On May 18, 1978, Clarke was named commander of McClellan, making her the first woman ever to command a major U.S. military installation. Six months later, she made history again by becoming the nation's first female two-star general.
Clarke joined the army in 1945 near the end of WWII, enlisting with the Women’s Army Corps. Moving quickly up the ranks from private to major general, she retired 36 years later with a legacy unmatched at the time. She is remembered by friends, colleagues and generations of military women as a remarkable leader and inspiring role model.
Retired Army Col. Maida Lambeth met Clarke when she was stationed at Fort McClellan in 1967 as Clarke was wrapping up her stint as commanding officer of the WAC Training Battalion. Although Lambeth said their service at McClellan overlapped by just three weeks, they became lifelong friends.
She remembers her friend as a great leader.
“She knew how to get the best out of people,” Lambeth said. “She loved it. She just really loved it.”
Claudia Kennedy, a retired lieutenant general, served under WAC commander Clarke for three years at Ft. McClellan.
Kennedy described the time during which Clarke made her ascent towards the glass ceiling as one of uncertainty and division.
“A lot of things were changing,” she said.
The WAC was deactivated in 1978 when women were fully integrated into the U.S. Army.
“She was very respected. We knew her and trusted her,” Kennedy explained. “She was able to interpret what was happening for the group.”
Helen Johnston, a retired command sergeant major, was a member of that group. She said that Clarke knew that integration was inevitable and though the WAC would be mourned, it would be a giant leap forward for women soldiers.
“Our hearts were broken,” Johnston said. “But our progress was greatly increased through the efforts of Gen. Clarke.”
WAC commander Clarke took over as commander of Fort McClellan following the WAC’s disestablishment. As the public affairs officer at Ft. McClellan under Clarke, retired Col. Sonny Craven recalled the media storm that hit once she took command.
According to Craven, everyone from Annette Funicello’s screenwriter to the Japanese version of Playboy Magazine came to Anniston in search of a juicy story on the new co-ed army.
“But after talking to General Clarke, they were part of the choir,” Craven said.
According to Lambeth, after the secretary of the Army told Clarke she was being promoted to major general he asked her what she would like to do now. She didn’t hesitate.
“She said she would like to command Fort McClellan,” Lambeth recalled. “And voila, there she was.”
Lambeth had retired from the Army and settled just down the road from the base around the time Clarke took over. After Clarke retired in 1981, the two spent the next 20 years residing in Jacksonville before moving to San Antonio in 2001.
“She thought the people of Calhoun County were just wonderful,” she said.
Of Clarke’s many awards and commendations, Lambeth said she was most proud of her Army of Occupation of Germany Medal, which she received for her service in the Berlin Airlift after World War II.
“There are very few people who have that medal,” Lambeth explained. “That was a tough duty.”
After retiring, Clarke continued to champion women in the military. Retired Marine Col. Ron Ray served with Clarke on the Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces in 1992. Ray said she fought fiercely to open up opportunities for women in the armed forces. And though they often disagreed, he found her respectful and delightful.
“She made her case with a sense of humor and a glint in her eye.”
In 1996, 18 years after Clarke made history with her second star, Kennedy followed in her old commander’s footsteps, becoming the Army’s second female major general. To mark the occasion, Kennedy said Clarke honored her with an historical memento: her two-star insignia.
“It was such a huge connection to my past,” Kennedy said. “No one had ever done anything like that for me.”
The following year, Kennedy made her own history when she became the first woman to be promoted to three-star lieutenant general. According to Craven, wearing Clarke’s two-star insignia became a tradition for the female major generals following the path she carved out.
As Johnston said of her former commander, “I never knew an officer male or female who could hold a candle to Maj. Gen. Clarke.”