ELIZABETHTON — Elders and deacons from Southside Christian Church are on tonight’s agenda to ask City Council to name a new bridge in honor of a World War II veteran and former prisoner of war who returned home to serve Carter County in a host of different ways.
The church delegation will request the new bridge on Southside Road across Gap Creek be named in honor of John Roy Clark.
Clark was captured during the Battle of the Bulge late in the war, then was active in several areas of local government after he came home, as well as being active in religious work with the Gideons. He told his story to this reporter in 1995, on the golden anniversary of his rescue from a prisoner of war camp.
Clark was born in Carter County and grew up on a farm about a half mile south of the bridge on the Gap Creek Road. As an adult, he raised his family about a half-mile from the bridge on Southside Road.
Clark graduated from Happy Valley High School in 1944 and joined the U.S. Army. He was assigned to the 106th Infantry Division, one of the last to be sent to Europe during World War II.
Clark described it as a new division, thrown together from replacement and green troops over the next few months. The division was only able to train together for a month in England before being committed to the front lines in what was said to be a quiet section of the front in the Ardennes along the Belgian and German border.
The men in the unit they replaced told them it was a quiet front. They didn’t know that section of the front had been chosen for a major German winter offensive to spot the American and British forces and recapture the port of Antwerp.
Clark and the 106th Division were at the very start of the offensive, and received the first blow at 5:30 a.m. on Dec. 16, 1944.
The division was splintered and Clark was one of many from the “Golden Lions” Division to be cap-tured. They were marched back to Germany with hardly any food; when they were finally placed in rail cars, American planes strafed and bombed the rail cars, not knowing the cars were hauling American prisoners.
When he was processed into a prisoner of war camp, the Germans took away all of his personal possessions except two things he hid. One was a tiny notepad he had picked up at a USO canteen. The other thing he was able to hide was a small New Testament. He said he found comfort from both.
Clark said that when he was captured, he was 5 feet, 11 inches tall and weighed 198 pounds. When he was rescued from the prisoner of war camp, he weighed 127 pounds.
He had only been a prisoner of war from Dec. 21, 1944, until April 13, 1945, but such was the ordeal of being a prisoner in a country where even the civilian population was starving. On top of that, Clark and the other prisoners were frequently marched to stay ahead of the advancing allied lines of the American, British and Russian armies.
“I could not get the thought of food out of my mind,” Clark said.
The small notepad he made into a diary is filled with page after page devoted to fantasies about food. There were exotic recipes told to him by fellow prisoners from other parts of the country. One page was filled with the items he would have in a lavish meal he would have when he was liberated.
That meal was filled with imaginary meats, vegetables, fruits, desserts, breads and salads.
On April 12, the diary reported that the Germans told him that Franklin Roosevelt had died. He noted at the time that it was “the first true thing they told us.”
He said the next day, Friday, April 13, 1945 turned out to be the luckiest day of his life. He wrote in his diary “freedom at 10 a.m.”
Although he now had access to plenty of nutritious food, he suffered from a severe case of dysentery and was not able to gain weight. He slowly regained his health.
Despite the horrors he had suffered, Clark returned to serve his community in many ways. He became chairman of the Carter County Planning Commission and served as a member of the Carter County Tax Equalization Board. He also served as a member and chairman of the Elizabethton Electric System. He was a member and president of the Elizabethton Lions Club.
He said he always remembered the comfort he received in Germany from his New Testament, and he devoted much of his time to handing out Bibles and New Testaments as a member of the Gideons.
He also served as a deacon, elder, Sunday school teacher and Sunday school superintendent for Southside Christian Church and as a member of the Carter County Christian Men’s Fellowship.
The new bridge was completed in the fall of 2020 and replaced a bridge built in 1939, but found to be in need of replacement by inspectors with the Tennessee Department of Transportation.