‘Closer Than My Brother’: Navy Pals, 88 and 89, Share Laughs, Goals for DC Trip

Sammy Thomas and Van Clemons have been friends for nearly 70 years. Their lives have been entwined with births of children, deaths of spouses, Naval training and decades of military service.

From the day they met, they’ve never lost touch with each other.

“I don’t know what I would’ve done without him,” Thomas says of his nearly lifelong friend.

This weekend, they share something new: traveling together on the Honor Flight San Diego trip to Washington, DC, to visit military memorials and connect with fellow veterans.

Friends-for-life Sammy Thomas (left) and Van Clemons are on the Honor Flight San Diego trip to Washington. Photo by Chris Stone

Saturday, with their sons as “guardians,” they are on tap to visit landmarks including Arlington National Cemetery, the World War II Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial.

Thomas, who enlisted in the Navy in 1951, is especially looking forward to stories from World War II veterans.

“They have so much to talk about,” he said.

Van Clemons had seen coverage of veterans’ returns from past Honor Flight San Diego journeys and became inquisitive.

Then he decided to check it off his “bucket list.”

Both have been to the nation’s capital before, but they are eager to meet other veterans and swap service stories.

“I totally told him I said, ‘Man, we can get some free freebies,’” he said with a laugh.

It didn’t take much convincing to get Thomas to sign up. They applied for last fall’s flight, but it was filled.

Clemons thinks the weather will be better now, anyway. The Saturday forecast for DC is 64 degrees with partly cloudy skies.

Sammy Thomas shown in the military. Photo by Chris Stone

Much of their lives have been shared in tandem.

They sat in Thomas’ Chula Vista living room this week — Clemons visiting from San Diego — and talked to Times of San Diego about their enduring friendship and military careers.

“He is closer than my brother, who was also in the Navy with me,” Clemons said.

Although both trained at the Naval Training Center in San Diego, they didn’t meet until being assigned to Naval Air Facility Atsugi in Japan.

They married women, who themselves were best friends. They lost their spouses about a year apart.

Thomas, 89, had a son and two daughters, whereas Clemons, 88, had three sons and a daughter.

They each have a son who has served in the Air Force.

Asked why he thought they became and stayed friends for 69 years, Clemons first joked and said, “We like to drink bourbon.”

Then he said they hit if off from their first conversation.

“We have a good relationship. … it was us — and rest of them.”

Step by step, Thomas and Clemons made it up the ranks to the highest enlisted rank: master petty officer, encourage each other along the way.

Van Clemons shows off his custom-made cap denoting his years of service. Photo by Chris Stone

When Clemons reached E8 pay grade, he encouraging his buddy to do the same. Thomas balked because of the amount of studying needed to pass the test.

“You must be out of your mind,” Thomas quoted Clemons as saying. “So he’s like, ‘Come on, let me show you what to do.’ And since I made E8, I might as well do E9.”

Thomas said he never thought of attaining those ranks and wouldn’t have done so without Clemons’ help.

Thomas even moved his family from Virginia to San Diego and lived less than a mile from each other.

Asked when they met, Clemons said it was etched in his mind, “the 17th of July 1953.”

Why so precise? That was the day Clemons arrived at Naval Air Facility Atsugi.

Thomas worked in the galley there, and they met within an hour of Clemons’ arrival.

Clemons — born in Covington, Kentucky — was still wearing his dress blues and was hot on that July day.

“He came over and he knew I was new and asked me where I came from…. We started conversation and from then on, you know, that was it,” he said.

Thomas asked him about the aviation mechanic insignia’s on his uniform. Almost no Blacks were allowed to be mechanics in those days.

Clemons explained that as he was entering the service at the end of the Korean War, African-Americans were allowed to only certain jobs: stewards to officers (“almost like a servant,”) cooks and ship servicemen, who did laundry.

But other jobs were beginning to open up and he attended aviation training in Jacksonville, Florida. He did repair on aircraft assigned to the aircraft carrier

When Thomas enlisted, “I thought we would all come in as seamen,” but instead was assigned as a steward, a position he didn’t like.

When assigned to Atsugi, he was moved to food services.

“I’m glad I was able to stay in the services and everything,” said Thomas, who was born in Chiefland, Florida. They gave me but everything I’ve ever wanted … so I have everything to be thankful for.”

Both served during the Korean and Vietnam wars. Both were assigned to aircraft carriers — Clemons to the USS Hancock, Thomas to the USS Yorktown. Thomas served from 1951 to 1981. Clemons was active duty from 1951 to 1978.

Thomas also served on the guided missile heavy cruiser USS Canberra, which was off the coast of Vietnam, providing shore bombardment in the 1960s.

While their separations due to assignments, they always keep tabs on each other.

This weekend, Clemons will check out a possible new connection.

He was told another Black veteran with the same last name was aboard for the trip.

“Well, he’s a little bit older than me,” Clemons said. “I’m anxious to meet up with him. Let’s see.”

He planned to check family documents.

“There might be some family connection,” Clemons said.

He has lots of questions when the two veterans meet.

Whether he finds a long-lost relative or not, Clemons is ready to engage with other veterans.

Said Thomas: “Well, I’ve always liked to travel, meet other people and everything.”

He hasn’t traveled recently.

“Since my wife passed away (seven years ago),” he said, “I don’t have a traveling companion.”

Well, this weekend, he does.

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