by Ryan Labadens, NCBC Public Affairs
Sometimes it’s the smallest gestures – a hearty ‘good morning,’ a vibrant conversation, or even just a friendly smile – that can help brighten a person’s day. That’s something that Doug Clark, a cashier at the Mini Mart onboard Naval Construction Battalion Center (NCBC) Gulfport, Miss., strives for whenever he interacts with customers going through his line during the day.
It might not be obvious just by looking at him, but the white-haired, gregarious, 77-years-young man was – and is – more than just a cashier. Back during the Vietnam War, Clark was a U.S. Navy fighter pilot, screaming his F-8 Crusader jet fighter off the deck of the Essex-Class aircraft carrier USS Hancock (CV 19) and flying sorties over the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of Vietnam between 1966 and 1968.
His time in the Navy is something he remembers fondly, judging by the glint in his eyes when he speaks of his former fighter pilot days and by the energy in his voice as he flips through faded photos from his time in the military.
“Boy, those were some fun times, let me tell you,” he said, shaking his head wistfully.
Clark grew up in Seattle, Wash., with his mother and younger brother. His father, a musician who had his own music show on a local radio station, died of encephalitis when Clark was only four-years old. Growing up, Clark often remembered seeing U.S. Navy planes flying overhead since he lived near what used to be Sand Point Naval Air Station, and that helped spark his interest in aviation.
He initially served in the naval reserves after graduating from high school in 1960, while attending college for aeronautics and astronautics engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle. Just after receiving his bachelor’s degree, one of the recruiters on base suggested he pursue becoming an officer so that he could apply for flight training. A year after he finished his bachelor’s, he completed his master’s degree in the same field, went right into officer boot camp in December 1965 and completed all of his training to become a fighter pilot by March 1966. It wasn’t long after that before Clark had his first of two tours in Vietnam.
“I’ll never forget the first time we were in the Gulf of Tonkin – we had just got there – and the first day of flight operations (ops), I got in my cockpit on the flight deck and turned my radio on to hear strike ops, and I could hear them give the code word of the day to let us know that bandits, the MiGs (fighter jets), were airborne and were heading south (toward South Vietnam). And I thought, after all those months of training, this was finally the real thing. I’m going into combat,” said Clark, his eyes wide with excitement.
“So we vectored toward them and tried to intercept and engage them, but then right before they got into range they hooked around and flew back north of the border again. They knew we weren’t allowed to follow them across the DMZ (demilitarized zone),” he said, throwing up his hands in remembered frustration.
Clark’s squadron flew what he called ‘barrier cap’ missions, flying patrols in between the aircraft carrier and land to provide protection for strike groups flying out to perform bombing raids and rocket strikes on enemy facilities. Sometimes they also escorted the strike groups or photo-reconnaissance aircraft all the way to their targets to provide protection from enemy fighters. While he would often have to dodge surface-to-air missiles and small-arms fire, Clark never got the chance to actually engage with enemy fighters, even though he was scrambled to intercept them on numerous occasions.
After his tours in Vietnam, Clark continued to work in various assignments for the active duty Navy and Naval Air Reserves, eventually retiring at the rank of commander in 1987 after having served 22 years in the military. He then landed jobs working for civilian airline companies, flying cargo in Boeing 727 aircraft.
When he finished his airline career in 2004, Clark and his wife Roberta moved down to the Mississippi Gulf Coast since his wife was originally from Bay St. Louis. His wife had three daughters from a previous marriage, and Clark and Roberta adopted a fourth girl to raise together.
After the girls had grown up, Clark decided he wanted to get back into the workforce to have something to help fill his daily schedule. He worked a few odd jobs before deciding to check out what part-time jobs were available at the Seabee base in Gulfport, where he eventually got hired on as a cashier at the Mini Mart in 2015.
One of the things he enjoys most about working at the Mini Mart is getting to interact with the customers he sees each day, especially the military members. Having been in the Navy, one of the things he enjoyed most was the bonds he formed with his squadron members during his interactions with them.
“I think the great camaraderie we had with the guys in the squadron, those are some of the fondest memories I have of being in the Navy,” said Clark.
It’s this sense of camaraderie he tries to instill in the service members he interacts with on a regular basis while working at the Mini Mart, hoping to get their day off to a bright start with a smile and an encouraging word.
“I want to give them my best shot, every time a person comes in there, because I want to make them feel really good about their experience,” said Clark. “I try to treat them the way I’d want to be treated – and that’s a good feeling.”