Medal ceremony hits home for Rogue River veteran

With deadly mortars raining down in a nameless ravine during that cold 1953 day in Korea, Frank Clayton was praying for only one thing.

"'God, please let me see my momma again' — I remember saying those words," recalled the Rogue River resident.

"There were so many mortars coming down, I don't see how they could have missed," he added. "I thought it was over for sure."

Those thoughts were on his mind when the medals he earned in the Marine Corps were re-awarded at 8:30 a.m. today during a public ceremony at the Jackson County Veterans Service Office in Medford.

The office holds similar ceremonies every quarter for veterans (or their widows) whose medals were lost, never awarded or need replacement because of deterioration.

Presenting the medals were county veterans service officer Marty Kimmel and John Howard, a congressional staff member for U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River.

Clayton, who was discharged from the Corps as a private first class in April 1954, was set to receive a Purple Heart medal with a gold star, Korean Campaign Service medal, National Defense Service medal and United Nations Service medal. The medals had been lost over the years.

Hailing from Collingsville, Ill., the veteran, who has more than a passing resemblance to actor Ernest Borgnine, was the third from the youngest of 15 children, and is the last surviving one.

A retired member of the Plasterer Union, he and Elaine, his wife of 44 years, celebrated his 76th birthday on Wednesday.

Seven of his brothers served in the military, including several in World War II. He was the only one wounded in combat, however.

"But I had nothing life-threatening," he said, noting his mortar wounds were minor compared to those of their grandson, Chris Simonds, a private in the U.S. Army from Anaheim, Calif. He was shot in the back two months after arriving in Iraq in 2006. Clayton spent 19 days visiting his grandson at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C.

"I was there when they flew him in from Germany," he said.

"They are so close," his wife said. "We used to have him every summer. We're so glad he made it."

Yet Clayton allows that his combat tour as an 18-year-old in Korea wasn't pleasant.

"I was a machine gunner — we'd go out on patrols," he said. "One time — this was during the summer — I took my shirt off and got a real bad sunburn with big bubbles on my back.

"When they went out on patrol that night, somebody else had to take my place," he added. "That was a little guy named Johnson. I remember that. And he got killed ..."

Words failed him for a moment.

"That kind of stayed with me over the years," he said softly.

His first Purple Heart was for a mortar round that knocked him out on Oct. 25, 1952.

"I got a bad concussion from that," he said. "We were in a trench. I'm not sure where that was. I remember every morning I got up we could see the DMZ (demilitarized zone)."

He recalled the bitterly cold winter of 1952-53.

"We were sleeping in tents — you froze when you stepped outside," he said, adding, "Inside the tent wasn't much better."

Then there was the incident in which he shot the little toe on his right foot in an accident.

"There was just a hole through it," he said, noting he shot his toe while cleaning his pistol. His toe was quickly bandaged up and he soon found himself back at the front.

His second Purple Heart was awarded during combat in the gully on March 28, 1953.

"We were making our way through that gully," he recalled. "The mortars were coming down real thick ... it seems like we were just ahead of the mortars, like we were running ahead of them. They kept landing just right behind us."

He can't recall how many of his fellow Marines were killed or wounded that day.

"All I remember was that it was this little ravine," he said. "I thought, 'Well, I ain't gonna see my momma again.'"

Shrapnel struck his right hand and right shoulder but he survived. Once more he was patched up and sent back to the front.

"They'd come in and say, OK, at 8 o'clock we're heading out to some hill with a number on it," he said. "That's all we knew.

"The next morning, when it all cleared off, I can remember seeing bodies laying all over — our guys," he added.

"All he was concerned about was getting home to his momma," his wife said.

Clayton's mom, whose handsome maternal face looks out from a photograph on a nearby stand in their living room, was a fine cook, he explained.

"Potatoes, beef, biscuits and gravy," he said, adding, "She was a good old gal."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at

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