By Richard Rourk
The Fourth of July is a time for Americans to reflect on the historic date that the United States became a free country and gained independence from Great Britain.
For most the day is also a time to remember all of those who have strived to keep the nation free.
The Town of Erwin picks a different veteran each year to lead its Fourth of July Parade. This year’s choice fell on Wayne Clark, a World War II veteran whose roots are planted deeply in Unicoi County.
“He was so honored when he found out,” said Clark’s daughter Libby McCready. “There are so many veterans in Erwin and he is just so honored to represent them.”
Clark served overseas for 18 months.
“He was in the 3rd Army, 94th infantry division serving under General Patton,” McCready told The Erwin Record. “He was in England, France, Belgium, Germany, Czechoslovakia and Luxembourg. He was an artillery cannoneer and truck driver.”
Clark was among the second wave of soldiers to storm Normandy Beach on June 8, 1944. As McCready recounts, Clark was supposed to go in the first wave of soldiers on June 7, but something happened on their ship and the captain said they would go the next day.
“He was 18 years old at the time,” McCready said. “He was in a foxhole on that beach when President Roosevelt came on the small radio the soldiers had and announced there would be no 18-year-olds in combat. His buddies laughed and asked him what he was doing there since he was just 18. He turned 19 years old on that beach on June 14, 1944.”
Like so many of the brave men that stormed Normandy, Clark often speaks of how cold it was when they reached the beach.
“He always talks about how cold he was in Germany,” McCready said. “At one point he was in the back of a truck traveling somewhere in Germany. When the truck stopped, he got out and helped the others build a bonfire. He literally stood with his boots on in that fire to get his feet warm. To this day, his feet stay cold pretty much 24 hours, seven days a week.”
According to McCready, Clark returned from the war on a ship named the George Washington.
“He was deathly ill with seasickness the entire trip,” McCready said. “He talks about that, but also about the thrill of seeing the Statue of Liberty on his return back to the U.S.”
Like many veterans of World War II, Clark is hesitant to talk about his time in the war, and his family knew very little about it until recent years.
“He says when he talks about it, it brings it all back,” McCready said. “Then it becomes difficult to let it go. He considers himself so very fortunate and blessed to have made it back from that war.”
Clark keeps busy these days by staying active any way he can.
“He loves to cook,” McCready said. “He cooks three times a day and he still drives himself to church on Sunday’s. He is 96 and he always tells me and my sister, Gwen Lewis, that as long as he is not hurting, he is OK.”
Clark will lead the Town of Erwin Fourth of July Parade scheduled to take place at 10:30 a.m. on July 4 in downtown Erwin.