Joel "Joe" Clark
Editor's Note: This featured story is the final in a two-part series honoring the service of two Owen County veterans — Joel "Joe" Clark and Jean Clark. Their stories represent the many veterans in our community who have dedicated their lives to serving our country.
BY MARLENE BROWNING-WAINSCOTT
Before calling Owen County home, Joel “Joe” Clark served in the U.S. Marines for 22 years and retired as a first sergeant.
Becoming a Marine
Clark enlisted in the U.S. Marines in 1964.
"I remember in my hometown, the National Guard was leaving to go to two-weeks training,” Clark recalled. “I said to my Mom, 'Why is everybody crying?' She replied that it was only two years ago that they were leaving for real to go to Korea. And I said, 'Well, someday it will be my turn.' For people in my generation, it was expected of you to be in the military. It wasn’t a choice if I was going to join; the only choice was which branch.”
Joe completed recruit training at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, Infantry Regiment Training, and Sea School.
First Tour – USS Yorktown
Clark’s first tour was as a seagoing Marine aboard USS Yorktown from 1965-1967.
“It was a traditional post for Marines to serve as part of the crew in the warships of the U.S. Navy,” Clark said. “I had several duties, including guarding the captain, stationed as a sharpshooter, manning the gun mount, guarding weapons, and many other practical duties.”
During his time on the USS Yorktown, they were sent to Vietnam twice and went to “General Quarters” twice, which meant the ship and crew should be ready for imminent action.
Second Tour – 1st Recon Battalion – Vietnam 1967-1968
“I had decided to go back to Vietnam, submitted a request, and joined the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion as a member of ground forces. Our mission was to provide task-organized forces to conduct missions such as ground reconnaissance, mapping operations, and specialized insertion and extraction," Clark recalled. "We worked in teams of five to 10 Marines in the Da Nang area. Small teams were necessary due to the layout in the jungle and were less likely to be seen. We would go in for five days because that was how much water and food we could carry and were inserted and extracted by helicopter."
The jungle was thick, and the North Viet Army (NVA) were scattered throughout the jungle; as a result, the teams could not risk doing anything that would compromise their position.
“We always stayed together and when we were moving in the jungle, the 'rear-end Charlie' would fold the brush back to conceal our path. There were no 'friendlies' in that area to reduce the risk of friendly fire due to the extensive thick brush. We were in an area alone.”
The jungle itself posed many challenges; however, the risk of being discovered by the enemy was greater.
“The missions were difficult," Clark continued. "NVAs knew the terrain, which gave them a tactical advantage and made it critical always to be aware of the surroundings. Most of the time, we were a stingray team which meant that we were in pursuit of them. However, during one mission, we ran for three days because we were being pursued. We would stop and rest in a kneeled position. If a buddy would fall over, that was it; we would get up and start moving again, trying not to establish a pattern in our movement. We would use various methods to deter them, including the use of the 'Hellbox,' which was attached to a 72-foot-long wire. In the jungle, sound and smell were your greatest senses. There were many times that you couldn’t see but a few feet ahead of you. It would often take three to four hours to move the length of a football field to reduce noise. You took your time, walked, ran, and even crawled when you needed to.”
During his time in Vietnam, Clark completed 12 long-range reconnaissance missions in deep enemy territory.
On the night of July 8, 1968, his team was surrounded by enemy forces.
“The team came under intense attack. We had five wounded guys out of eight," he recalled. "The world was coming to an end. The radio was blown up, and we were way out beyond artillery support. We had got off a transmission before the radio was destroyed. The assistant team leader was badly wounded, and we needed a plan. I had taken another radio that had a homing device that you could engage; however, no other aircraft can transmit until they are directly above you. You have to hear them coming over and transmit at that moment. It was the only way we survived.”
For the actions performed that night as team leader, Clark received the Navy Commendation Medal.
“We were extracted and went to Charlie Med to drop off the wounded and make sure they were OK. Then, I returned to base camp (Hill 327-First Marine Division Headquarters) and found my brother there waiting for me.”
Brothers in Arms
I didn’t know it at the time, but my brother decided that he would join the Marines to find me in Vietnam," Clark said. "He served in another unit over 15 miles away and had hitchhiked over on a helicopter.
“He had no idea the day he came to Freedom Hill that he would find my unit gearing up teams to come rescue us. My brother walked up and said, 'Do you guys know Sergeant Clark?' They replied, 'Yes, that is him on the radio trying to get out.' He wanted to join the rescue effort, but they wouldn’t let him. He heard the pilots saying that one of the aircraft trying to recover my team and me had been shot. It wasn’t badly damaged, but they said they could try one more time before they ran out of fuel. They made the last trip around, and we were rescued. We were so thankful. I got off the helicopter when I returned to base camp, and there stood my brother."
'Back In the World'
“In Vietnam, soldiers referred to the states as 'Back In the World.' We were living an entirely different life over there that no one here really knew about. We came to a place where no one was concerned with what was happening to us across the world. It was kind of a kick,” Clark recalled.
When returning to the states, there was no transition from the daily life or death experiences that soldiers endured for months on end. They came back from a place where getting ready for the day meant a base layer of fatigues covered in grenades, guns, and gear that gave them a fighting chance to survive; a place where people that they had only known for a few months or few days became the people that they trusted with their memories, their pain, and their life.
They came back to a place that felt like home, but it had changed. They had changed.
“Those friends you make, I still have many of them today," Clark said. "I feel like knowing your job as a Marine became more complete after being in combat. It is something you never forget.”
During his career, Clark also served as a recruiter with Fleet Marine Force, Okinawa, Japan, as a drill instructor (DI) and DI school instructor, on the inspector-instructor staff in California.
He retired in 1986 after 22 years of service. He received the Navy Commendation Media with Combat “V,” National Defense Service medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Presidential Unit Citation, Naval Unit Commendation, Meritorious Unit Citations—Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces Meritorious Unit Citations Gallantry Cross with Palm, Vietnam Campaign Medal, Sea Service Deployment Ribbon, Good Conduct Medal 5th Award, and Combat Action Ribbon.
Writer’s Note: To Joe Clark and the many others that have experienced combat, I know that your life was forever changed by your service, and we can never repay that debt. While the simple words, “thank you,” will never feel like enough for everything you endured, I want you to know that I say the words with the utmost respect, humility, and with a grateful heart.
Joel Clark's service in the U.S. Marines included time as a drill instructor in California. (Submitted photo)