Only in Oklahoma: Clark became known as 'Patton of the Pacific'
BY GENE CURTIS Former World editor
Friday, June 15, 2007
6/15/07 at 3:55 PM
Dozens of Navy airplanes were returning to their carriers in the South Pacific short of fuel and after dark after battling Japanese forces in the World War II Battle of the Philippine Sea.
It could have been a disaster -- many of the planes' engines were running on fumes, and it was almost impossible for the pilots to see the carriers in the dark. Until Rear Adm. Joseph J. Clark of Oklahoma ordered:
"Damn the submarines; turn on the lights!"
Clark's subordinates had warned him that turning on the lights would make the ships in his task group good targets for Japanese submarines lurking nearby. After his group's lights came on, Clark immediately notified Vice Adm. Marc Mitscher, the task force commander, who ordered all the ships in the task force to turn on their lights. Soon the black night was aglow with lights stretching for miles.
And the returning pilots could identify carriers from other ships.
Mitscher, also an Oklahoman, directed the returning pilots to land on any carrier in the task force -- without regard to where they were assigned. All the carriers looked the same from the air at night and the pilots didn't have enough fuel to search for their own carriers.
Clark's order paraphrasing Civil War Adm. David Farrugut's command to "damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead" saved the lives of many pilots -- and many airplanes. And because they were allowed to land on any carrier, nearly all the pilots landed safely, although some had to ditch in the ocean where they were rescued.
Clark, who died in 1971 at the age of 77, became known during World War II as "Patton of the Pacific," a reference to Gen. George S. Patton who commanded Army troops in Europe, because of his aggressiveness against the Japanese.
When a guided missile frigate ship was named in his honor in 1980, Navy historian Samuel Morrison described the admiral as "part Cherokee, part Southern Methodist, but all fighter."
His career proved that.
Clark earned a reputation as a fearless, aggressive leader and brilliant tactician during his 40-year Navy career. He became a deck officer during World War I shortly after graduating from the Naval Academy, was a carrier task group commander during World War II, a task force commander during the Korean War and later became commander of the 7th Fleet.
He served twice as assistant chief of naval operations but it was his daring in battle that distinguished his career. In addition to turning on the lights in an ocean filled with enemy submarines, he also had once ordered his carrier, the USS Hornet, into a dangerous turn to allow the pilots to take off into the wind on a mission to rescue fellow airmen who had been shot down.
Before every mission, Clark told his pilots "get out there and strike a blow for liberty."
He had received many decorations, including the Distinguished Service Medal, Navy Cross, the Silver Star and the Legion of Merit, and retired in 1953 as a full admiral.
Born near Alluwe in Nowata County, Clark attended school at Chelsea and was a junior at Oklahoma A&M College, now Oklahoma State University, when he was appointed to the Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1913. That's where he got the nickname Jocko that stuck with him throughout his life.
Clark became a Navy pilot in 1925 and played a key role in developing naval aviation, directing the outfitting of many early aircraft carriers. He also spent time testing flying boats.
During the 1930s, the Navy brass didn't think flying boats, the PBY Catalina airplanes that could land on water, had much value to the Navy. But after Clark took Vice Admiral Henry Butler on a test ride in a PBY, the brass' attitude changed.
Clark took fellow Oklahoman Will Rogers, whom he had known since they were children, for a flight that started by being catapulted from an aircraft carrier -- shortly before Rogers and fellow Oklahoman Wiley Post were killed in a plane crash in Alaska.
Chelsea residents celebrated "Joe Clark day" in 1945 to honor the admiral who called the event "the greatest day of my life" and said it was "a fitting tribute to all the boys who fought -- not just me."
Hundreds of farmers and ranchers showed up to say hello and shake hands with Clark who, to them, was just plain Joe. And the admiral enjoyed every minute of it.
Photographic research by Rachele Vaughan.
Gene Curtis 581-8304
Gene Curtis is a former managing editor of the Tulsa World.
Rear Adm. Joseph J. Clark of Oklahoma saved the lives of
many pilots because he gave an order to turn on the lights
of ships in his battle group during the World War II Battle of
the Philippine Sea.