Joseph J. Clark was a Native American pioneer in the U.S. Navy. He saw duty in three wars and steadily rose through the ranks of the Navy to become an admiral.
Clark was born in 1893 in the town of Pryor Creek (now the city of Pryor) in present-day Oklahoma. At the time, that section of the future state was known as the Indian Territory. This semi-sovereign U.S. territory was occupied by indigenous Native American tribes with aboriginal title to the land. (In 1907, the Oklahoma and Indian territories were combined to form the state of Oklahoma.) Clark’s father was a member of the Cherokee Nation.
Clark started out his post-secondary education in Oklahoma. He attended Willie Halsell College in Vinita and then the Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College (present-day Oklahoma State University) in Stillwater. After Clark received an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy (USNA), however, he left his home state to report to that Annapolis-based military institution.
While officially listed as a member of the USNA class of 1918, Clark did, in fact, graduate with the previous class. He made history as the first Native American to graduate from the USNA. Clark was commissioned an ensign and, with the United States fighting in World War I, he was posted to the armored cruiser USS North Carolina. During the war, this vessel served as an escort for ships transporting troops from one port to another.
For the first few years following the end of World War I, Clark served on several other Navy ships. He then reported to Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida for flight training. Clark graduated as a naval aviator in 1925.
During the remainder of the period between world wars, Clark served in a variety of aviation-oriented posts in the Navy. One of Clark’s noteworthy accomplishments in this capacity involved helping Navy Commander John Rodgers with preparations for his 1925 attempt to make the first-stop flight from California to Hawaii. While Rodgers and his crew did not make it all the way to Hawaii, they still won praise for setting a new-stop seaplane flight record of 1,992 miles (3,206 kilometers). Clark, for his part, received a letter of commendation for assisting with the preparations for this flight.
In this way and others, Clark did a great deal to further expand the scope of U.S. naval aviation. His other contributions included service as the aeronautical member of the U.S. Navy Department’s Board of Inspection and Survey; and oversight of the outfitting of many of the earliest American aircraft carriers. Clark also found time to teach the world-famous humorist and actor Will Rogers, who was likewise an Oklahoman of Cherokee ancestry, how to pilot a plane both from and back onto the deck of a carrier.
During World War II, Clark further distinguished himself through his command of the carriers USS Yorktown and USS Hornet in the Pacific Theater. Clark’s strong leadership and aggressive approach in fighting Japanese forces earned him both the nickname “Patton of the Pacific” and a promotion to rear admiral. During the Korean War just a few years later, Clark was promoted to vice admiral. He served in that war as commander of the Navy’s Seventh Fleet in the Pacific region. Clark retired from the Navy in 1953 with the rank of admiral.
Clark received dozens of decorations, including the Navy Cross and Navy Distinguished Service Medal, for his military achievements. In addition, he was made honorary chief of both the Cherokee and Sioux Nations. In 1952, Clark was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame. He was presented with the Elder Statesman of Aviation Award by the National Aeronautic Association in 1969. Clark died in New York City in 1971 at the age of 77. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
For more information on Joseph J. Clark, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_J._Clark and https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=CL004.