During the Korean War, Frank Clemson started out in the Army in a mortar squad.
“Then they found out I could talk, so I was made the company radio operator,” he said.
He still has a gift for gab. A jocular soul, Clemson, 77, annually serves as the master of ceremonies for the Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies at the Centre County Courthouse.
Clad in his dress uniform, he’s happy to play a role a freshly discharged buck sergeant once would have refused.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
“I feel like I’m giving back what I should have long ago,” he said.
Back then, he felt bitter. He had given enough time to the military. Like many young men in Bellefonte, he had been drafted. In 1953, at the age of 19, he wound up in the Yangu Valley, just below the 38th parallel, with the 45th Infantry Division.
“I was pleased to be the company radio operator because I was with the company commander, and I knew he wasn’t going to put himself in danger,” Clemson said, smiling.
After finishing his tour with the 24th Division, he returned home, and eventually married and went to work for the state
Department of Labor and Industry. He put Korea behind him, as America did.
“We weren’t maltreated like many of the Vietnam vets,” Clemson said. “For the most part, we were ignored.”
He joined the Bellefonte Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1600 and American Legion Post 33 for one reason: beer on Sundays, when blue laws took effect. But over time, he saw a second chance for service. He let go of his resentment.
“I’m talking to guys who had worse experiences than I had, and I said, ‘This is dumb, Frank,’ ” he said.
He became VFW post commander in 1972. Later that decade, he started as the post chaplain, a natural fit for a lay lector. Year after year, he led prayers at Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies.
He inherited the emcee duty from a longtime fixture, Jim Kerschner, a former Bellefonte mayor. They conducted military burials together on the post honor guard — a duty Clemson still performs — until Kerschner’s death five years ago.
“When he died, the (post) guys said, ‘Frank, how about you take that on?’ ” Clemson said. “You can’t say no.”
Though he says he’s merely carrying on Kerschner’s legacy, he has added a signature touch to the ceremonies: singling out veterans in the crowd.
“They should be recognized,” he said. “I want to give them what I and other Korean War vets and Vietnam vets never got — recognition from the community.”