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An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

March/April 2004
ARTS OF WAR
   
 

Plain Dealer Editor Doug Clifton's Tour of
Life-altering Experiences

BY MARC LEEPSON

In 1999, things were not looking good at The Cleveland Plain Dealer, once one of the nation's top papers. Circulation was down, reporters were unmotivated at best, and the paper was looking dull and stodgy. Then, Knight-Ridder, the Plain Dealer's owner, brought in veteran journalist Doug Clifton as editor, and good things began to happen.

``Readers and reporters alike credit Clifton for quickly transforming The Plain Dealer, Ohio's largest newspaper by far, from a middling metro that wasn't even considered the best paper in the state to one that now appears as if it belongs among the nation's 25 biggest dailies,'' the trade publication Editor & Publisher noted in April 2003 after naming Clifton its newspaper Editor of the Year.

Doug Clifton was too modest to speak about his success in Cleveland when we spoke recently. Our conversation, instead, centered on his service in the Vietnam War and what impact that experience has had on his long, successful career as a newspaper reporter and
editor. Clifton, who was born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island, joined the Army in December 1965 after graduating from Adelphi University. "By then the war was picking up steam and options for starting out were somewhat limited with the draft hanging over your head,'' Clifton said. "So I made the calculated decision that I would enlist rather than wait for the draft, just leaving it up to the gods.''

Clifton enlisted under the college-option program, in which he received a guaranteed Officer Candidate School assignment and then owed the Army two years of active duty after he pinned on his second lieutenant's gold bars. Clifton had basic training at Ft. Leonard Wood and OCS Prep (sort of OCS AIT) and artillery OCS at Ft. Sill. He received his commission on December 6, 1966.

``My first assignment was as a training officer at a basic training unit at Ft. Bliss, Texas,'' Clifton said, "which is just like the Armysending a tube artilleryman to push troops in basic training.'' After getting his orders for Vietnam, Clifton briefly went back to Ft. Still to do brush-up work with field artillery. He arrived in country in November 1967. Clifton's first assignment was with the 52nd Artillery Group's 1st of the 83rd Artillery in Xuan Loc. It was easy duty, considering there was a war going on.

``My battery was holed up at a place called Ham Tan,'' Clifton said. "It was pretty much out of harm's way because the word was that a little village down by the sea was a VC R&R center. I don't know if it was apocryphal, but it was relatively calm.'' Clifton's unit spent much of its time lobbing H&I fire into the jungle. "I thought this was going to be a walk in the park,'' he said. "The big issue was staying awake at night while I oversaw the fire direction center and getting something good to read during the day.''

The walk in the park ended when his unit's mission changed. It left Ham Tan and went mobile, moving around South Vietnam, providing artillery support where and when it was needed. "We got on the road and got to Bien Hoa Air Base, the outskirts of it, just when Tet hit,'' he said. "Until then Bien Hoa was relatively secure, a no-problem kind of place. But it was hell during Tet.'' After Tet, Clifton and his unit got to see a lot of the countryand a lot more action.

They moved up to I Corps, shooting in support of the 101st Airborne Division at Camp Eagle, the 1st Cavalry Division at Camp Evans, and the Third Marine Division. Clifton was in an advance party that moved his unit's guns to Danang and Quang Tri City."From then until I left, they had us as far north as the DMZ and Dong Ha and the A Shau Valley,'' he said. "We were at Fire Support Base Bastogne,'' south of Hue, "which was just being ripped out of the jungle at the mouth of the A Shau Valley. We were everywhere. We were in Hue and helped liberate the city with direct cannon fire on the Citadel.''

Unbelievably, Clifton and his entire unit came out unscathed. "We never took direct fire except at Bastogne, and that was just small arms fire,'' he said. "We took rockets and RPGs from time to time. But even though we were in the thick of it, we didn't have a single casualty. We lucked out big time.''

Clifton came home in November 1968, his enlistment up. He and his wife and young daughter moved to Miami, where he took a job as an insurance investigator. He was accepted at the University of Miami Law School, but decided at the last minute to forgo law and try journalism. "I had always wanted to work in newspapers but didn't major in journalism; I was a pre-law student,'' he said. "So I just took a flyer and thought I'd throw myself on the mercy of every newspaper that I could contact. I got my wife's support. She said she'd stick it out with me and do what it would take for me to get started in newspapers.''

The first newspaper he contacted, The Miami Herald, hired him. He worked for the Action Line consumer help column. Seven months, later Clifton started reporting full time and soon was one of the paper's top investigative reporters. Five years later he became an editor at The Herald, where he remained for a dozen more years. He then became news editor at Knight-Ridder's Washington Bureau from 1987-89. From there he moved to North Carolina where he was managing editor of the Charlotte News and Observer. Clifton went back to the Herald as the paper's executive editor before taking the head job at the Plain Dealer five years ago.

His experiences in Vietnam, Clifton told us, have had a direct impact on his postwar career. "Being an officer in the Army was helpful in terms of leadership, responsibility, those kinds of things,'' he said. "There are leadership lessons. You develop leadership lessons from that sort of service.'' Then there are the other, more subtle, lessons his time in Vietnam taught him.

``Having emerged unscathed, although I was in a lot of potential to get in trouble,'' he said, "was the most dramatic example of what the luck of the draw is all about. There is really nothing you can do that's going to alter your fate.'' Serving in Vietnam, he said, "was a life-altering experience. I've always said that it's one of those things that if you had it to do all over again, you wouldn't. But having done it, having it thrust upon you, and coming out of it in one piece, it was an experience that you're okay with. You feel better for it.''

DEVINE PLAY
Vietnam veteran Art Devine's powerful play, 9-Ball, which had a one-month run at the Cape Cod Repertory Theatre Company in 2001, opened in April at the Tremont Theatre in Boston. Devine wrote and directed 9-Ball, which is set in Vietnam and back home. It is a switched-identity tale based on the true story of two guys from Lynn, MassachusettsDevine's hometownwhose fates in the Vietnam War hinged on the outcome of a game of 9-ball. Art Devine put in a tour of duty in Vietnam as a Green Beret and Army Ranger. He survived three dozen LRRP missions, receiving two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star. Devine has dedicated the play to six of his former LRRP buddies who were killed in a May 1970 ambush.

The Boston production was well received."9-Ball is both an accurate and an unvarnished portrait of the so-called 'Summer of Love,' as well as a highly stylized theatrical fist smashing the glass and letting the shards fly,'' said the Boston Phoenix's Sally Cragin. Robert Nesti in the Boston Globe called 9-Ball"a tightly realized production'' that moves "at a fast clip.'' Much of the play, Nesti said, "is strong stuff, with scenes of prison life reminiscent of the HBO series Oz, and military sequences that no doubt will rankle some with its portrayal of Army discipline in meltdown.''

ARTS IN BRIEF

Monique Truong was presented with the New York City Public Library's 2004 Young Lions Fiction Award for her first novel, The Book of Salt (Houghton Mifflin, 261 (pp., $24), a richly imaged tale of expatriate Vietnamese in Paris in the late twenties and thirties. Truong, who lives in Brooklyn, moved to this country from Saigon when she was six years old in 1968. The $10,000 award honors a work of fiction published by an American author 35 years old or younger

Marge Wheeler served as a U.S. Army nurse with the Third Field Hospital in Saigon in 1967-69. Today she is a practical nurseand an accomplished composer of chamber and march music. The recently released CD, Four Marches (Village Books/Mt. Shasta, $15.95), contains four of Wheeler's compositions. The marches on the CD are performed by the Suvorov Military Band, a brass orchestra of the Suvorov Military School (Russia's West Point) under the direction of Major R. Adelshinov, and were recorded in St. Petersburg in Russia. For more info, go to www.margewheeler.com

Movin' Out, the sensational Billy Joel/Twyla Tharp Broadway music and dance collaboration with a strong Vietnam War theme, sent a national company on the road in February. After stops in Detroit, Buffalo, and Hartford, Conn., in February, and Boston,
Appleton, Wisconsin, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis in March and April, the show will move on to Denver's Buell Theatre (May 15-June 6), Seattle's Paramount (June 9-20), the San Diego Civic Theatre (June 23-July 3), San Francisco's Golden Gate Theatre (July 6-September 5), Tucson's Centennial Hall (September 7-12), and Los Angeles' Pantages Theatre (September 14-October 31).

Former Marine Jay E. Keck's latest project, a video called In Country: Folk Songs of Americans in the Vietnam War, carries on the work he has done in poetry and photos stemming from his tour of duty in 1966-67 with Echo 2/7 of the 1st Marine Division. For info, go to www.vietnambogeyman.com or e-mail keck_jay@hotmail.com Dave Wells, who served with the 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam in 1965-66, and Navy Vietnam veteran Gary Greaves are offering photographs of The Wall and Arlington National Cemetery at their website, www.amscenicphoto.com They are donating a share of the proceeds to VVA.
 

   

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