Piedmont Profile: After Guadalcanal: ‘We did OK,’ Clement says
By Steve Huffman
In December 1941, Don Clement Jr. was a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill when a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor changed his life.
“We was in college and just went ahead and enlisted,” Clement recalled of the wave of patriotism that swept the nation. “Everybody was so shook up. We weren’t just mad, we were very upset.”
Clement had learned to fly a Piper Cub before college and wanted to be a military pilot. So when he visited a Marine recruiter in Charlotte, he asked if the Marines had an air force.
“Oh, yeah,” Clement said the recruiter replied. “But everybody has to start off by going to boot camp.”
So Clement enlisted. And now, almost 70 years later, he chuckles still at his naivete.
“The Marines weren’t looking for pilots,” he said. “They were looking for dog meat.”
Clement, a Salisbury native who would go on to own and manage Salisbury Motor Co. for decades, was a two-time state wrestling champion at Boyden High and also played fullback on the school’s football team. He was captain of the wrestling team at UNC when the war commenced.
Clement went through basic training at New River Marine Base (now Camp Lejeune) on the North Carolina coast and was then shipped to California, where he was assigned to the First Marine Division.
The division ó almost 18,000 members strong ó was involved in some of the bloodiest fighting of the war, including the Aug. 7, 1942, invasion of Guadalcanal, the largest of the South Pacific’s Solomon Islands. It was the first major U.S. offensive against the Empire of Japan.
Clement said Guadalcanal was important because the Japanese were building an airstrip on the island and could have used it to launch an aerial assault on Australia.
The Marines were prepared for the worst when they stormed the island, he said, but resistance proved fairly tame. At first.
“We caught those Japanese napping,” Clement said. “They had no idea we were coming.”
Then he paused before continuing, “But they came back with a vengeance. They didn’t want us to stay there.”
The battle for Guadalcanal was fiercely contested on the ground, at sea and in the air. Three major land battles ensued as well as five large naval battles and almost-daily aerial assaults.
It was December of 1942 before the Japanese finally abandoned efforts to retake Guadalcanal. The victory was the first by Allied forces over the Japanese and for that reason is often considered the war’s turning point.
It marked a transition from the Allies being involved in defensive operations to a strategic offensive.
Now 88, Clement recalls his days in the military only with a fair amount of prompting. His memory of the war remains sharp, but Clement, who was discharged from the Marines as a sergeant, downplays any role he played in deciding the grand event.
“Plenty of people have been in worse wars than me,” he said, speaking softly as he glanced out a window at Salisbury Motor Co. one morning last week.
Following Guadalcanal, Clement and fellow members of the First Marine Division were involved in campaigns in New Britain and New Guinea, fierce battles in their own right, but nothing compared to Guadalcanal.
Clement carried a 1903 Springfield bolt action, clip-fed .30-caliber rifle into battle. He still remembers how the rifle worked, placing an imaginary weapon against his shoulder as he demonstrated the mechanics of its firing.
“You’d shoot,” Clement said, pulling the make-believe trigger as he spoke, “then eject the shell and shoot again.”
Clement said the gun had good points and bad.
“It was very accurate,” he said. “But it didn’t have a lot of firepower. It didn’t shoot fast.”
Clement said the Marines were sticklers for target practice.
“They saw to it that you knew how to shoot,” he said. “We had lots of training.”
Clement said he was proud to be a part of the generation that put an end to the axis of Imperial Japan, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.
“We stopped ’em cold,” Clement said, chuckling as he spoke. “That’s why we’re here today.”
He said he recalls his time in the Marines with great fondness despite the fighting and other hardships that he and his cohorts endured.
“It was kind of dangerous,” Clement admitted, “but it was a lot of fun.”
Following the war, Clement returned to UNC but soon had to quit school and come home to Salisbury after his father, Don Clement Sr., suffered a stroke. Though the elder Clement survived for years, Don Jr. was thereafter largely responsible for the operation of the business.
He still comes into the business almost daily, still does his best to sell a car.
“What color you want?” Clement asked last week as a visitor strolled into the dealership’s showroom.
It was probably the umpteenth time he’s posed the question.
Clement’s wife, Ruth, died in 1980 when she was only 59. The couple had two children ó Donnie and Caroline. Clement now has six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
“I’m productive, I’m telling you,” Clement quipped when asked about his offspring.
Dave Setzer is a longtime friend of Clement’s, and has over the decades purchased numerous cars from Salisbury Motor Co.
Asked if he could remember the exact number of vehicles he’s purchased there, Setzer replied, “I wish I’d kept track.”
But the words were barely out of his mouth before Clement interjected, “One, he’s only bought one from us. But he’s getting ready to buy another.”
Clement and Setzer both laughed.
“This has been a wonderful place to do business,” Setzer said, lowering his voice to a whisper as if he was trying to keep Clement from hearing.
Clement caught onto the words, then smiled again, recalling that the Marines treated him pretty well, and his life has been a good one.
“We did OK,” he said, referring to the Marines, Salisbury Motor Co. and just about everyone he’s encountered over the decades. “We sure did, yes, we did.”