Published Saturday, March 29, 2003


World War II veteran, 89, recalls his role in an American conflict

Clayton T. Dukes Sr., who was a staff sergeant in World War II, serving in China, can only watch televised images of the war with Iraq for just so long.

Then he has to turn away.

Dukes remembers being in a war zone, wondering what was going on in the world beyond, wondering when it would end, whether he would make it out alive. He feels for the soldiers on both sides of the war with Iraq. And seeing it up close, on the television screen, can be painful.

“I get tired of it. It’s so constant,” he said. “You don’t want to see anybody get hurt.”

Dukes, who turned 89 last week, said he supports the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq. But he said Bush should have gotten it under way earlier, before opposition at home and abroad mushroomed.

“I think he waited six months too long. If he had started six months ago, it would be over now,” he said. “He wouldn’t be having as hard a time as he is having now.”


Clayton T. Dukes Sr. and wife, Lois, show off his birthday cake. The cake recognizes wartime service by Dukes, 89, who served along with the Flying Tigers against the Chinese.

— Beth Reese Cravey/Staff

Still, he thinks the war will be over in 30 days or so. And he hopes prisoners of war — ours and theirs — are treated humanely.

“I hope our soldiers come back safety,” he said. “They didn’t bring this on themselves.”

Dukes monitors the conflict from the trailer park he and his wife of 52 years, Lois, own in Clay County, just off Doctors Lake Drive near Orange Park. At the park’s community center, friends recently celebrated his birthday, as well as his recognition by Clay County Supervisor of Elections Office and its Junior Election Board for his military service and voting record.

He wore his old Army Air Corps uniform for the occasion and told stories, some poignant, others amusing, about his military experiences.

It was 1942 when he signed on, at the age of 27, in Long Island, N.Y. He did basic training in Atlantic City and was assigned as a lab technician to the 35th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron, part of the 2nd Cavalry Division. His squadron was sent to China, where they took pictures of the landscape and created mosaics and maps to help pinpoint landmarks and track troop movements. They served along with the Flying Tigers, the famed group of recruited U.S. pilots that fought the Japanese in Burma and China in 1941 and 1942.

“We went in after them,” said Dukes, who has a Flying Tiger patch on his aging uniform. “We would make a reconnaissance run every day.”

He counts his stint in China as one of the most memorable in his life.

“Just being in China and seeing how they existed in China, had a big, big impact on my life. I really appreciate the U.S. … Just give me America.”

He remembered getting lost in the snow in the backwoods of China, wondering if he would ever be found, until he fired his carbine rifle and gratefully heard another one in response. He remembered a minor American actress of the time, Jinx Falkenberg, visiting troops. He remembered working with military engineers on a water purification project, the end product of which was nicknamed, “Jinx” in her honor. He remembered hearing about the bombs that had been dropped on Japan and knowing they would bring the war to an end.

But one of his scariest moments, he said, came on his way home, when the heavily loaded plane he was on took off from a stop at Tripoli and then dropped perilously close to the ocean below. When he finally made it back to U.S. soil, “I got down and kissed the ground,” Dukes said.

“We got a welcome. Back then, people really appreciated [the military]. Back then, Americans stood together,” he said. “I don’t know what’s happened.”

After his military service ended in 1945, Dukes ended up in Jacksonville, where he had relatives. From 1946 to 1975, he ran his own photography studio in Jacksonville. Then he and his wife bought the quiet Clay County trailer park and retired to what he now calls “the good life.”

Staff writer Beth Reese Cravey can be reached at (904) 278-9487, extension 14, or