Veteran embraces Army’s nomadic life

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When Clifton Mitchell was expelled from school at 17, he joined the Army. Shipped out to South Korea almost immediately, he met the love of his life there. Even in civilian life, the family didn’t stay in one place too long.


JASPER — Growing up, Clifton Mitchell was a troublemaker.

One of three boys born to Sarah (Goodey) and Archie Mitchell, he says he was the “adventurous one” of the three.

He recalls he and best friend Lynn Carpenter having the same goal in life of doing “everything that was negative and stupid,” such as tying a typewriter by its ribbon and lowering it to the ground from their New Elliott, Indiana, school’s second-story window.

The duo eventually caused the principal so much grief that he one day led the two boys into a study hall filled with students and made them turn, bend over and give each other a swift kick in the behind.

The final straw came five months before Clifton was set to graduate. He went to a friend’s house for lunch and they both decided to drink a beer. Back at school, the librarian smelled the alcohol on Clifton and he was expelled.

Mitchell today

“I was 17 years old, no high school diploma, not much of a chance. So, I decided I wanted to go into the Army to see if I could get myself straightened out,” the now 77-year-old said. “Reluctantly, my mom and dad agreed.”

He enlisted on Feb. 6, 1958, and immediately shipped out to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, for basic training.

While at Fort Leonard Wood, which had been nicknamed “Little Korea” due to its topographical resemblance to the country, Korean War veterans repeatedly told Clifton and his peers that they should pray not to be assigned to Korea. The devastation and hardships there were just too much.

Following basic training, Clifton was given his first assignment at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. Once there, it was decided that that assignment was an error and he then reported to Fort Hood, Texas, where he was assigned to the 65th Ordinance Unit, which specialized in exotic weapons systems.

After a couple of months in Texas, the unit received its orders. They were to report to South Korea.

“It was kind of a shock. I didn’t want to go to Korea,” Clifton said.

Even then, five years after the Korean War had ended, Clifton said Korea “was still devastated.”

“Koreans were living hand to mouth, in shacks and barely surviving,” he said. “But they’ve come a long way since.”

During his first tour in Korea (he had three tours there), Clifton was an ammunition handler in a special weapons unit. “So all I did was move ammunition from here to there,” he said.

He was eventually selected to be a clerk typist, accountable for all the secret documents related to the nuclear weapons and special weapons.

A lot of people in the military didn’t like Korea, he said, but he loved it.

He met the love of his life — Lee Sun Ja — during his first tour there. She was working at the base laundry and he brought in a jacket to have a button sewed onto it. The two struck up a conversation and “became pretty attached,” Clifton said, saying that one of Sun Ja’s brothers, a sister and her mom were killed during the war. She, a brother, a sister and their father made it to South Korea in what Clifton calls “a perilous journey.”

Sun Ja and Clifton were married according to Korean law and their first son, James Lee, was born in 1959 before Clifton’s first tour ended. He then received orders to a Nike Hercules missile unit at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia and Sun Ja and James stayed behind in Korea.

After six months, Clifton reenlisted in the Army with one provision — that he be sent back to Korea.

He was assigned to his former unit and reunited with his family. He and Sun Ja’s marriage was soon legitimized by the U.S. Army and the U.S. Department of State.

The couple had a second son, Richard Archie, during the second, 18-month tour in Korea. Clifton was then assigned to Camp Roberts, California, and the family’s nomadic life began.

Over the course of Clifton’s 20 years in the Army, the family lived in places like Fort Lewis, Washington; Hammond, Indiana (where the couple’s daughter, Linda Ann, was born); Fort Benning, Georgia; Fort Knox Kentucky; Washington, D.C.; Fort Hood, Texas; Presidio of Monterey, California; and Fort Huachuca, Arizona.

Clifton said one of the most unique experiences of his career was in 1963 when he was selected to attend the Army’s Jungle Operations Training Course in Panama for a month.

“They train you in jungle warfare, navigation throughout the jungle, day and night navigation, combat operations, survival, and I got to eat a couple of snakes while I was there,” he said. “It was 24 hours a day. Four weeks in a jungle. Constantly on the move. It was a very good experience.”

Upon completion of the course, Clifton received a “Jungle Expert” certificate, which he still proudly displays in his office/library at his home on the north side of Jasper.

During his time in the service, he was deployed for a one-year tour in Vietnam in 1966 as a platoon sergeant in charge of 45 solders in an ammunition company. He recalls Vietnam being “like the Wild West all the time.”

“I remember we were on a main supply route and the Vietnamese Army was down the road from us. They got into a gun fight with the Viet Cong and they came retreating down the road,” Clifton said. “I remember one of the gunners, they had .50-caliber machine gun rings around their truck and they would handcuff their gunners to the rings so they couldn’t desert their post. I remember that one day they were retreating and I saw this one guy dangling from the truck all over the place. Kind of a sad thing to see.”

Another time, Clifton witnessed an execution.

“We were going by in a Jeep and all these people were out there in the street,” he said. “We should have had enough sense to stay away but we didn’t. We had to see what was happening. They had this guy lined up against the wall and they blew him away. You don’t forget it.”

Clifton also had two assignments in Germany, the second of which he was an interrogator. Earlier in his Army career, he spent nearly a year in the Defense Language Institute’s Russian language course.

“It was the most gratifying experience I had in the military,” he said of his time as an interrogator. “I was in Germany during the invasion of Czechoslovakia. ... They needed Russian linguists, so I got a really, really good job. My Russian was very good at that time. What I did was interrogate refugees and defectors coming out of Czechoslovakia.

“It wasn’t dangerous at all,” he added, “but a very interesting job.”

He also had another tour in Korea during which his family was able to move there, too. Sun Ja was able to see some of her relatives during the family’s more than two-year stay.

“I worked at the U.S. Embassy for a short period of time,” Clifton said of the assignment. “I was kind of a mole. I was assigned there and the Koreans didn’t know I spoke Korean, so I listened to their conversations and could read a lot of their documents.”

He retired from the Army on Aug. 31, 1978, and was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal for his service. He never thought he’d make it 20 years in the service.

“It was just kind of an out for me,” he said.

Even after the Army, the Mitchell family continued to live a nomadic life.

“We had it in our blood,” Clifton said, saying they were gypsies. “We enjoyed moving around.”

He got a technical writer job at General Dynamics — which was responsible for the design and manufacturing of the Air Force’s F-16 Fighter — in Fort Worth, Texas. While there, he used his GI Bill and earned a master’s degree from Texas Christian University. He earned his GED after first enlisting and his associate’s and bachelor’s degrees during his time in the Army.

Then, in 1980, he took a job as a technical writer with Federal Express Corporation (FedEx) in Memphis, Tennessee, and stayed with FedEx the rest of his career. But he didn’t stay in Memphis. He worked in Houston, Texas; Marion, Illinois; Rolla, Missouri; and Waco, Texas. He and Sun Ja also returned to Korea for the 1988 Summer Olympics. FedEx was a sponsor of the event and because Clifton spoke Korean, he was asked to represent the company there.

By 1993, Clifton and Sun Ja were looking for a place to retire.

“I read a book that had the 100 best small towns in the U.S. and Jasper was one of them,” Clifton said. “I wanted to get closer to my brothers who lived in northern Indiana, so we moved here and finally settled down.”

Clifton’s been in Jasper ever since.

He lost Sun Ja to lung cancer in April 1997 and the following months were a blur for him, he said.

He recently wrote his autobiography and in it, he says Sun Ja was truly the love of his life.

“One of the last things she said to me was, ‘We have had a good life together,’” Clifton wrote. “I miss her so much and there is a void in my heart that can never again be filled.”

His life, though, soon changed for the better.

He was visiting Sun Ja at the cemetery one day when he met another Korean woman, Chong Cha Gramelspacher, who was there paying her respects to her late husband.

“Chong and I hit it off well,” Clifton said. “She needed me and I needed her.”

The couple married in July 1999 and live on the north side of Jasper with their dog, Eponee, which Clifton said means “cute” in Korean.

Clifton admits his health has been deteriorating over the years.

He has coronary artery disease and diabetes, among other things. He’s also suffering the effects of exposure to Agent Orange while in Vietnam.

“I was OK for 10 to 15 years, but eventually it just hits you,” he said. “I guess if it kills trees, it kills bodies, too.”

Clifton spends his days reading and writing. His daughter encouraged him to write his autobiography.

In it, he said he’s lived a good life and is truly blessed.

“I realize that my deteriorating health will one day catch up with me and I will go home to be with the Lord and Sun Ja,” he wrote. “Meanwhile, Chong takes excellent care of me. She is a good wife as well as a good friend to me, and I love her very much.”

Editor's note: It is The Herald's goal to preserve the stories of Dubois County’s military veterans. If you are a veteran who would like to tell us your story or know a veteran whose story you'd like to share, please contact the newsroom at or 812-482-2626.

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