Legion celebrates 75-year membership of WWII vet

In this March 10 photo, Marvin Palmer, Wessington American Legion Commander, left, and Kevin Clarke, right, present a certificate of membership to WWII veteran Lester Clarke, center, in Aberdeen. Lester Clarke remembers how he had to sleep on the deck of a Navy ship during World War II because it was safer than in the ship's belly if a bomb or torpedo hit. (Kelda Pharris/Aberdeen American News via AP

ABERDEEN (AP) – Lester Clarke remembers how he had to sleep on the deck of a Navy ship during World War II because it was safer than in the ship's belly if a bomb or torpedo hit.

He and those he served with slept above board, doused in shark repellent, armed with a sheath knife and life vest. His on-person identification was a pay record tucked in – he glances around the room before continuing, "I think you can handle this," – a condom. It was the only waterproof item available. Clarke sets the scene so well listeners can almost feel the waves and hear the bombs.

He's been asked many times over if he was ever shot at and he never knows quite how to answer the question. He was on a ship. There was no combat with rifles. They were at sea and bombs were the constant threat.

"So, I suppose so," Clarke shrugs.

He recounted the tales over personal pizzas at a small gathering of family and fellow Wessington American Legion members at Mother Joseph Manor on March 10 – the day before the Aberdeen assisted-living facility went on lockdown because of spreading viruses, including the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19, the Aberdeen American News reported. It marks another tic in his unprecedented history. His foot taps like a metronome, keeping the cadence in his speech. Clarke speaks clearly with specific dates, countries and travels. The group had gathered to celebrate his 75 years of membership with the American Legion.

Clarke grew up in Wessington. He attended South Dakota State University for his bachelor's degree. He signed up for the Navy in 1942 and continued with school until his graduation in 1943. He was called to duty immediately upon getting his diploma. In 1945, while on leave, he was signed up for the American Legion. On Dec. 27, 1945, he married Charlotte, a relationship that lasted 66 years. She died in 2012.

At the present day event, servicemen laugh knowingly at the 98-year-old's anecdotes. Clarke acknowledges earnest, self-induced hazards that come with the mix of young men thrown into the chaos of war. There's one story in which he had his men training on firefighting while onboard a ship. His captain shouted, "Clark-ee!" – because that's what he always called him. Clarke hustled over, and the captain asked if he had packed the vessel in Pearl Harbor. Clarke answered yes. The captain reminded him of the 5,000 drums of aviation gas and a bottom loader of ammunition.

"He said if we take a torpedo we’re never coming back from that. So I put my firefighting equipment away. I’ve never forgotten that," Clarke said, punctuating the line with a wary chuckle as his guests followed suit in harmony.

Then there was the time they they were fogging with a blend of diesel and some other chemicals to create the gaseous camouflage they needed at sea. The men were to wear gas masks, but one dissented and ended up extremely bloated. The crowd laughs when Clarke said he had to give the guy an enema, thus proving the extent of his medical knowledge, he said. The man never forgot his mask again.

Clarke forces the important words. They catch in his throat, but he expels them, his voice rising an octave as he remembers the 14 men from his 1943 SDSU graduating class who died during the invasion of Normandy. He tears up just as much at a more recent memory of the salute and "Thank you for your service" a 10-year-old gave him when he took an Honor Flight for veterans to Washington, D.C., a few years back. That moment touched him; the memories flooded the rims of his eyes.

In all, Clarke traveled to more than 100 countries by ship, plane and train. One stretch of rails was 10,000 miles long and took about a month to get from London to Hong Kong. He names Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal, Taipan, the Marshall and Marianas islands. It was difficult, he said.

Clarke also got his master's degree from SDSU. He spent 12 years in the Navy and was discharged in 1954.

He and wife then moved back to South Dakota. The couple taught in Sisseton for 12 years. He then took an assistantship and earned his doctorate at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. Eventually he and Charlotte settled in Aberdeen, and Clarke joined the faculty at then-Northern State College. He served as vice president and dean and as an interim president. He retired from the school in 1992, he said, but he still follows it closely.

"I had a wonderful stretch at Northern. Northern is a darn good school. We had a couple dud presidents, but right now they’ve got a good one and they're doing alright," Clarke said.

He drops the line as his guests marvel and laugh again with the man who, pushing a century on Earth, still weaves an awesome yarn and, so long ago, served both his country and this community.

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