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Centenarian World War II Tribute

Dr. Will Miles Clark, 106

On his 38th birthday, August 17, 1942, Will Clark was celebrating with his wife, Lois, when he received a most unwanted birthday surprise. 
       “I got a call from my mother, who was babysitting our three young children,” he recalls.  “A telegram just arrived from the War Department,” she told me.  “What does it say”? he asked.  “I don’t know, I didn’t open it,” came her reply, to which Will said, “Well OPEN IT!”   
       The telegram notified Dr. Clark, a practicing dentist, that he was being called to duty as part of a Special Medical Task Force, with orders to report in two weeks.  Will Clark had been a reservist since 1929.  “The notice was dated the day before,” he explains. “On my birthday, I would not have been eligible – I would have been too old.  I learned that I got called up because of a Colonel I knew from the reserves who liked me so much he requested me for the task force being put together of four doctors, one dentist and 61 enlisted men from our area in Iowa.  I later learned that we were to be part of the group being sent to build airways in the Pacific during what the military called “island hopping.”  I just wished he hadn’t like me so much,” Will adds ruefully.  “He bumped the fellow who had been scheduled to go – someone much younger – and replaced him with me." 

In the Army      
       Will entered the Army as a Lieutenant and was sent to Fort Ord in Monterey, California, with orders to tell no one of his location or when he was being shipped overseas, which was eminent.  “We were losing the war in the Pacific,” he explains. “There were tremendous causalities and they needed men and medical teams, badly.  But I thought that because of my age and three young kids 7, 4 and 7 months, I would be passed over.”
       His orders stated that he could tell no one of his whereabouts or where he was being sent.  “In fact, we didn’t know where we were headed until we were aboard ship.”   All we knew was that we would be sent almost immediately – within a couple of weeks.  I happened to bump into someone from my home town, Des Moines, Iowa, at training camp and he asked me how Lois was taking this.  I said I hadn’t told her anything about it.  He exclaimed:  “You can tell your wife!” 
       And so I did.  I called Lois and told her I was at Fort Ord, near Monterey Bay in Monterey County, California, and that I was to be shipped out any day. With that, she packed up the kids and drove 2,000 miles out there to say goodbye.  The year before, I had bought a 1942 beige two-door Chevrolet sedan – it was about a month before Pearl Harbor – and I kept it until I bought a 1949 Hudson.
       Lois took the southern route to California, following Route 66 – we didn’t have freeways or highways as we know them now – the roads were just two lanes.  It was a gutsy thing to do, but that was Lois!  Once she made up her mind to something, nothing would stop her.  She left Des Moines on a Saturday, the same day she got word from me, and drove to northern Oklahoma where we had relatives.  She followed the same route we had taken 2 years before, in June 1940, when we made a family trip of a month to Los Angeles to visit my mother who was working there at the time as a family caretaker to a wealthy couple.  It was the first vacation we had ever had. 

The Road Trip
       Son Terry, who was seven at the time, remembers the trip well.  “We left my uncle’s house in north central Oklahoma about 6:00 in the morning on a Sunday. Three hundred miles later, in late afternoon, we kids were so hungry we could have eaten the upholstery, but there was nothing open along the way except a few gas stations, but they didn’t have food like they do now. Finally, when we got to New Mexico there was a Mexican restaurant open in a small town. We stopped, and not being able to communicate with them, they just brought us some food. I took one bite, and jumped out of my chair – it was so hot!  I wouldn’t eat Mexican food again until 1962, when I moved to California. 
       "We drove straight through, eventually coming up the coast near what is now route 101 in California to Monterey. Meanwhile, my dad rented a little cottage near the bachelor officers’ quarters where he was staying.  We were just hoping to get there before he was shipped out so we could say goodbye." 
       As luck would have it, Will’s deployment was delayed for almost a month and they had about three weeks together as a family before he had to leave. Terry recalls, “We said our goodbyes there at Fort Ord; we didn’t go to San Francisco to see him off.”  
       Will adds: “We didn’t know where we were headed until we were aboard ship – and we didn’t know, of course, if we would ever see our loved ones again.”

Patton in the Desert
       Lois retraced their earlier trip on the way home. Terry recalls as they were going through the desert around Palm Springs, the cars were stopped for about a half hour to allow General Patton and his troops, on a training mission for the North Africa campaign, to cross the road. 
       “It made the war very real to me, seeing all those soldiers – not just my dad and the men at his base,” Terry says.  Another memory of that time was that “we felt very safe picking up soldiers who were hitchhiking along the way, both going and coming to California.  We never took them very far, but my mom always stopped for them.  It was a different time then.” 

In Theater
       Once home in Des Moines, Lois had to rear the children and keep their life going alone for the next three years.  “Often, she didn’t know if I was dead or alive. There wasn’t much mail getting through, and a letter could take weeks or months; the casualties were very high. In all, there were 1,000 of us shipped out to the Pacific at that time. We went first to a small atoll where a landing strip was being built and troops were sent in to support and defend it.
       "There was an epidemic of elephantiasis but I didn’t get it; after 17 months our Medical Task Force was sent to New Caledonia for a year, and then we were put into a group sent to Iwo Jima. We basically followed the Marines around the Pacific.
       "At Iwo Jima, we went in after the invasion, in the second wave. The bad part was on the beach; the beach was very narrow – really just a few yards, nothing like the beaches you see in the pictures of the Normandy invasion. The casualties were awful, but for me, the challenge began before we hit the beach. The regular troops had been trained for months on how to transfer from the ship to the landing craft, a much smaller boat, of course.  But I had no training, and I was twice the age of the average soldier – I was 40. We quickly had to go down the rope ladder while the transfer ship and the landing craft were both bobbing up and down at different pitches and also rocking to and from each other. I was told that if I missed a step, to dive into the water; otherwise I might be crushed between the ships as they clanged together with the roll of the water. Then once on the landing craft, we hit the short beach at full speed to drive it up onto the sand as far as possible. There were big iron gates that opened to let the men off, and we were instructed to run diagonally from the ramp so as not to be caught in the doors as they slammed shut. 
       After five months on Iwo Jima, my mother became seriously ill and since I had been overseas for three years, I was granted an emergency leave. While I was home, they dropped the bomb and the war ended. I was promoted to Captain while I was over there.  Because of our combat landing on Iwo Jima, I received the Combat Medical Badge. For all these years, I was not able to talk about my experiences in the Pacific – not until I read 'Flags of Our Fathers.'”   

After the War
       After the war, Will and Lois resumed their life and lived happily for almost 76 years. 
       “I lost my Lois just before our 76th anniversary.  I miss her terribly, but I have to go on – she would want me to.”
      
Life Today
        Will Clark, now 106, still lives independently in the apartment they shared.  He’s made new friends and his family visits often.  For his 105th birthday, he requested a computer and has learned to use it.  Will enjoys emailing friends and family and doing Google searches.  He still drives a van that he loves, and travels with his son, Terry, who visits often from California. 

Click to read more about Dr. Clark and Lois, a rare centenarian couple. 

Of interest to other WWII veterans, please visit the Honor Flight website:
http://www.honorflight.org/

Honor Flight is a non-profit organization that provides free trips for WWII veterans and an escort to the WWII memorial in Washington, D.C. – a tribute to a generation of men and women who sacrificed to make our country and the world safe from foreign threats for half a century. 

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1998-2013 National Centenarian Awareness Project & Lynn Peters Adler, J.D.
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