Kevin Riordan: Memories of war and of a Camden now long gone

Clarence H. Davis at his Cherry Hill home with Korean War photos he keeps for presentations at local schools. "I'm going to keep going until they make me quit," he said.
Clarence H. Davis at his Cherry Hill home with Korean War photos he keeps for presentations at local schools. "I'm going to keep going until they make me quit," he said. (KEVIN RIORDAN / Staff)
Posted: March 18, 2013

At 83, Clarence H. Davis still fits into the Army uniform he wore in Korea 60 years ago.

These days, he dons his old sergeant's stripes to remind school audiences about what's often called the "forgotten" war - and about the overlooked role of African American servicemen in the conflict.

"The only movie most people ever saw about the Korean War was Pork Chop Hill," Davis says. "I hated it . . . because they made the only black character in it a coward. And that was not fair."

The retired teacher, electronics wiz, and entrepreneur carries classroom-friendly foldout displays of photographs to each appearance, along with an unpublished memoir of childhood, the war, and raising a family in the Camden of the 1960s.

"It's a mission. I'm going to keep going until they make me quit," said a laughing Davis, who visits about 25 schools annually, occasionally alone but regularly with white members of the Korean War Veterans Association.

"Young people don't know what we did," says Andrew Jackson, 82, commander of the association's 30-member Gibbsboro chapter. "Clarence has more combat experience than a lot of us. He's the star of the show."

I meet Davis at the Cherry Hill condo he shares with Eleanor, his wife of 62 years. He's a big man with an ever bigger smile; she's a retired nurse, and she's got her husband's number ("He'll talk your head off"). They are the parents of six and the grandparents of eight.

"It's great, what he does with the history," Eleanor says. "It's all his thing. And he loves it."

The Korean conflict may be overshadowed by World War II and Vietnam, but it has never officially ended. The communist North and democratic South are at best uneasy parties to a truce, and the nuclear-armed regime of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is threatening to attack the United States.

"The Korean War is just as relevant today as it was 60 years ago," Jackson says.

"It's not forgotten now!" Davis exclaims.

A proud son of Camden's Centerville section, Davis dropped out of Camden High in the 10th grade and got drafted in 1951. He served on the front lines with the 40th Infantry Division.

Although other units remained somewhat segregated, Davis fought alongside men of various colors and backgrounds. "Honky Tonk Angels" by country queen Kitty Wells became one of his favorite songs; a white soldier introduced him to the music of Billie Holiday.

"It's all written down," Davis says, noting that the details in his letters home, and the photos he and fellow GIs snapped, provide documentation for his school presentations.

"Smoke, shrapnel, and dirt was flying all over the place as Eli drove number six section's truck right through that mess," he writes in the memoir.

"It was getting dark and we had to go across some roads that were still in Chinese view. . . . It was the wildest truck ride I had ever had."

The memoir also offers rich glimpses of his childhood in a bygone Camden, when some Centerville homes lacked indoor plumbing and a possum could end up on the dinner table. He includes vivid vignettes, such as being picked up by truck at Eighth and Ferry with other Centerville boys to pick tomatoes at South Jersey farms while the adult men were away in World War II.

After Korea, when Sgt. Davis got home - promptly purchasing what he called a "teardrop"-style suit at Krass Bros. in Philly - Camden was still thriving. But it was tough for blacks to get jobs with potential; at RCA, a new boss promptly announced that "all the cotton pickers" had to go.

"I didn't realize," Davis says, "that he meant me."

His son Dwayne recalls his father's talking often about his Centerville childhood, his early career, and the war.

"I'm not surprised he makes the presentations. That's my father," Dwayne, 52, says. "He went to my daughter's school a few weeks ago. She was captivated."

Davis, who is in good health, keeps busy outside of his school appearances. He's a classic car collector, and he and Eleanor like to spend time in Florida.

I ask whether he plans to add to his memoir.

"The next chapter," he says, "is going to be about what I'm doing now."


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the Metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.phillynews.com/blinq.

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