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Hero of Pork Chop Hill, a local veteran, dies at age 90

Joe Clemons, a Hendersonville retiree whose heroism led to a pivotal U.S. Army victory in the Korean War, died on Tuesday at age 90 at his home, friends said.


Gregory Peck played Clemons in the 1959 movie "Pork Chop Hill" about the bloody battle in which American troops fought off the Chinese army to take a crucial high-ground position.
Born on April 30, 1928, in Cleveland, Ohio, to Mary Florence Burke Clemons and Joseph Gordon Clemons, Joseph Gordon Clemons Jr. was raised in Plant City, Fla. After graduating from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps, serving for 18 months before he won an appointment to West Point, from which he graduated in 1951 eighth in his class.
Clemons was a key infantry leader in the battle for Pork Chop Hill, which is regarded as one of the most intense artillery battles in U.S. military history. Nine artillery battalions of the 2nd and 7th divisions fired 37,655 rounds on the first day and 77,349 rounds on the second. 
As a fresh Chinese assault made its way up a ridge Clemons radioed his battalion, “I must have water, plasma, more medical assistance, flamethrowers, litter, ammunition, several radios.” Only a little water and C rations arrived, according to an account of the battle in Military History magazine in April 2003. “Rarely in combat history has a force of the size committed on Pork Chop taken such losses ... and nevertheless continued to hold their position,” Clemons's Silver Star commendation said. He also won the Distinguished Service Cross.

Clemons’s 135-man Company K, 31st Infantry, suffered 125 casualties, including 18 killed, in the battle.
During the battle, G Company, 17th Infantry Regiment, reinforced Clemons’ badly outnumbered company. The supporting troops were led by Maj. Walter B. Russell Jr., the brother of Clemons's wife, Cecil B. Russell, a niece of U.S. Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia. Joe and Cecil, who survives, married in 1952.

A career Army officer, Clemons rose to the rank of colonel and became commander of the 198th Infantry Brigade in 1969. While commanding the brigade in Vietnam, he ordered the pilot to land his personal helicopter in a combat zone. “On a mission in 1970, he landed when one of his units was pinned down by intense enemy fire,” according to a biographical sketch on Wikipedia. “Clemons ordered his pilot to pick up and evacuate the wounded while he remained on the ground.” For his actions he was awarded the Bronze Star for valor.

He served in the military from 1946 until his retirement in 1977. In 1999, he was entered into the Ranger Hall of Fame; in 2000, made a member of the U.S. Legion of Valor; and in 2007, he was recognized as a Distinguished Graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

In retirement, Joe and Cecil lived a life of adventure and service. He sailed his 44-foot yawl on a voyage from California to Hawaii with his wife, son, Mike, and a brother-in-law. He started a private service delivering yachts across the Pacific and to any destination requested. He flew his own Cessna aircraft and piloted a 1946 NAVION with U.S. Air Force markings at numerous air shows, continuing to fly into his early 80s.

After their life in Hawaii for almost 20 years, Joe and Cecil relocated to Hendersonville in 1988, where Cecil and her family had lived when she was a child. An active parishioner at St. James Episcopal Church, Clemons served as Senior Warden, co-founded the Intercessory Prayer Team and founded the Sunday transportation team. He also volunteered hundreds of hours with the Meals on Wheels program in Henderson County.


“He was a very quiet war hero,” Frank Byrd, who has known Clemons for years at St. James. “He was very involved. He was one of the most anti-war people I’ve ever known because he lived it. He was a helluva hard worker and a wonderful human being.”
Jeff Miller recalled the “champagne-popping” moment when Clemons agreed to travel on an HonorAir flight to Washington to tour the National World War II Memorial, Korean War Memorial and other sights.
“I took him to visit his brother. His brother was in Korea, too,” Miller said. “He asked, 'Could I visit my brother’s grave? He’s buried in Arlington'”
Miller made a call to the national cemetery and told an officer who he wanted to bring.
“The head of the detachment met us with assistant and escorted him to his brother’s grave personally in full dress uniform,” he said.
“He was so flipping humble. We call them humble heroes. He would be the face beside that. You would never know he did what he did.”
True to form, Clemons resisted any effort at recognition during the flight.
“He didn’t want us to make a big deal of it because he didn’t want all the attention so we didn’t make a big deal of it,” he said. “All the Tomb guards became groupies of Joe. They were wearing their heels out snapping when they went by him. They were very touched by him and just his humility.”
When he got home, he told a friend at church that the HonorAir trip had been the greatest day of his life.
“There’s one less hero, one less humble hero, in our county,” Miller said.

In addition to his parents, he was preceded in death by his only brother, Kenneth Richard Clemons, TSRG, U.S. Marine Corps. He was married to Cecil Bealer Russell Clemons for 65 years. The couple had three children; Michael Joseph Clemons of Macon, Georgia, Susannah Russell Clemons formerly of Kailua, Hawaii and currently residing in Hendersonville and Joseph Gordon Clemons III, and his wife, Elizabeth of Luxembourg; ten grandchildren: Charles Joseph Clemons, Russell Joseph Clemons, Jan Stewart Shultis, Makana Akua Clemons , Leigh Kulani Shultis, Kalani Shultis, Katherine R. Clemons, Kimberly R. Clemons, Abigail E. Clemons, Gordon P. “Mac” Clemons; as well as three great-grandchildren.

A celebration of life will be held at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, May 22, 2018 at St. James Church officiated by the Reverend Christiana Olsen. Burial with full military honors will be held in the Russell Family Cemetery in Russell, Georgia on Saturday, June 23, 2018 at 6:00 p.m. officiated by Reverend William Russell and Reverend Montgomery Russell. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to the Armed Forces Retirement Home, 3700 North Capital Street, Washington D.C. 20011-8400. Thos. Shepherd & Son Funeral Directors are in charge of the arrangements.