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Marine Gunner Charles “Elmer” Clark USMCR

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A Founding Reservist: Marine Gunner Charles “Elmer” E. Clark, USMCR

7 Jan 2021 | Gunnery Sgt. Brian Knowles, USMCR Marine Corps Forces Reserves

January of 1917, the United States was not officially involved in World War I. Hostilities were raging in Europe since August of 1914. Since then, war had spread throughout the globe. Combat was sharp and quick in many remote battles and campaigns.

The main slug-match between the Central Powers and the Allies had been killing each other’s armies in Europe by the millions. The US Marine Corps had been watchful of the fighting and was aware they were not prepared. At about 14,000 Marines in 1916, they could not engage on the grand scale of the Western Front if the US became involved.

Limited funding, training, and personnel available, made preparations for war slow. The Naval Act of 1916 made significant changes to the role Marines would play if the US joined the war. A clause within the Act authorized the creation of a Marine Corps Reserve, established 29 August 1916. The Reserve was meant to quickly expand the numbers of Marines capable of fighting in Europe. Trench warfare dominated the Western Front; naval campaigns ranged across the seas. Millions of American Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines were needed. The US Marine Corps Reserve [USMCR], a cadre of trained, seasoned, and professional Marines, would enable the Marine Corps to expand into a force able to join the fight.

Charles Clark personified a veteran Marine who could continue his service and share his knowledge through service in the Marine Corps Reserve. Clark’s combined service spanned nearly eighteen years. He was described by his Commanding Officers as steady, vigilant, and, “shows a marked aptitude for the service.” Between August 1916 and the declaration of war by the US in April of 1917, only 35 Marines were assigned to the USMCR. Clark was one of the first Reserve Marines, joining on 15 January 1917. His military experience and training placed him at the right time, with the right knowledge. His aptitude for instruction and training of thousands of Marines validated the Marine Corps Reserve’s purpose.

Charles Ellsworth Clark, known as Elmer, was born 2 November 1867 in Dayton, Ohio. He grew up with his father, John M. Clark, and his brother, William R. Clark, in Dayton. Before he began his military career, Elmer had established his professional career in Dayton as an Electrician. He would never have children and only marry later life.

The Spanish-American War began 21 April 1898, Elmer being 31 years of age at the time, enlisted 4 May 1898 with Company F, 1st Ohio Volunteer Cavalry Regiment [National Guard]. He was appointed a Corporal. They traveled to Florida by July, to ship-out. However, the war was progressing well for the US and limited shipping made supply difficult. An armistice stopped the fighting 13 August 1898; a treaty ended the war in December.

Clark and his unit spent August and September in Alabama awaiting orders. The Regiment was finally returned to Ohio, given a thirty day furlough, and soon after disbanded. He was mustered out 23 October 1898. He returned to his civilian career as an Electrician.

Something about military life must have sparked Clark’s motivation for service. Fourteen months after discharge from the Ohio Cavalry, he joined the US Marine Corps. He enlisted as a Regular [Active Duty] on 15 January 1900 and served until 15 January 1917. He began his Reserve enlistment the same day, placing him to “In-active” in the Fleet Marine Corps Reserve [FMCR].

The chronology of Clark’s Active service is incomplete but sections of his career are seen in correspondence saved within his service record. Details of all his postings and assignments were not retained, were lost, or went unrecorded. William Clark, Elmer’s brother, explained that, “Elmer was always a very good rifle-marksman.” His records show that for several years Elmer was a member and later a Coach for the Marine Corps Rifle Team. He was stationed at Camp Perry, Ohio and then at Sea Girt, New Jersey to train with them.

William Clark also wrote that Elmer spent a few years with the Marines in China, probably between 1909 and 1912. A highly sought after posting, as China Marines lived comfortable tours of duty due to cheap labor and plentiful goods and services. It’s likely that Elmer jumped at the opportunity to serve in China.

William Clark further said of his brother’s service, “In March 1913 he [Gunnery Sergeant Clark at the time] was stationed at Washington DC [Marine Barracks, Washington Navy Yard] after having served in China for a year or two.” Then he states, “In March 1913 occurred the Dayton, Ohio flood. He [Gunny Clark] received permission to go to Dayton as his immediate relatives lived there. For several weeks he served under Major Rhodes and Captain Harrison Hall in flood relief and sanitary work at Dayton, Ohio, from March to April 1913.” Clearly Gunny Clark was concerned about the welfare of his hometown and his family.

A year later, Gunnery Sergeant Clark was among the Marines of the US Atlantic Fleet who landed at Vera Cruz, Mexico in April of 1914. He sent his family a postcard from Mexico dated 16 May 1914. The street-fighting [urban warfare] that occurred after landing was new to the Marines and required some adjustment. Marines and Sailors garrisoned the port until relieved by US Soldiers. The Marine expedition and all other US forces that landed in Mexico were withdrawn by November 1914. Clark returned to Washington for the next two years.

Founding of the Marine Corps Reserve on 29 August 1916 created a career opportunity for Gunny Clark. At 49 years old, with 17 years of service, he was a highly seasoned Marine. The expansion of the Corps critically needed Marines with his expertise. No explanation is given why he departed Active service, other than his service contract was to expire.

The average lifespan of a man in 1916 was just 50 years, which suggests Clark, an ‘old man’ compared to his men, must have been thinking about his remaining years. Transitioning to the Reserve was an honorable means to continue serving while restarting his civilian life. It’s likely he met Cydney E. Dymock, the woman he would marry, after returning from China, looking to begin a civilian life with her.

Clark began his Reserve service 15 January 1917, transferred to the FMCR. Residing in Philadelphia, in Inactive status, he would be aware of the war news from Europe, the U-boat attacks in the Atlantic, and the possibility of the US entering the war. Only 77 days into his Reserve service, he was mobilized on 2 April 1917. The same day President Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war against Imperial Germany. The declaration of war was formalized on 6 April 1917.

Gunnery Sergeant Clark was quickly placed on detached duty from the Marine Barracks in Philadelphia to the Marine Corps School of Instruction, Savage Arms Corporation of Utica, New York. Gunny Clark married Cydney in June of 1917 and she probably accompanied him to the new posting. His age and Reserve status aside, the need to train thousands of Marines in weapons employment is likely why Clark was not sent to Europe.

Gunny Clark’s technical knowledge and field experience allowed him to supervise field training and instruct weapons usage at the school. His expertise in machine guns was also utilized in training aircrew and pilots. The use of machine guns in Marine Corps aviation greatly expanded throughout the war.

As an Instructor in Utica, Clark was appointed a “Marine Gunner” [an Infantry Weapons Officer, modern day equivalent of Chief Warrant Officer-2] in the FMCR on 5 June 1918. Gunners were the first Warrant Officers for the Marine Corps, with the rank being used as of 24 March 1917. Rigorous qualifications made selection to “Marine Gunner” a high honor.

He accepted the promotion to Marine Gunner and executed his Oath of Office on 12 June 1918. He remained at the School of Instruction in Utica, New York as an Instructor. His performance reviews list him as “Excellent” throughout his tenure at the school.

When the US entered the "Great War" in April of 1917, the Aviation Section of the US Army [they were assigned within the Army Signal Corps] contained only 227 airplanes and 5 balloons. These were mainly training types. The US Navy and Marine Corps counted even fewer aircraft. US military aviation was woefully unprepared for war.

The Allies also requested tens of thousands of American made aircraft. Industry did not have the ability to fill the orders. Manufacturing aircraft was just one issue, having trained crews and pilots were other major problems. Although not trained to fly, with his expert knowledge of weapons and coaching/Instructor experience, Gunner Clark was an exceptional Instructor for aerial weapons training.

The fledgling American aircraft industry would not be able to fill the vast orders asked by the US or Allies. By war's end, very little progress was made in creating a viable mass-produced aircraft. Converting automobile manufactures of the era didn’t work. The comparatively crude assembly of a thousand-part automobile and the construction of the several-thousand fine tolerance parts of a combat airplane were too incompatible.

Success of American aviation was in the Liberty Engine and training of pilots and crew. High morale, determination, and fortitude of Americans helped to achieve air superiority over battlefields. Gunner Clark’s greatest accomplishment was in training Infantry and Aviators use of weapons on the ground and in the air.

The armistice halted fighting on 11 November 1918. Although the fighting had ended, instruction continued at the school. On 16 January 1919 Gunner Clark underwent a physical examination by the school’s medical staff and, “no physical defects or ailments were found,” and Clark was physically fit for duty. However, the next day he was admitted to the local hospital. Doctors initially thought it was Malaria or Influenza, contracted from the steady flow of students he came in contact with.

Standard treatments for these illnesses failed to remedy his sickness. Further examinations at another hospital in Utica showed he had contracted “bacilli tuberculosis”, impacting his immune system and would slowly destroy his lungs. An Influenza Pandemic had swept the globe throughout 1918; medical science was just beginning to explore microbiology and virology. There was no cure for Tuberculosis [TB], meaning it would eventually kill him. Only in 1949 would a cure be discovered.

Gunner Clark was placed on a 30 day Sick-Leave and sent to Saranac Lake, a hospital in Utica, New York for observation. This hospital also confirmed the TB. After recovering from a high temperature and breathing difficulty, he was returned to duty 5 March 1919. Sadly, he would never fully recover and his illness would continue to afflict him.

On 13 March 1919 Gunner Clark was ordered to Mare Island, California as a Machine Gun Instructor. Perhaps the warmer climate would help his breathing. He was detached from the school in Utica on 24 March 1919 to Marine Barracks, Mare Island Navy Yard, California. He and Cydney reported to his new post 31 March 1919. Even suffering with TB, his performance reviews for 28 March to 2 September 1919 were rated “Excellent.” In all categories, he received highest marks, 4.0 of 4.0. His temperament: “calculated, even tempered, forceful, active, cautious, and fair talking.” His proficiency: “has initiative, is intelligent, has excellent judgment, and is terrific in his performance of duty.”

Despite his outstanding performance as a Marine and Instructor, Gunner Clark’s deteriorating health brought an end to his Active service. There was also a post-war initiative to release Reservists to Inactive status. On 20 August 1919 Clark was reassigned to Inactive Duty. Clark and Cydney returned to Philadelphia. He served his Reserve requirements through Recruiting Duty.

Just beginning to reestablish his civilian life, Gunner Clark was admitted to a local hospital 24 November 1919 with pulmonary tuberculosis. As a veteran, he was transferred to League Island Naval Hospital. On 28 November 1919, the Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery authorized Clark to select any naval hospital for his medical treatment [hospice care]. Cydney cared for him throughout. His final request was to be placed on Active status while receiving treatment. It was not approved.

Clark remained in the League Island Naval Hospital as his condition deteriorated. He was unable to eat and suffered severely from deteriorated breathing. A medical report stated, “Patient in semi stupor throughout day.” On 30 December 1919, 52 year-old Marine Gunner Charles “Elmer” Ellsworth Clark died at 3:35pm. He passed due to, “effects of tuberculosis, which he has contracted while on active duty.” His remains were interred a few days later, 2 January 1920, in the Northwood Cemetery, Philadelphia.

Upon Clark’s death, Cydney was eligible for a Widow’s Pension. Additionally, a $100 check was sent by the Marine Corps Veterans’ Family Assistance Fund. Her pension was $25 a month but Cydney refused to accept assistance from the government. In March of 1920 she wrote to thank the Marine Corps and stated that her, ”brother was well employed and would accept her as a dependent.” She also stated that she had contracted tuberculosis from caring for her husband and expected to pass shortly. A bitter, sad conclusion for any family, but especially to a Marine of Gunner Clark’s many years of service and experiences.

As one of the first Marines to join the Reserve before the war, Gunner Clark should be remembered as a Founding Reservist of the Marine Corps Reserve. Although not sent to Europe, Gunner Clark contributed to victory through his ability to instruct Marines in the employment and maintenance of weaponry, notably machine guns. Aviators and Infantrymen alike benefited from his instruction. By retaining Gunner Clark, the Marine Corps Reserve fulfilled its mandate: preparation and readiness of Marines for wartime support of the Active Component; augmenting and reinforcing Active forces for employment across the spectrum of crisis and global engagement.

Gunner Clark was a great Instructor and was an outstanding Marine. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of Marines would join the fight in France with his instruction to help win victory and honor for the Corps. He helped bring an end to one of the bloodiest wars in human history. The Marine Corps Reserve can be proud of Gunner Clark as one of its founding members.


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