On Memorial Day, Beth (Clover) Vincent of Warrenton, Mo., will honor the father she never knew: an Air Force pilot who went missing during the Korean War.
But Vincent will find some solace this year in knowing that the people of South Korea appreciate the sacrifice her family made six decades ago. She was among the families of American Korean War veterans who spent last week visiting Seoul as guests of South Korea’s Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs.
Vincent was able to see her father’s name -- Lt. Melvin E. Clover -- on a wall at the War Memorial of Korea.
“It was incredible,’’ Vincent said. “We had no idea how they felt about the sacrifice of America’s soldiers.’’
Vincent has been building her own personal memorial to her father for 20 years: a carefully preserved collection of photographs, letters, military documents and news clippings. It includes everything that Vincent has learned about Lt. Clover, who died serving his country before she was old enough to remember him.
“All these beautiful letters that he wrote to my mom. I read them, and then I have to stop. I get too upset,’’ she said.
Vincent was just 8 months old when her father’s F-84 Thunderjet crashed in North Korea on Oct. 14, 1952 -- his 27th birthday.
According to the military records and news accounts that Vincent has compiled, her father was listed as Missing In Action, although there was no hope that he had survived. The engine of his plane stalled after being hit by machine gun fire during an attack on a rail bridge.
A week after the crash, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that other pilots on the mission saw the canopy of Clover’s plane pop off -- but no sign of him ejecting -- before the plane struck a hillside and burst into flames. His final radio transmission was, “Well, here I go. This is a fine birthday present.’’
Vincent fights back tears as she reads from the last letter he wrote to her mother:
You must realize that what I am doing is right. It is as right as if the Master himself touched me on the shoulder and said, ‘Go.’
I regret with all that I can command that I subject you to such terrific hardship.
But what I do is for the freedom of men, which is the will of God.
Clover said that her father’s words have even more meaning now, after her visit to South Korea.
“My father did not die in vain,’’ she said. “When he said those words that he had the desire of freedom for them, it did come true. His dream was fulfilled.’’
No grave to visit, no place to mourn
About a year after the crash, Lt. Clover’s status was changed to Killed in Action, but his body was never recovered. And that has made it difficult for the family to find closure, Vincent said.
There was no grave for his widow and two daughters to visit. No place to lay flowers on Memorial Day.
“Normally, when someone you love passes away, you have a proper funeral, and you say goodbye. And you have a burial place. In this case there isn’t anything,’’ she said.
Vincent says her sister, Pamela, who was 2 1/2 when their father died, has some memories of her father, but she has only a vague mental image.
“Sometimes, I think I was sitting on his lap and there was a glass of water on the table. I reached for it, and he pushed it away and said, ‘No,’ ‘’ she said. “I think I remember that. I don’t think I dreamed that. But I was a baby.”
Vincent has pieced together a picture of her father from the stories told by people who knew him -- and from his letters and photographs.
“He was very religious and dedicated,’’ she said. “Very intelligent. He went to college. He had an aeronautical engineering degree. He had a sense of humor. I can see that from the pictures.’’
She has a photo of her father and a buddy sitting on their barracks steps with their legs crossed and their pants rolled up, smiling and laughing.
“He was very good looking,’’ she said.
Melvin Clover grew up in St. Louis and graduated from Roosevelt High School. He joined the Army Air Corps as soon as he was old enough -- at the closing days of World War II -- but he was not sent overseas. After the war, he graduated from Saint Louis University’s Parks College of Aeronautical Technology and hoped to make the Air Force his career. When war broke out in Korea, he was called back from the Reserves to fly combat missions.
Vincent’s mother later remarried, and Vincent has four more siblings. She says her stepfather, a World War II veteran who survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, was wonderful. But she always had a hole left in her heart by her missing father.
“I know my grandmother missed him and my mom missed him so much. Whenever I’d ask her questions she’d always cry,’’ Vincent said. “She just never had any closure. And it was just so hard.”
It is still difficult for Vincent’s mother, Ginny Mischlispy, who will be 90 in October.
“I used to dream after I remarried that Mel came back, and I was married to two men and I didn’t know what to do,’’ she said, her voice breaking. “It took me years to get over that dream. I used to dream it all the time.’’
She was just 17, when she married Mel Clover. They were introduced by her aunt who worked with him at a munitions plant in St. Louis.
They were married for seven years.
“He was a wonderful person,’’ she said. “And he knew he had to go and do his job.“
“We need to honor them”
Nearly 8,000 Americans remain unaccounted-for from the Korean War.
Vincent still hopes that some day her father will be found and returned home. She attends annual briefings for families held by the Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
Every Memorial Day, she attends a ceremony for the fallen with her husband, Joe, who is a Vietnam veteran. She says it’s important to recognize the sacrifice of Gold Star families -- those who’ve lost loved ones in the nation’s wars -- and all veterans who have served their country.
She is active in groups that support veterans, including Quilts of Valor and Stitches in Time, which makes quilts for veterans, and the women’s auxiliary of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
“I just feel that they sacrifice so much for our freedom that we need to honor them,” she said.
Vincent, 64, is treasurer of the Tribute to Veterans Memorial, a group trying to raise about $300,000 to build a veterans memorial in front of the Warren County Administration Building. The wall will include the names of 71 residents of the county who lost their lives in the nation’s wars. A walkway will honor all veterans who served in the military.
Her father’s name won’t be on the memorial wall because he wasn’t from Warren County, but Vincent will have his name etched on one of the 1,500 stone pavers that will encircle it.
The group is selling the pavers at $150 each to pay for the memorial’s construction, according to Rick Mantione, who is helping to lead the effort. Several hundred pavers have been purchased so far.
“They’re coming in slowly but surely,’’ he said.
Next spring, the group hopes to start building the first phase -- a red granite wall with the words “Some Gave All” in bronze.
Mantione, 73, is a Vietnam veteran. He says this will be the only memorial in Warren County that will honor Gold Star families. Its location will be just off Interstate 70, which has been designated as part of The Purple Heart Trail.
The memorial will help educate people about the sacrifice of America’s military, he said.
“During the Vietnam conflict and Korea and World War II, we had the draft. So, the burden of the fighting had to be done by a cross-section of people from our country. Many families and individuals shared the burden and understood the cost,’’ he said. “Now, veterans of the current military and their families are less than 1 percent of our population. So many don’t understand that there is a price to be paid for freedom.”
Mantione says Vincent’s story has helped to inspire the members of the group.
“She is one of the people who did suffer the finality of losing a young father and not having closure,’’ he said. “She’s a motivator for us. And she’s indispensable on this team.’’
St. Louis Public Radio intern Liz Schlemmer contributed to this story.