Military service shapes John Clevenger’s life
By Noble Sprayberry
They gathered at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Louisville to commemorate service to their country. The post’s commander named wars and conflicts one by one, and men and women stood to mark the struggle in which they served.
One man rose to his feet three times.
“They said, ‘All World War II,’ and I stood up. They said, ‘All Korea,’ and I stood up. Then, they said, ‘All Vietnam,’ and I stood up,” John Clevenger says in a deliberate cadence. “The commander said, ‘You must have been a glutton for punishment.’ I said, ‘No, I was just the right age.’”
But Clevenger’s 30-year military career went above and beyond just a quirk of his birth date. The Elliott County veteran found a home with the Navy, and he brought his passion back to Eastern Kentucky. He led the formation of the Sandy Hook VFW, where veterans also collect and distribute medical equipment to those in need.
Clevenger, who turned 89 in August, embraced a life of service that began as World War II ended. He was drafted in January 1945. “I was just a boy, and I went into the Navy,” he says.
He served aboard troop transports, mostly in the Pacific Ocean. He also learned the realities of war. He was stationed on one vessel that also did duty as a medical ship for the wounded, and not everyone survived. If they were too far from port for a burial on land, the bodies were buried at sea. “Once, 12 died, and we buried nine,” he says.
After his tour of duty ended, he returned home. “My dad had a grocery here in town, and I went to work in it,” says Clevenger of his home in Sandy Hook. “I got up one morning and said I was going back home. This was not for me.”
For Clevenger, the Navy had become home. He reenlisted in 1948. “It was where I wanted to go,” he says. “Then, along came Korea, and I was just the right age for it.”
The conflict was a contrasting experience to the days in the Pacific. “During World War II, I had it good. A big ship. Three meals a day. And a good bunk,” he says. “Korea was not good. The landing craft. The cold weather. We took Inchon three times. Then, the Red Chinese would come take it back.”
A career beneath the sea
Later while stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, Clevenger decided to ask his boss how he could earn a little more money. “They said I should go into aviation,” he says.
But, he’d seen flight operations aboard the USS Enterprise. “I told them I didn’t want any more airedales,” he says, using the nickname for naval aviators. “They said I could go into submarines, because they paid extra. But, I told them I wasn’t living in a sewer pipe.”
Instead, Clevenger chose a field that would shape much of the rest of his life. “They said there was diving, and I said I’d take that,” he says.
At a school in New Jersey, he learned deep-sea diving and salvage. From there, he went to the Pacific, where he spent time doing underwater ship repair, such as patching holes and replacing propellers. Also, he cleared harbors of debris from sunken ships. “We dove seven days a week there for a while,” he says.
The style of diving required heavy, metal helmets. Hoses provided air and often a way to communicate with the surface. “I qualified in everything they had, and I made master diver,” he says. He learned the skills needed to dive deep, such as the math required to calculate — using pencil and paper — the safe duration of a dive. And he learned how to dive using exotic mixtures of gases, including helium. The master certification was so difficult, Clevenger says that at one point in his career, the Navy had fewer divers than it had admirals.
Despite his achievements, the response was consistent when he described his profession to friends at home: “They thought I was crazy,” he says. Eventually, he went to the Navy Yard in Washington, serving as director of the deep-sea diving school, he says.
Along the way, he married his wife, Dorothy. They have a daughter, Sue Howard, and a son, John Marcus Clevenger. He never lost touch with the community in Eastern Kentucky, where he had a house built to create a home for his family. For three years, he traveled from Washington to Kentucky on the weekends. Then, in 1963 he joined the Fleet Reserve, where he served another eight years.
“When I got out and came home, after about two weeks, Dorothy told me I needed to find something to do,” he says. “I’d worn all the varnish off the floors.” He contacted a former diving officer, who helped him land a job with Ocean Systems, Inc. “We did a lot of work with the Navy, and a lot of it was top-secret,” he says. “And we did a lot with commercial outfits.”
Honoring veterans, helping the community
Throughout retirement, his work continued back home. In the early 1990s, Clevenger and former school superintendent Curt Davis discussed building a monument to veterans, and the pair worked together to open a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in 1992. Clevenger has always served in the post’s leadership, taking over as commander in 1999.
The post, which has about 50 members, hosts military funerals. And just across state Highway 7, the post erected a memorial to veterans. A written record kept by Clevenger provides visitors a guide to the names of those enshrined on the stone.
But, Clevenger and other veterans contribute to the community in many other ways. The post’s members manage a medical closet, accepting donations of equipment and then distributing needed items.
Wooden storage buildings outside the VFW store equipment such as crutches, wheelchairs and lifts. The service is free. “Sometimes, we might go a week without a call, but then we might get three or four calls in one day,” Clevenger says. “The only stipulation is that they bring the equipment back.”
For Clevenger, it’s no surprise the veterans of the post are committed to helping others. “I think they were so proud to get back home, and they want it to be like it’s always been,” he says.