Mary Elizabeth “Betty” Clarke was born in December 1924. After graduating from Rochester West High School, she became a secretary and then a defense worker before enlisting in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) in August 1945.
After completing basic training, Clarke was sent to Berlin, Germany, in 1948, serving with the Berlin Brigade during the Berlin Airlift crisis. In September 1949, she completed WAC Officer Candidate School and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. She then traveled to Tokyo and became a commanding officer of a WAC unit. Upon returning to the U.S., she served in various positions in several states, as well as Washington, D.C., where she worked with the Office of Equal Opportunity and at the Pentagon.
In 1972, now a colonel, Clarke was assigned as the commander of the U.S. WAC Center and School in Fort McClellan, Alabama. She was then appointed as the department director of the WAC Advisory Office before being promoted to brigadier general and becoming the last director of the WAC before it was dissolved in 1978. Speaking of the dissolution, Clarke said, “This action today in no way detracts from the Service of WACs who have been pioneers—in fact, it honors them. I view this action today as the culmination of everything the members of the Women’s Army Corps have been striving for 36 years.”
Clarke was promoted to major general in November 1978, becoming the first woman to attain this rank. She oversaw the movement of the U.S Army Chemical School to Fort McClellan, Alabama, where she was appointed as the commander of the U.S Army Military Police and Chemical Schools. This made her the first woman to ever command a major military installation. She retired in 1981 after 36 years of serving the country—the longest of any woman in U.S Army history at the time.
In addition to her achievements in the service, Clarke was often called upon to testify before Congress on issues regarding women in the military, including combat roles and policies on sexual harassment. She advanced women’s equality and strongly advocated for the creation of the Women’s Army Corps Museum. She received many medals, including a Distinguished Service Medal, a Legion of Merit and a Meritorious Service Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster.
After retiring, Clarke became a member of the Women in the Services Defense Advisory Committee and was promoted to vice chair in 1986. She also served as chair of the Advisory Committee on Women Veterans and as a member of the Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces.
Clarke died in June 2011 in San Antonio, Texas.
Gordon R. Sullivan shared, “We salute [Clarke] for her selfless service to our nation and for her singular and distinguished career where being a ‘first’ was the hallmark of her life’s work… She was a soldier who understood the burdens of soldiering while moving a very large institution—our Army — into the modern world.”
We honor her service.
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