Chester-le-Street Heritage Group

Donald Owen Clarke. (Awarded George Cross - Posthumously)

Following the end of the 2nd World War the congregation of the parish church of Chester-le-Street made a memorial chapel in the south aisle to those who lost their lives in the Wars. The cross in the chapel takes the form of a replica of the George Cross, awarded posthumously to Donald Owen Clarke. He was a trainee Merchant Navy officer who died in 1942 after helping his shipmates to escape from their ship, an oil tanker, the San Emiliano which had been torpedoed and set on fire.

The San Emiliano was owned by The Eagle Oil & Shipping Company and launched in 1939. It was fully loaded with 12,000 tons of high octane aviation spirit and had left Trinidad bound for Table Bay Cape Town and then eventually Suez on the 6th August 1942.

Three days after leaving Trinidad the convoy of which the San Emiliano was part, dispersed. At nine in the evening on that fateful day U155 launched two torpedoes at the tanker both of which found their target. The following is the citation published in the London Gazette of the 20th July 1943:-

The ship, sailing alone, was attacked by the enemy and hit by two torpedoes. Fire broke out immediately, flames sweeping the vessel from bridge to poop. Apprentice Clarke was trapped in the accommodation and was severely burned. Despite this he made his way on deck and was one of those who got into the only boat which left the ship.

The painter (rope) of the boat was kept fast and the helm put over and, as the vessel still carried some way, the boat was towed clear of the burning ship's side.

When the painter was cast off the boat drifted back and it was clear to all on board that it would require a tremendous effort to pull it out of danger. Most of the occupants, however, were so badly burned that they were unable to help, but Apprentice Clarke took an oar and pulled heartily for two hours without a word of complaint. It was not until after the boat was clear that it was realized how badly he had been injured. His hands had to be cut away from the oar as the burnt flesh had stuck to it. He had pulled as well as anyone, although he was rowing with the bones of his hands.

Later when lying at the bottom of the boat his thoughts were still with his shipmates and he sang to keep up their spirits. Next day he died, having shown the greatest fortitude. By his supreme effort, undertaken without thought of self and in spite of terrible agony, Apprentice Clarke ensured the safety of his comrades in the boat. His great heroism and selfless devotion were in keeping with the highest traditions of the Merchant Navy.

Donald Owen Clarke received the George Cross posthumously and in addition he was also awarded a posthumous Lloyd's Bravery Medal.
This was not the first time that Donald had been decorated. Earlier in the war on the 26th August 1941 he was awarded a commendation and also awarded the Liverpool Shipowners' Silver Medal and Conduct Badge for services in letting go lines and getting the ship under way during the bombing of Liverpool Docks.

Donald was born on the 5th March 1923 in Chester-le Street and at the time of his death he was just 19 years of age. The crew of the ship numbered 48 and initially all but 12 perished, killed either by the force of explosions or burnt to death. Only one lifeboat was launched with eight survivors in it and four further survivors were pulled from the sea all of them badly burned. These four died within a short time. The eight survivors were eventually picked up by an American ship the General Thomas Jessup after being directed to the lifeboat by a US Army Air Force aeroplane.

A full account of the action was provided by the San Emiliano's Chief Officer, Captain T.D.Finch. The account forms part of a publication "The World at War" by Mark Arnold-Foster, and appears in the section dealing with the Battle of the Atlantic.

Donald Owen Clarke - World War II Hero

The Motor Vessel/Tanker San Emiliano.

Torpedoed by Submarine 9th August 1942.

Donald Owen Clarke, GC. (Posthumously)

No. & Rank at the Time of Action: Apprentice
Unit/Occupation: M.V. San Emiliano (London), Merchant Navy.
Date of Birth: 5th March 1923.

Place of Birth: Chester-le-Street, Co. Durham.
Early Life: Clarke joined the MN when he was 16.
Date & Place of GC Action: August 1942, off Trinidad, Carribbean
The London Gazette: 20th  July 1943