Donald Owen Clarke GC (Direct Recipient)

b, 05/03/1923 Chester le Street, Durham. d. 09/09/1942 at sea.

DATE AND PLACE OF GC ACTION: 08-09/08/1942 off coast of Trinidad.

Donald Owen Clarke (1923-1942) was born on 5th March 1923 in Chester le Street, County Durham, the son of Thomas and Bertha Clarke (nee Goldsmith). His father was an ironmonger, and the family lived 25, Avondale Terrace. After a basic education at Chester le Street Secondary School, Donald decided to join the Merchant Navy in 1939, at the age of just 16.

Donald O Clarke GC

He was no stranger to gallantry, as before his GC action, he had already been involved in saving a dock gateman from drowning during the Liverpool blitz of 1940. For this he received the Silver Medal from the Liverpool Shipwreck and Humane Society, and also a monetary award from the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board. Donald joined the crew of the San Emiliano, and became a Deck Cadet. From September 1941 to April 1942, he made four voyages across the Atlantic to New York and returned to the UK each time with a cargo of 12,000 tonnes of high octane fuel. Sadly, his fifth such voyage would prove to be his last.

On the night of the 8th-9th August 1942, Clarke was serving on board the tanker “San Emiliano” when it was hit by two torpedoes and her cargo of petroleum burst into flames, turning the ship into an inferno. Clarke was trapped in his cabin but fought his way out on deck and boarded the only lifeboat that was still intact. It was full of burnt and wounded men, and he himself was badly burnt on the face, hands and legs. When the boat was lowered onto the sea, it started to drift back towards the flaming tanker, and it was evident that it would require a tremendous effort to pull it out of danger. Most of the occupants, however, were so badly injured that they were unable to help. Despite his injuries, Clarke took an oar and pulled heartily for 2 hours without complaint, and only when the boat was well clear, did he collapse and then his hands had to be cut away from the oar as the burnt flesh had stuck to it. He died a few hours later of his injuries.

Donald’s body was lost at sea following his death, though he is remembered on the San Emiliano Memorial in Tower Hill, London. His George Cross which was presented to his mother, is held by Chester le Street Council.