CAMP ZAMA, Japan — Lawrence Clements recalls late-night phone calls, telling him to be ready in a few hours to let a family know their loved one had died.
As the Vietnam War raged overseas, Clements served as a military instructor at John Carroll University in Cleveland. He also served as a casualty assistance officer.
Clements, 82, a retired lieutenant colonel who lives in nearby Sagamihara, recalled that he would always have his uniform ready to prepare to travel anywhere in Ohio.
“It was difficult, because it took one or two [notifications] a month,” he said of the times he would perform solemn duty during his two-year mission. “It was right at the height of Vietnam.”
On March 29, the United States will commemorate National Vietnam Veterans Day. Established in 2017, the annual celebration honors the 9 million American men and women who served on active duty for the U.S. military in Vietnam from 1955 to 1975.
Nearly 60,000 servicemen died during the war and more than 300,000 were injured.
Among them were several friends and teammates of Clements.
“It’s important because I think there are still people who don’t think about Vietnam and the sacrifices made,” he said of the observance. “It’s important that people know.”
Clements, a soft-spoken veteran who served two tours during the war, joined the military in 1962 after attending ROTC at the University of Georgia.
A few years later, the transport officer traveled to Vietnam, where he worked at the port of Saigon as an adviser for the South Vietnamese army’s only boat unit, he said.
He often assisted his Vietnamese counterparts in unloading American military equipment from ships. Sometimes the cargo included Agent Orange, a toxic defoliant chemical widely used during the war and later believed to cause serious illness for generations of Americans and Vietnamese.
“Nobody knew anything at the time,” Clements said. “No one knew what the dangers of that were.”
Large chemical barrels were identified with an orange band around them, hence its nickname. But, during transport, some barrels would be damaged and the harmful chemical would come into contact with those handling it, including Clements.
“You would unload and sometimes the problem was that the barrels slipped and broke or leaked,” he said.
After retiring, Clements said he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, one of the conditions suspected to be caused by Agent Orange, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
To date, he said he still doesn’t know if the illness was related to his exposure to the chemical.
Return to Vietnam
At the end of his year-long tour, Clements was appointed as a military ROTC instructor at John Carroll University. At the time, the anti-war movement intensified and he met many demonstrators.
The military draft was still in progress and the university’s ROTC course was mandatory for students. As a result, many students were openly frustrated with the staff.
Clements said he made an effort to listen to what the students had to say and create an open dialogue.
“They would accept what I said, I accepted what they said and never had a problem,” he said. “It’s a question of when you agree or disagree, can you sit down and talk or not?”
After teaching and his role as a casualty assistance officer, Clements wanted to have a more direct impact by helping troops downriver. He volunteered to return to Vietnam, where he served as the executive officer of a transport battalion in Qui Nhon, located about 400 miles northeast of Saigon.
Its logistics unit, which also had South Korean military reinforcements, was responsible for delivering food, fuel, ammunition and other supplies to nearby bases.
Each day the unit executed up to five convoys with a line of about 20 trucks, including armored vehicles equipped with heavy machine guns. Protection was needed, he said, because at least one of the convoys would be ambushed.
Once a week, he joined a convoy to closely observe the missions. He also traveled alone with a driver in a jeep to attend daily operations meetings in the city.
Occasionally, small arms fire could be heard as they walked to meetings.
“We got shot a few times but never got hit,” Clements said. “You didn’t know where it came from; you couldn’t tell.
Despite the dangers, Clements decided to extend his six-month tour for another year.
On his next assignment, he was transferred to Saigon to serve as a counselor again. This time he worked at the headquarters of the South Vietnamese Army Transport Corps, where he supported rail, air, sea and road transport.
“I really thought it was the right thing to do,” Clements said of her role. “As an adviser, you are trying to help someone who is trying to help their country.”
call japan home
Later in his military career, Clements was stationed at Camp Zama, where he served for seven years until 1979.
Years before, he had had the chance to visit Japan on a vacation and had always wanted to come back.
“I fell in love with Japan,” he said of the culture, people and historical sites. “I told the military I wanted to go to Japan until I was finally posted there.”
Clements served in the U.S. Army’s G-4 Workshop in Japan and also at Sagami General Depot, which at the time repaired tanks, armored personnel carriers, and other equipment damaged in Vietnam.
After a stint in the Army’s G-4 office at the Pentagon, Clements returned to Japan. He eventually found a job at Camp Zama’s information, ticketing and travel office, where he remained for more than 35 years until it closed last year due to the pandemic.
“I came back to Japan and never left,” he said.
Now retired, Clements continues to have a strong connection to Camp Zama and its community. He regularly visits the post and attends meetings at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9612 building near the commissioner.
With everything he’s seen throughout his career in the military, Clements said he has no regrets.
“My jobs were very rewarding,” he said. “I wouldn’t have had the opportunities I had if I hadn’t been in the military. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience.”
Soon, he said he planned to return to Vietnam once again and visit the northern part of the country for the first time. Although it was the stronghold of a former enemy, it bears no animosity toward the people who live there or those who fought against American forces.
Clements said he now has North Vietnamese friends who know he served in the war, and they don’t mind.
“You should be prepared to talk to someone, even an opponent, person to person,” he said. “We are all human. We all have our desires and sometimes we receive bad information, and we must try to be able to sort out the bad from the good and discuss rationally.
(Editor’s note: In honor of those who served in the war, the Camp Zama Post Exchange is hosting a National Vietnam Veterans Day Ceremony at 11:30 a.m. on March 29.)
Vietnam War: 50th Anniversary Commemoration
News from the U.S. Army Garrison Japan
USAG Japan Official Site