For years, Clark Sherrill kept his Navy uniform stowed in a sea bag that he toted from town to town as he moved through a long and productive working life.
From time to time, he would think about that uniform — and the years he spent wearing it as a U.S. Navy Seabee during World War II — but eventually something else would demand his attention and he’d move on.
Two years ago, he was invited to a parade in his native Troutman in Iredell County. Call it a whim or a flight of fancy, but Sherrill tried slipping on the uniform. The Navy blues fit exactly as they did when issued 68 years ago.
Sherrill was transported back to a time when a young country boy felt the irresistible pull to serve. And memories that had been stored like a uniform in a sea bag came back to him.
“Ordinarily you just forget about it and go on,” Sherrill said Monday after slipping into the blues one more time. “But as you get older, it just comes back to you.”
Sherrill is 89 now. He lives with Norma, his wife of nearly 70 years, in a nice retirement complex in
Like a lot of guys from his generation, he finds himself taking greater pride in his small role in saving and building a nation. His daughter, Sherry Sherrill, is proud of him, too, and so she found herself writing a simple e-mail from her home in Winston-Salem describing the great joy that her dad felt in being able to get back into his old uniform.
That’s how I came to be sitting in the Sherrills’ living room. If an 89-year-old man wanted to share his stories, listening to what he has to say is but a small thing. We owe Sherrill — and the diminishing legions of Americans just like him — that much.
History can be found in more than just the books.
In the summer of 1942, Sherrill was a 21-year-old kid who had recently moved to Norfolk. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was fresh in his mind, and he wanted in. So he moved his young wife to southeast Virginia to live with a relative and enlisted.
“I joined in July, but they didn’t call me until October,” Sherrill said. “I felt bad walking around the streets of Norfolk. I just thought, ‘Damn, I want to be in the service now.’ Back then, the public felt if you were a man in good health, you ought to be serving.”
He finally got his call, and he went to boot camp in Rhode Island. From there, his battalion was sent to the Aleutian Islands at the far tip of Alaska to build and maintain a refueling station. From there, the rotated back to the States — Alaska was a territory then — and then to Hawaii to train for invasions in the Pacific.
“We were with the 2nd and 4th Marine divisions at different times and kept getting told we were going,” Sherrill said. “Next thing I knew, we were onboard ship for the invasion of Japan.”
Steeling for an invasion
As any soldier, sailor or Marine who fought in the Pacific will tell you, any invasion of Japan likely meant one thing — a long, bloody war of attrition projected to cost as many as 500,000 American casualties.
“Then my friend Truman dropped the bomb,” Sherrill said, referring to President Harry Truman.
The first atomic bomb, which was dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, killed an estimated 140,000 people. The second, unleashed on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, killed close to 90,000.
A-bomb or not, the Navy continued steaming toward Japan. The sailors and Marines were instructed to land according to plan, even though the Japanese formally surrendered Aug. 15.
Sherrill, a machinist 2nd class by then, oversaw the loading of the heavy equipment he was responsible for and made his way to ground zero in Nagasaki.
What he saw there defied description. The photos in a scrapbook compiled for his unit show much of a once-thriving city of nearly 200,000 that was literally blown off the map. The radius of destruction extended for a mile. Winds equivalent to four times a Category 5 hurricane were unleashed, and fires broke out up
to four miles from ground zero.
Buildings, trees and houses were leveled, debris blown miles away.
“It was … unbelievable, just strange,” Sherrill said. “We all wondered where the rubble had gotten to.”
The sailors and Marines took up the stance of an occupying army and settled into something of a routine until some of them — including Sherrill —were told later that fall that they could head home.
Counting his blessings
He had a knack for all things mechanical that had been nurtured during his time as a Seabee — the Navy’s construction battalions, or CBs — and came home to settle into a life spent tinkering with and around heavy equipment.
He got his start when he patented a leaf-loader that would fit over municipal trucks, and sold some to the city of Winston-Salem early on. He worked at various times in public-works departments and for himself at other times.
“It seemed like it only took about 10 years to wear me out on a job,” he said. “We moved around a lot.”
Throughout the years, he kept in touch with a few of the guys he’d served with, and he attended some of the reunions held up and down the East Coast. The last one was in 2008; that year, the group decided to call it quits because so many of them had died.
That, too, got him to reflecting a little bit more.
“I don’t think about it that much, but I did see something that said 1,200 of us (WW II veterans) are dying every day,” Sherrill said. “I just know that I’ve been lucky. I was lucky throughout the war and lucky in life.”