Mary Elizabeth Clark in her Red Cross uniform circa 1943. Photo courtesy Mary Lee Clark.
(July 2, 2022 11:24 AM) On July 8, 2022, at Jackson County Airport, Mary Elizabeth Clark will be posthumously awarded the United States Congressional Gold Medal for her World War II volunteer service in the Civil Air Patrol. Ms. Clark (1917-1981) is the first resident of Jackson County to be awarded this medal, which is the country’s highest expression of appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions to the country by civilians. On behalf of the family, her niece Jennifer Clark of Virginia will receive the award at a Civil Air Patrol Ceremony. Many family members, friends, and CAP volunteers will be in attendance. The awardee, Mary Clark, earned her pilot’s license and commercial rating, owned racing airplanes, and was the first Jackson pilot to fly in the transcontinental women’s air race, the “Powder Puff Derby”.
Mary Elizabeth Clark, who flew her Civil Air Patrol missions out of Reynolds Field was born in Jackson in 1917. After graduating from St. Mary’s High School, went on to Jackson Junior College (now Jackson College), completed her studies there in 1937, and was awarded the Dr. Ethelene Jones Crockett Distinguished Alumni Award in 1982.
Ms. Clark joined the Jackson Civil Air Patrol in 1941, trained in search and rescue and for the role of bombardier. During World War II, she served overseas in three countries. She remained in the Patrol until 1945, after which she had a long and distinguished career with the Red Cross both domestically and internationally until 1951. When she returned to Jackson, she again returned to her pre-war employer, the John Crowley Boiler Works until her death in 1981.
For four decades Ms. Clark was a trailblazer in the emerging field of women’s aviation and was instrumental in creating and managing regional and national air races; she flew in many, won several, and set a speed record in 1966. Ms. Clark was a lifetime member of the 99s, an organization of women pilots, whose first president was Amelia Earhart. The huge growth in the number of women pilots after World War II was due largely to aviation pioneers like Ms. Clark, who, with their management, organizational and aviation, skills, and adventurous and competitive spirits, proved that women were capable aviators.
The Civil Air Patrol was founded on December 1, 1941, to mobilize the nation’s civilian aviation resources for national defense service. it was created to provide airborne homeland defense and anti-submarine patrols off both coasts of the United States. CAP was composed of volunteers operating on a military organizational basis; these volunteers used their own aircraft in executing their CAP duties.
According to Maj. Al Pheley, CAP Deputy Commander, Jackson Composite Squadron, the Jackson CAP Squadron 635-1 was formed in 1941 by a group of Civilian pilots. Maj. Pheley told JTV News the Jackson CAP practiced bombing skills that could be used for targeted drops of emergency food and supplies during Ms. Clark’s service. Pheley said they also performed guard duties at the airport, aerial inspections of city and town blackout conditions, and provided effectiveness reports. They towed targets from the backs of their planes so that others could practice firing live ammunition at the airborne targets.
On April 29, 1943, the Civil Air Patrol was transferred to the U.S. Army Air Force. Five years later, on May 26, 1948, following the creation of the U.S. Air Force as a separate branch of the armed services, CAP became the Air Force’s civilian auxiliary. The Civil Air Patrol continues to this day, but its mission has changed to one of emergency services, search and rescue, and a cadet program that emphasizes leadership, citizenship, technology, and aviation/aerospace education.
The legislation declaring that the Congressional Gold Medal is awarded to World War II Civil Air Patrol volunteers was passed in 2014.
Friday’s ceremony will be led by the Civil Air Patrol’s National Commander, Major General Edward Phelka, along with Michigan Wing Commander, Colonel Christopher Ballard, and other dignitaries. Representative Sarah Lightner will present the Gold Medal.
The ceremony will be held at the Richmond Brothers hangar at Jackson County Airport and is by invitation only.