Thursday, March 24, 2011

The mystery of 'The Missing Major'

I'm quite the fan of North Carolina ghost stories and mysteries. I spent many an hour in the elementary and middle school libraries reading the works of Nancy & Bruce Roberts and their collections about the Brown Mountain Lights, the Devil's Tramping Ground, the Maco Light and others.

Most of these stories take place in rural North Carolina -- then again, when all of these instances originally took place, almost ALL of N.C. was rural. There appear to be few "urban" ghost stories or mysteries, and Raleigh rarely is mentioned. We have discussed some in the past, including the Capitol, the Executive Mansion and even a story that involves an older home (somewhere downtown - Oakwood?) where "a portrait ... has been on the walls for as long as anyone can remember. There's a reason for that. Whenever someone tries to take it down, eerie music -- coming from nowhere -- begins to play. It stops as soon as the portrait is put back in its rightful place."

I recently picked up John Harden's 1949 book, The Devil's Tramping Ground and Other North Carolina Mystery Stories. In it is a tale about "The Missing Major," about which I had never heard.

The story recalls the "baffling" mystery of Major Robert R. Clark, who left Raleigh for Fayetteville back during WWII and "melted into thin air," writes Harden.

Clark was 33 back in 1944 and lived in the home of John A. Park, publisher of the Raleigh Times. But he never was heard from again when he left for Fayetteville. He either "disappeared by design, was murdered, or was possibly kidnapped. Investigators agree on these points."

Harden writes that all anyone knows is that Clark was last seen eating lunch on Fayetteville Street, near the Capitol, on March 17, 1944. He told a friend he intended to leave for Fort Bragg that day but return to Raleigh to prepare for a 16-day tour of duty at an army camp.

"His manner was entirely normal. There was no hint of anything weighing on his mind. He got up, paid the cashier, opened the door, and stepped into what has become one of the state's deepest mysteries."

Seventy-two hours later, Clark was still a no-show at Bragg. The search was on for the 5-foot-9 Clark with dark brown eyes and metal-rimmed eyeglasses. Folks even looked for his 1941 Dodge coupe.

Everyone was in on the search: SBI, FBI, military police, etc. The investigation dug up nothing. Clark was an efficient employee in past jobs, and he was said to be intelligent, quiet-mannered, agreeable and the like. It was even believed that the Army meant everything to him, questioning a motive of making himself disappear as to avoid combat.

One thing kept coming back: the idea that he may have suffered from amnesia. Harden writes that acquaintances stated that twice Clark had been hit by tragedy: his father had committed suicide when Clark was a young boy (and Clark found the body); and on the death of his mother a few years later.

Seven months into the search, a break.

While hunting in Hoke County, one Robert Parks discovered a Dodge coupe "almost completely covered over with leaves, pine-brush, vines, and army blankets." The license plate showed it was Clark's car. Military experts stated that whoever hid the car had done a marvelous job of camoflauging it. A rifle and a handgun were also found.

Still, no sign of Clark (or his body). The search continued nationwide.

"One novel theory," writes Harden, was that Clark faked his death and then forged Army documents to get service overseas. Harden himself says that theory is "far-fetched."

A $2,000 reward was offered by Clark's uncle with a committee made up of Park, Mayor Graham Andrews and LeRoy Martin, vice-president of Wachovia Bank, to rule on the claims of the reward if the case was solved.

"Months passed and the $2,000 'bait' attracted nothing."

As far as I can tell, the case was never solved.

Now, it should be noted that this book was written in 1949. Does anyone know more about this since? Has Clark's disappearance been solved?

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