Joseph Clemons Jr. was raised in Plant City and became a national hero. To the world he was the brave champion in the Battle of Pork Chop Hill. To his family he was simply “the greatest man alive.”
Plant City native Joseph Clemons Jr. will forever be immortalized for his heroic deeds in 1953 at the Battle
of Pork Chop Hill in the middle of the Korean War.
The young 25-year-old first lieutenant defended the crest of the hill along with a small unit and would eventually be the inspiration for a best-selling book by military historian S.L.A. Marshall. He would later be portrayed by Gregory Peck in the 1959 film “Pork Chop Hill” and continued on in the military, rising to the rank of colonel.
He died at his home at age 90 on May 15. His story is legendary but, to those who knew him best, he will forever be known as a heroic man of few words who craved adventure and deeply loved his family.
Joseph Clemons Jr. grew up picking strawberries in Plant City. When he was 17 years old he enlisted, was recognized for having a high IQ and was invited to West Point. Though he served through two wars his daughter, Susannah Shultis, said he really didn’t believe in wars and didn’t speak about his experiences until years after he retired, when he began giving interviews and speaking at events.
“His military experience was not a large part of my life; either I was too young, don’t remember, or he had retired,” Shultis said. “He was the type of dad who could get the tangles out of your waist-length hair without it hurting.”
However, his son, Michael Clemons, said his father’s military background ended up being one of the strongest bonds between the pair. He said he had trouble living with a father who was “all G.I. Joe.”
Michael Clemons graduated high school and joined the military, serving for years before being involved in a crash at an airshow. He said he didn't even realize how it had affected him until his father asked him how he was doing. They began to talk and his father shared his experience in Korea and explained how he dealt with the repercussions of those nights of service.
He helped his son heal and, over the next several years, they continued to bond over their love of flying. He took Michael Clemons back to Plant City and showed him where he grew up. His son remembers being impressed when he took a photo of his dad in front of the Clemons Road sign.
As the years passed, Michael Clemons said he realized his father was proud of the man he had become and little meant as much to him as the look on his dad’s face when they talked about flying.
“As a teenager, we didn’t get along well, as an adult, he was the most important man in my life and I couldn’t be prouder of him,” Michael Clemons said.
His other son, Joseph Clemons III, said his father gave them a life of adventure. After retiring he moved his family to Hawaii, where they stayed for approximately 20 years. One of his 10 grandchildren, Makana Clemons, joked she remembers a phase where he wore a sarong everywhere. He sailed the seas, teaching his children to use Celestial Navigation in the early 70s and eventually owning his own yacht delivery service where he would teach others to sail.
Shultis said, growing up in Hawaii, their family was always on the move. They would take a hydroplane to Maui to hitchhike to Haleakala, where they would trek along the crater. A gaggle of Nene geese once got trapped in their tents. They stumbled upon a naked, flute-playing group of people in an outdoor shower.
Her father loved scuba diving and watching the manta rays swim with him as he cleaned the hull of his beloved boat. When he moved to Hendersonville, North Carolina, he continued to fish in a small pond by his house.
He found his happiness, not in material things, but in relationships, in the memories he made with his loved ones. His grandparents, Lily and Henry Clemons, were some of the first people in Plant City to export oranges. Using mule-pulled wagons, they would transport the fruit to the water and ship them north.
Whenever he would visit his first cousin, Gwen Taylor, in Plant City, who became blind at age 40, he would always take her plants. During one visit he noticed a little pink lily on her lanai and she took him to their grandparent’s house where the plant blossomed. He dug up two small plants and took them back to North Carolina where they’ve thrived for 30 years.
In honor of his grandmother, lilies have always held a special meaning in his life. His daughter Susannah’s
name means “lily” and her Hawaiian middle name is Kalei, which translates to “flower” or “lily.” One day he passed on one of the cherished plants to her. Years later she gave a piece of the Plant City bloom to her daughter, Makana Clemons, keeping the tradition alive.
“The thing is, he didn’t always talk much, he led by example,” Makana Clemons said. “He protected us and looked out for us. That’s what I know him as. When we were visiting he would always walk out with his flashlight to make sure whoever came in came in safely and he would always make sure that our cars were OK. He was always watching and making sure. Even when he was sick and couldn’t speak, he was always watching.”
Part of his legacy was his humble and faith-filled nature. He frequently volunteered at this church, staying late to pick up bulletins and going out of his way to pick a man with Alzheimer's so he could make the service. No one but the pastor knew because he believed you should do the right thing out of the goodness of your heart, not for recognition.
His memorial service and funeral were full of attendees who celebrated the memories with both laughter and tears.
“I miss my dad with my whole heart,” Shultis said. “He was an extraordinary man who lived an extraordinary life. In Hawaii, we say ‘A hui hou,’ or, ‘Till we meet again.’”