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Veterans of 2 wars: Ascher Yates and Jim Clemons take Honor Flight to DC

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By KEVIN NEVERS

Two wars. Two U.S. Army veterans. One Honor Flight.

Ascher Yates, who served as a photographer tasked to the Korean Military Advisory Group (KMAG) during the Korean War, and Jim Clemons, who served as a mechanic and truck driver with an air-traffic control support company during the Vietnam War, both participated earlier this summer in an Honor Flight from Chicago to Washington, D.C., where they were saluted by dignitaries, feted in ceremonies, and toured the city’s war memorials.

Yates and Clemons don’t know each other. They’ve never met. They had no idea another Dunelander was even on the Honor Flight.

Different generations.

Different wars.

And altogether different experiences of their war, and after it.

Yates was drafted into the Army in 1952 and, after basic at Camp San Luis Obispo, received Signal Corps training there with a specialization in photography, a hobby of his since boyhood when he dogbodied flash blubs and film for a newspaper’s staff photographers. It was already late in the war, February 1953, when Yates landed in South Korea and was sent to Taegu, where he was assigned to KMAG and the tender mercies of Sgt. Kaye, a 30-year lifer in the Army, a dedicated drunk who kept his booze in the darkroom, and an unlikely mentor whose first act was to shred Yates’ portfolio of photographs.

“Sgt. Kaye was a photographer-artist,” Yates says. “Everything he did was perfection. All the field grade officers knew him. They’d fly in from Japan to have him shoot their official portraits.”

Clemons, a 1969 CHS graduate, was already working a job at Bethlehem Steel and engaged to be married when he was drafted in 1971, underwent basic at Fort Lewis Washington, and then trained as a generator mechanic/operator. He arrived in-country in September 1971 and spent his first two months at Bien Hoa, north of Siagon, before being sent to Tay Ninh, five miles from the Cambodian border and by then under the command of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. “Some people say the war was over because a lot of U.S. military were leaving Vietnam by then,” Clemons said. “But for the South Vietnamese it was just starting, because the Americans were leaving.”

Indeed, by the end of 1971 U.S. forces in Vietnam totaled only around 157,000, down from more than half a million three years before. And in October of that year President Nixon announced that American troops were now performing a defensive role only in the war, that all search-and-destroy operations would be conducted by the South Vietnamese. Which may explain why Clemons’ detachment at Tay Ninh was a very, very small one.

* * *

Officially the Korean War has never ended, although hostilities ceased in July 1953 with the declaration of an armistice. Yates, however, did two tours on the Peninsula. And while he recalls visiting the front lines “only a couple of times”--chiefly to take “panorama shots of the topography so they’d have a good idea of what they were facing”--for the most part he photographed VIPs for their official portraits or at ceremonies. Once, on assignment at the DMZ, when he ignored strict instructions to stay on a marked path to take a shortcut instead, Yates made the alarming discovery that someone was shooting at him when he noticed bullet holes in his jeep’s windshield. “I never told anybody,” he says. “I would have been court-martialed.”

But when Yates thinks of the war now, what he remembers most vividly is its ruination of the Korean people. “Starving peasants, devastation, folks scrounging wood to build a hovel. I’d lived very comfortably as a farm kid.”

Clemons, for his part, was up to his eyeballs in it almost from the beginning of his tour, in a war where the front lines tended to be wherever a grunt was just trying to mind his own business. “In Bien Hoa I was almost killed in a friendly-fire incident,” he remembers. “I could hear the ammo whizzing past my head. And once I moved a sand bag and a grenade dropped in front of me at my feet. Luckily the pin was still in it. It’s dangerous in a war zone. Almost shot down once in the chopper we were in.”

Later, outnumbered at Tay Ninh, Clemons’ detachment became a punching bag when the Vietcong and North Vietnamese pressed their advantage and took to shelling the base on a regular basis. “The VC and Communists started to send in the rockets, mortars, and artillery daily,” he says. “It was scary.”

* * *

After 18 months in the Army, Yates returned to the States and put his tutelage under Sgt. Kaye to good use, at the UCLA Medical Center, where he took a job photographing--and then filming--surgeries. Later he earned a degree in Theater Arts/Motion Pictures at UCLA and in 1972 was able to snag a gig in the movie and TV departments at Universal Studios. There Yates made a name for himself: in 1983 a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Sound Editing in a Limited Series, for The Executioner’s Song; and a pair of Golden Reels at the International Guild Awards, the first in 1978 for a Battlestar Galactica special, the second in 1985 for an Airwolf episode.

Yet the deprivations endured by the Koreans, who befriended Yates and whom he befriended, remained with him in Hollywood, a place about as far from war and want as the Earth is from the Sun. “Those experiences would haunt me. I had to shove them back in my mind.”

Clemons rotated back to the world in March 1973, re-upped at Bethlehem Steel, got married, took a crack at living the dream. But by 1974, when suicidal thoughts he couldn’t shake began corkscrewing into his brain, Clemons realized he’d brought the war home with him. Post traumatic stress syndrome. He didn’t let it get worse, and he refused to let it get the best of him. “I opened the phone book, closed my eyes, set my finger on the page, and made an appointment,” he says, with Valparaiso therapist Dave Sexton.

“I made a promise to myself,” Clemons says. “I wan’t going to get by, deal with, hang in there. I was going to make myself the best person I could be. I’ve been on that journey since October of 1974. I’ve read self-help books. I still go see my therapist once in a while. I’ve done transcendental meditation since 1975. I’ve really turned my life around for the best. I would encourage any vet who has issues with being in Nam to go seek help.”

* * *

In July, Yates and Clemons both boarded an Honor Flight from Chicago to D.C., where they were greeted by a throng, then bused--with a police escort--to five memorial sites including the Lincoln and the Air & Space Museum.

“It’s hard to describe how I felt on the flight,” Clemons says. “It was a whirlwind day. At the airport in Washington there were lots of people giving us thanks for our service and a color guard ceremony. And they take care of everything. Everyone has their own escort for the day and they serve food and water. They’ve got sun screen. Everything a vet needs, they have. It’s super. It will probably take a few months to take it all in. They did an excellent job of putting it all together.”

And the return to Chicago Midway was just as special, Clemons adds. “A water cannon salute from the Chicago Fire Department. A second ceremony. A naval escort for each vet. There had to be hundreds of family members inside the terminal. It was exciting and pandamonium at the same time.”

For Yates the experience was equally profound. “I was overwhelmed,” he says. “I expected to tour the monuments but everywhere I turned there were people greeting me. It was an outpouring of gratitude from people who were much younger than us and who’d never faced something as devastating as combat, a killing zone.”

“I’d like to thank Honor Flight Chicago and all the volunteers for a super exciting day,” Clemons says. “I would encourage all veterans to take the flight. And it’s free.”

For more information on Honor Flight Chicago, visit www.honorflightchicago.org or call (773) 227-8387.

 

 

Posted 9/5/2019

 
 
 
 

 

 

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