No one spoke.
All eyes were on the flag, just lowered to half-staff by silver-haired women in full dress uniform, the honor guard of the Women’s Army Corps Veterans Association Heritage Chapter 62. The closing words of a WACVA memorial prayer, shared by retired Command Sgt. Maj. Helen Johnston, hung in the air.
“No more sorrows, no more tears,” Johnston recited for the crowd. “Maj. Gen. Clarke has gone to rest in peace with God.”
On Wednesday at 9:55 a.m., Maj. Gen. Mary Elizabeth Clarke, former commander of Fort McClellan and pioneer for women in the armed forces, was being laid to rest with full military honors hundreds of miles away at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio.
At that same moment, WAC vets who served under Clarke gathered for a ceremony in her honor on the former grounds of Fort McClellan. It was on these same grounds, 33 years ago, that they watched as she changed the face of the U.S. Army forever.
After the WAC was deactivated in 1978, WAC commander Clarke made history when she was named commander of Fort McClellan, the first woman to lead a major U.S. military installation. Six months later she broke another barrier, becoming the Army’s first female major general. When she retired in 1981, she’d served in the Army longer than any woman to that date. Clarke died June 10 at the age of 86.
In her address to the crowd, Lt. Col. Patricia Defrieze said, “Maj. Gen. Clarke will be remembered by generations of military women as a remarkable leader and inspiring role model.”
The ceremony in Clarke’s honor was attended by more than 40 members of the WACVA, along with the WACVA Heritage honor guard and members of the Alabama National Guard. The guard now operates a corner of Clarke’s old post, which the Army closed in 1999.
“They’ve come back here just to honor her,” Rita Jobson from the Guard training center’s community activities department said.
Johnston was one of the WAC vets in attendance. She served under Clarke’s command of both the WAC and Fort McClellan. Before reciting a WACVA memorial prayer, she shared with those in attendance her admiration for her former commander.
“Maj. Gen. Clarke strived for equality for all soldiers in the Army,” Johnston told the crowd. “And she succeeded in her mission.”
The ceremony was held in front of the Guard training center’s headquarters, a fitting tribute, according to Johnston, as the headquarters is in the same building that was the WAC headquarters when Clarke was its commander.
It was fitting also because, despite the heights she reached in her career, it is the women of the WAC who carry her memory closest to their hearts.
“Every life is a gift from our dear Father,” Johnston said as she led the crowd in a prayer for her beloved commander. “Thank you for sharing this remarkable life with us.”
Star staff writer Brooke Carbo: 256-235-3553. Related articles
• Clarke, former McClellan commander, dead at 86
• Slideshow: Major General Mary Elizabeth Clarke