made him grow as a man.
All the people he saw injured, or those he knew that died, humbled the young Clark.
“It could’ve been me,” he said.
After his discharge on Sept. 15, 1954, Clark moved to Washington, D.C., where he started a family. He and his wife had two daughters both of whom received advanced degrees and went on to have successful careers. Clark worked for decades for the Commerce Department.
Even though his goal was not to serve or stay in the military, particularly in a time of major racial divide in the United States, Clark said he fought for African Americans.
“I took it as though, if I’m going to fight, I’ll be fighting for my people,” Clark said.