April 26, 2011
Tuesday will mark the 45th anniversary of when Jim Clark, of Sedalia, was nearly killed in Vietnam. Though it was a difficult time for him, he’d do it again for his love of his country.
“I am very proud to have served. I can’t imagine not. If a person isn’t willing to die for something that they love, they are not doing anything but existing,” he said. “I didn’t want to die, but I was willing to.”
When Clark was 18, he and about six of his friends decided they wanted to join the Navy on the buddy plan. He took the tests and passed the physical, but something didn’t feel quite right. One day a Marine Corps recruiter came by Smith-Cotton and asked if he would be interested in enlisting. Clark told him he couldn’t because he already had enlisted in the Navy. The recruiter asked if he had been sworn in. When Clark replied no, a huge grin appeared on the recruiter’s face.
Clark was sworn into the Marines on April 4, 1963, and graduated from Smith-Cotton in May. He was sent to San Diego for basic training and Camp Pendleton for advanced training.
Every Marine was required to go through chemical and gas warfare training. One thing they had to do was give themselves an injection of sugar water to simulate an atropine injection.
Clark, who hates needles, refused to do it. His superiors told him they had to see him do it. He told him he’d be able to do it if the time came, but he wasn’t going to voluntarily stick himself.
He was sent to the commander who said, “Lance Cpl. Clark, we don’t do this just for the fun of it. We’ve got to know.”
“If it comes to it, I can do it. But I can’t do it just to be doing it,” Clark replied.
“Well, we don’t know that. We’ve got to know,” the commander said.
“Sir, I’ve got a suggestion,” Clark said. “Up the coast here there are several hundred prisoners on death row. Why don’t they bring them down here to the rifle range, stand them up down there and let us shoot them? I don’t know if I can shoot a man. It’s just something I’m going to have to find out, if and when the time comes.”
The commander was speechless for a minute, before he said, “Clark, get your ass out of my office and don’t let me ever see you again.”
Clark was in California for a year and a half, before he was sent to Okinawa for a 13-month tour. After four months, he was told to pack up his gear because he was headed for Vietnam.
He thought, “Where’s that? What’s that?”
When he was told the Vietnamese shot people, he didn’t want to leave Okinawa.
He arrived in Vietnam in June 1965. He was part of the first big unit to go into Da Nang, Vietnam. They had the air base there and smaller units, but Clark’s unit was battalion-sized. The main problem was sniping in the streets. The Marines pushed the snipers out to the river and helped natives in the villages protect the rice harvest.
Clark and his unit made their way to Marble Mountain, where they stayed for a while. They continued patrolling the villages on a daily basis until late April. That’s when they started rotating the men back.
Clark was put on a chopper and landed where Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos meet. They were sent on a search-and-destroy mission on May 3, 1966. He was due to be discharged on May 27. A company of Viet Cong (VC) were working out of a village downstream.
Amphibious tractors were brought in to take Clark and the men down the river to a big sand bar — 150 yards wide, 300 yards long. The river was on one side and bamboo thickets were on the other three.
Clark’s squad and fire team were the point and were told to head toward the village. Clark was behind the point man about 15 yards. He noticed they were in the middle of a watermelon patch. He started edging his way over to a watermelon, when all hell broke loose.
“There was everything being thrown at us,” he said. He was told to take cover and the only thing he could find was a watermelon. Being a 190-pound man, it didn’t provide enough protection. He didn’t keep crouched down and a small artillery shell went off to his right and knocked him down.
“It didn’t hurt or anything, so I didn’t think I was hit — until I caught my breath,” he said. “Something didn’t seem right. So I breathed out and it was just like can of red spray paint spraying that sand.”
Naturally, he was down and his point man noticed.
“I weighed 190 pounds and he weighed about 120 soaking wet. Here he comes charging out there under fire to get me. Got me up and tried to carry me. I shook him loose and we ran back about 25 yards,” Clark said. “I got back there and realized that I didn’t have my rifle.”
The point man went back out to retrieve it, but the enemy already had it. They were that close.
The point man brought Clark back to where the amphibious tractors were. The wounded were taken back across the river and out of the fight.
In three minutes, his squad of 97 men took 50 percent casualties. They called for help and the artillery came running. Later, the jets started strafing. The company of VC they were supposed to be looking for turned out to be a battalion of the North Vietnamese Army.
SURVIVING THE HIT
Clark said he had been hit with shrapnel which severed his windpipe, cut both vocal cords, shattered his voice box, cut his esophagus and cut the nerve to his left diaphragm.
A corpsman with a dirty pocketknife and ball-point pen headed toward Clark.
“He came at me and I knew what he was going to do. He didn’t have any anesthetic or anything,” Clark said. “I did the one thing a macho Marine could do to help him — I passed out!”
The corpsman proceeded to put in a tracheotomy, so he could breathe.
Medivac choppers came to fly the wounded out, starting with the men they believed would make it first.
“They kept letting me lay,” he said. He was eventually taken to a field hospital in Da Nang. They took the shrapnel out and the next morning he was flown out to the hospital ship in the gulf off of Vietnam.
“They flew me out there to die,” he said.
He lay out there for seven days, before the medics decided maybe he could be flown home, before he died. He was taken to Great Lakes, Ill.
The news caught up with his family a few days after the accident via a telegram. Once he was in Illinois, his mother, younger brother and his mother’s cousin came to visit Clark. By that time he was doing better, so they brought him home.
Clark found out later that the shrapnel came a half inch from hitting his jugular vein.
He was discharged in mid-October 1966 with the rank of sergeant. He said he never really was scared over in Vietnam. He was young and didn’t figure he had anything to worry about because other people got shot, not yourself.
“If I had it to do all over again, I’d do the same thing — only I’d stay away from the watermelon. I haven’t eaten watermelon in 45 years,” he said.
He has been married to his wife, Janet, for nearly 44 years and they have two daughters, a son and four grandsons. One of his grandsons decided to follow Clark’s lead and enlisted in the Marine Corps a month ago.