Wallace L. Clement was like any Williamsburg resident.
He was originally from Cambridge, Mass. and settled in the Historic Triangle during the last 15 years of his life. He also had a wife and kids, loved history, and volunteered at Colonial Williamsburg as an interpreter.
Sean Heuvel also loved history and listening to stories, particularly the ones about Clement’s military career in the U.S. Army. Heuvel met Clement as a teenager. They lived in the same neighborhood, and Clement quickly became a role model to young Heuvel.
“He was very humble about his experience,” Heuvel said of his mentor. “But I was very taken by his example and how he treated people.”
Clement was so humble that Heuvel had to ask him what his retiring rank was.
He retired in 1970 as a Brigadier General.
A graduate of West Point, Clement served in three wars, World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam, participating in nine campaigns.
His decorations included the Distinguished Service Cross, Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star, three Legions of Merit, Bronze Star for Valor as well as Italian and Vietnamese government decorations.
Clement died in 2000 when Heuvel was in college. It would be years later when Heuvel would discover the impact Clement had on not only his life, but many more.
Several years ago, Heuvel was visiting Clement’s eldest daughter, Sarah, up in Northern Virginia when he found a box of letters Clement sent home while overseas, the ones sent from his time in Vietnam.
“I kind of always focused on the World War II stuff, because that’s all he really talked about with me,” Heuvel said. “The only time he ever mentioned Vietnam was when he referred to it as ‘that strange war.’”
“I don’t know of too many examples of letter collections of flag rank officers coming out of the Vietnam War, so that was something that caught my interest,” he added.
He pointed out from the letters Clement’s attempt to navigate the politics of Vietnam while also trying to be an active parent and husband from overseas.
It was this curiosity and scrutiny of Clement’s letters and untold tales that pushed Heuvel to tell his story.
As an assistant professor of Leadership Studies at Christopher Newport University, Heuvel knew he needed help transcribing the letters. One of his students, Eric Svendsen, who is now an U.S. Army Officer, transcribed the letters and co-edited the book with Heuvel.
Heuvel also realized Clement’s letters only provided one perspective in the story so Heuvel reached out to members of Clement’s staff, when Clement was serving as Assistant Division Commander of the 23rd Infantry Division, also known as the “Americal Division,” in Vietnam.
“They contributed stories, they contributed pictures and recollections, and it helped to tell the story of what he was actually doing over there,” Heuvel said.
But Clement’s story isn’t just about his military service.
“He talks about the moon landing and problems at home, but one of the things that really caught my interest was how he was able to find meaning in the tragedy of Vietnam,” he said.
Being a highly decorated Army officer and veteran of three wars isn’t Clement’s highest accomplishment.
Clement’s biggest legacy, perhaps, is the family he made over the years.
While stationed in Saigon, Clement met a young man while Clement was out jogging. The man’s name was Tan Nhut Nguyen and he was sitting on his front porch playing the guitar when Clement, who was out of uniform, stopped to talk to him.
“Our families were meant to know each other,” said Kim Khuê Nguyen, Tan’s younger sister.
A few weeks after their initial meeting, Clement returned to the house in uniform and met Tan’s brother, Thang, who worked for Navigation Engineering for the Vietnamese Directorate of Civil Aviation. The young guitarist promised to take Clement to clubs where the two would sing together, according to Nguyen.
It was this special bond that later helped the Nguyen’s get out of Vietnam after the fall of Saigon.
Nguyen was living in Tuy Hoa with her mother and older sister’s family at the time of Clement and Tan’s meeting. She said right before Vietnam fell to northern aggression, her mother put her on a plane to Saigon to be with her brothers.
She was only 16 years old when she left Vietnam with her brother, his wife, their two children, and her sister’s 18-month-old son.
“It was a chaotic departure,” Nguyen said. Because she thought she was coming back, she didn’t say goodbye to her parents.
Meanwhile, Clement had already ended his tour and returned to his home in Fairfax, but he kept in touch with the brothers. He attempted to use his contacts to get the family out, but they were unable to locate the family.
Until Thang reached out to Clement from Guam.
Nguyen said Clement made dog tags for each family member with his own name and address on them so they could find him in the United States.
In those six weeks it took Nguyen to get to Fairfax, she cared for her nephew before her sister, his mother, was able to come to Virginia to pick him up.
Nguyen lived with the Clements for two years, a time in which they treated her like a daughter, she said. She shared a room with their daughter, Ellen, and finished high school. Meanwhile, Clement helped Tan get a job as a janitor at the Fairfax Country Club, where Clement would eat lunch with him.
It took some time for the whole Nguyen family to be reunited. Her brother, Thang, worked as a programmer for a local bank, while her parents didn’t come to the U.S. until 1985.
“If it wasn’t for [Clement] and his family sponsoring us, we wouldn’t be here today,” Nguyen said. “They gave us the opportunity to live in a country of freedom, and I am forever grateful.”
Nguyen now lives in California with her husband and kids. She graduated from George Mason University with a B.S. in Mathematics and a Masters in Computer Science.
With the help of Clement’s family and the Nguyens, Heuvel was able to piece together Clement’s story of honor, duty, and family into a tangible tale for all to know.
Heuvel’s book is called “From Chu Lai to Saigon: The Vietnam Journey of Brig. Gen. Wallace Clement.”