CAMP ZAMA, Japan – Lawrence Clements remembers the late-night phone calls, informing him to be ready in a few hours to notify a family that their loved one had died.
As the Vietnam War raged on overseas, Clements was 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 City, recalled he would always have his dress uniform ready in preparation to travel anywhere in Ohio.
“It was tough, because you’d have one or two [notifications] a month,” he said of the times he would perform the solemn duty during his two-year assignment. “That was right during the height of Vietnam.”
On March 29, the United States will commemorate National Vietnam War Veterans Day. Created in 2017, the annual observance honors the 9 million American men and women who served on active duty for the U.S. military in Vietnam from 1955 to 1975.
Almost 60,000 service members died in the war, and more than 300,000 were wounded.
Among them were several of Clements’ friends and teammates.
“It’s important, because I think there are still people that don’t think about Vietnam and the sacrifices made,” he said of the observance. “It’s important for people to know.”
Clements, a soft-spoken veteran who served two tours during the war, joined the Army in 1962 after he attended ROTC at Georgia University.
A few years later, the transportation officer headed to Vietnam, where he worked at the Saigon Port as an adviser for the only boat unit in the South Vietnamese Army, he said.
He often helped his Vietnamese counterparts unload U.S. military equipment off the ships. Sometimes the cargo included Agent Orange, a toxic defoliant chemical widely used in the war and later believed to be the cause of severe ailments to generations of American and Vietnamese people.
“Nobody knew anything at the time,” Clements said. “Nobody knew what the dangers were from that.”
Large barrels of the chemical were identified with an orange stripe around it, which is how its nickname originated. But, while being transported, some barrels would become damaged and the harmful chemical would come into contact with those handling it, including Clements.
“You’d be offloading and sometimes the problem was that the barrels would slip and break or leak,” he said.
After he retired, Clements said he was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, one of the presumptive conditions caused by Agent Orange, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
To this day, he said he still does not know if the illness was related to his exposure to the chemical.
Returning to Vietnam
When his one-year tour ended, Clements was assigned to be an ROTC military instructor at John Carroll University. At the time, the anti-war movement intensified and he came across many protesters.
The military draft was still on and the university’s ROTC course was mandatory for students. As a result, many of the 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 I never had any problem,” he said. “It’s a matter of when you agree or don’t agree, can you sit down and talk or can’t you?”
After teaching and his role as a casualty assistance officer, Clements wanted to have a more direct impact helping troops downrange. He volunteered to go back to Vietnam, where he served as an executive officer for a transportation battalion in Qui Nhon, located about 400 miles northeast of Saigon.
His logistics unit, which also had South Korean military augmentees, was responsible for providing 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 armor-plated vehicles equipped with heavy machine guns. The protection was needed, he said, since at least one of the convoys would be ambushed.
Once a week, he would join a convoy to closely observe the missions. He would also head out alone with a driver in a jeep to attend daily operations meetings in the city.
Every now and then, small-arms fire could be heard as they drove to the meetings.
“We got shot at a few times, but never hit,” Clements said. “You didn’t know where it was coming from; you couldn’t tell.”
Despite the dangers, Clements decided to extend his six-month tour for another year.
In his next assignment, he was transferred back to Saigon to be an adviser again. This time, he worked at the headquarters of the South Vietnamese Army’s transportation corps, where he supported rail, air, water and truck transport.
“I really thought that it was the thing to do,” Clements said of his role. “As an adviser, you are trying to help someone who is trying to help their country.”
Calling Japan home
Later in his Army career, Clements was stationed at Camp Zama, where he served for seven years until 1979.
Years before, he had the chance to visit Japan while on leave 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 Army that I wanted to go Japan until I finally got assigned there.”
Clements served in the U.S. Army Japan G-4 shop and also at Sagami General Depot, which at the time repaired tanks, armored personnel carriers and other equipment damaged in Vietnam.
After a stint with the Army G-4 office at the Pentagon, Clements returned to Japan. He eventually found a job at the Camp Zama Information, Tickets and Travel office, where he stayed 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 fully 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 commissary.
With all he has seen throughout his Army career, Clements said he has no regrets.
“My jobs were very rewarding,” he said. “I wouldn’t have had the opportunities that I had if I were not in the Army. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience.”
Soon, he said he plans to return to Vietnam once more and visit the northern part of the country for the first time. Even though it was the stronghold of a former enemy, he has no animosity to the people who live there or those who fought against American forces.
Clements said he now has Vietnamese friends from the north who know that he served in the war, and it doesn’t bother them.
“You should be willing to talk to someone, even an adversary, person to person,” he said. “We all are humans. We all have our desires and sometimes we get bad information, and you need to try to be able to sort out the bad and the good and discuss rationally.”
(Editor’s note: In honor of those who served in the war, the Camp Zama Post Exchange is scheduled to hold a National Vietnam War Veterans Day ceremony at 11:30 a.m. on March 29.)