Cleo Harford has served his country in three major wars.
The 86-year-old resident of Aspen Place Health Campus was first drafted into the U.S. Army in 1945, when he was 18.
Relaxing and watching a ballgame Wednesday afternoon, Harford welcomed the Daily News into his single-occupant, assisted-living efficiency at Aspen Place, happy to share both his story and his thoughts on the upcoming Memorial Day holiday.
World War II was officially still being fought when Harford, a West Virginia native, left for France, but it was winding down. By the time he arrived, the War had formally ended.
France was only a holdover, and after two weeks, Harford boarded a train and shipped to Rosenheim, Germany, where he underwent “further processing” before shipping to his ultimate assignment: Austria.
His first stint in Hallien, Austria would be relatively short-lived, and he would be shipped briefly back to the United States before again being assigned to Austria, this time in Salzburg.
He would spend nearly three years in Salzburg, assigned to the 350th Infantry Regiment, 88th Infantry Division (he spent his entire military career in the infantry).
“I’ll never forget,” he said, “when we got to Salzburg, how the troops already serving there greeted us. They were tickled to death to see us, because our arrival meant they were going home. Those boys had been on the front lines, doing the fighting, so they were ecstatic.”
Harford and his compatriots were part of the first occupying troops in Europe following the conclusion of World War II.
“Our duties were many,” he said. “We guarded POWs and ran refugee camps. We guarded bridges, warehouses and buildings full of loot stolen by German troops. Our overall assignment was the security of the people, including all nationalities, and the rebuilding of the country.”
Harford found working with the refugees particularly distressing at times.
“Most of the people in the camps were young women,” he explained. “They came from countries bordering Germany and Austria — Astoria, Bulgaria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia. Most of them weren’t much older than 17, 18 years old. Many of them told awful, heart-rending stories about how their families had been murdered by German troops; about how they’d been, abused, tortured and raped.”
Harford received his first Army discharge in October 1948, but would again be called into service in November 1950 for the Korean Conflict.
In the two years before his second combat stint, however, Harford would make his way to Decatur County. It was here that he would plant roots.
More than 60 years later, the young man Harford had once been bubbled vibrantly to the surface as he talked about those long-ago events and related one of the most defining moments of his life; a moment that happened right here in Decatur County — in Clarksburg, to be specific.
“When I was discharged in 1948,” he explained, “I went home to West Virginia, but I couldn’t find work. I eventually went to work in a coal mine.”
He continued, “My grandparents had moved onto a farm near Lake Santee, and I decided to visit them.”
One Sunday morning, Harford attended Clarksburg Christian Church, and he’s been a member there ever since.
What motivated him to join and has kept him attending for over 60 years?
“I met my wife that Sunday morning with my Aunt. Her name was Sally Ruth Moore.” A broad smile spread across his face. “She sang special music. We started dating, and my stay with my grandparents turned into a very long visit.”
The pair was married July 8, 1951.
In January 1952, following two years stateside with the Army in which he assisted with the training of incoming draftees, Harford shipped out to Korea, where he served one year.
“I was a company motor sergeant there,” he said, “and an infantry platoon sergeant. My first assignment was three months at Heartbreak Ridge. I served out the rest of my tour at Chosin Reservoir, 12-to-15 miles south of the 38th Parallel.”
Harford further explained that he served in a “four-point zone” his entire time in Korea, meaning that he was “constantly engaged in active combat.”
“That’s why my tour was only a year long,” he explained. “The closer you were in toward combat, the more involved in combat, the shorter your tour. Guys in a one-point combat zone didn’t see any combat, but their tours were a lot longer.”
Following Korea, Harford remained regular Army, serving on various bases around the country and overseas, moving with his family, until July 1965. That’s when he was again called on to fight for his country, this time in Vietnam.
Vietnam was unlike anything he experienced during his military service. His one-year tour there, he said, was by far his most distressing, harrowing time in the Army.
“Vietnam was my toughest assignment,” he said. “From the moment you stepped off the ship, you were never secure. The Viet Cong (VC) were everywhere and nowhere. You just never knew where they were or where they were going to be.”
He continued, “We landed in Qui Nhon, and ranged North, operating all the way across Vietnam almost to the Cambodian border. We conducted search-and-destroy missions.”
The aspect of Vietnam that set it apart from his other combat duty, Harford added, was the VC’s use of guerrilla warfare.
“There are so many jungles in Vietnam,” he said. “The VC would live in the jungles like rats, and you could never clear them out. It was just impossible. They always left booby traps behind anywhere they’d been, too. So you were constantly watching out and on edge, never knowing if they were going to attack or if you were about to fall into one of their traps.”
In contrast, Korea, he added, was fought with clearly delineated lines and sides.
“We always knew where the enemy was in Korea,” he said. “Everybody north of the 38th Parallel was the enemy and everybody south was a friend. The enemy in Korea didn’t engage in guerrilla tactics.”
Harford likened the VC’s tactics during the Vietnam War to those used by insurgents in the modern wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He returned home from Vietnam in August 1966, retiring in 1967.
“Two weeks after I got back from Vietnam,” he said, “I went to work for Ford Refrigeration in Connersville. I worked there 22 years and retired in 1989.”
The end of 2011 marked two huge transitions in Harford’s life. The first came Dec. 8 when he underwent open-heart surgery; the second came Dec. 27 when Ruth passed away. The pair were married more than 60 years.
With Memorial Day approaching, Harford said he was proud to talk about his service; proud that he was able to take up his country’s call to duty and defend democracy and freedom around the world.
“America is the greatest country in the world,” he said. “There’s no place else on Earth like it. I love my country and I’d fight for it all over again if I had to.”
He confided, however, that while he still takes great pride in the United States, he’s grown very concerned about the ways its changed in the last few decades, especially its recent focus on “securing ourselves from outsiders.”
“All this stuff with protecting ourselves from terrorists,” he said, “I have big concerns about that. And the debt we’re accruing — our kids and grandkids are going to get stuck paying for it. Something needs to be done.”
He also lamented a generation of children who, “know nothing about World War II or Korea and hardly anything about Vietnam. They take our freedoms for granted, these kids; they don’t feel responsibility for anything; they don’t understand what it means to respect the flag.”
He added that he’s thankful there are still young American men and women who volunteer to serve their country in the military and are “willing to help maintain our freedoms without being drafted.”
“Nobody,” he said, “should let Memorial Day pass by without thanking a veteran and stopping to pay respects to those who’ve died for our country.”
Contact: Rob Cox 812-663-3111 x7011