Gold Star Memorial Day

Every Memorial Day, our nation honors the men and women who died while serving in the United States military. But what happens if you can’t remember the soldier for whom that day means the most to you? If you are Tony Cordero, you spend most of your adult life volunteering to make it easier for others that carry the same cross. Tony was just four-years-old when his father, Air Force Major William Cordero, died on a bomber plane that went down in the Vietnam War. Tony can’t remember anything about his dad.

In 1990, Tony was among a very small group that started Sons and Daughters in Touch, which represented the children who lost their fathers in Vietnam. Until then, the only organizations that were set up to provide assistance for grieving family members were Gold Star Mothers of America, which was started around the period of World War II and later a group called Gold Star Wives was formed. Gold Star represents all Americans that had a U.S. military family member killed in war.

Many similar organizations have sprung up since Tony’s group started their nonprofit. They each provide benefits for Gold Star families, such as scholarships and counseling. Tony talks about kids that lose a family member to war when they are very young. He says, “What is their life supposed to be like? We can help because we’ve gone through it.” Tony cites a local member of his Vietnam group that every year flies out a recent widow and her two daughters from Texas to spend a couple weeks with their members. He explains, “We don’t sit around and grieve and visit cemeteries. We go camping, do tourist things, and share stories.”

Whatever their opinions about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, most Americans treat our soldiers and their families with respect because we understand the huge sacrifices they have made. That wasn’t the case during Vietnam. Tony says, “That mindset today is an outgrowth of the lessons learned a generation ago when there wasn’t a big embrace. Whether you think we should have gone into Iraq is one conversation, but the reality is a couple thousand of our citizens who volunteered to go didn’t come home, and it’s a good thing their families are embraced.”

One of the hallmarks of that new respect is the overwhelming outpouring of love that Americans show when they see heartbreaking photos of young children at the funeral of a parent killed in battle. Oftentimes the children are the same age as Tony when he lost his dad in Vietnam, which is tough for him to see. However, there is another scene that is harder for him to watch. He explains, “When you see a little kid in class and the teacher says we have a special guest today and in walks dad returning from war, that’s painful for all Gold Star children because that’s what we missed out on. We all had a funeral. Those are great moments and I’ve never met a single Gold Star family that has animosity because someone else had their loved one return home and we didn’t, but you look at them and selfishly say, ‘I didn’t have that homecoming.’”

As part of the cathartic process of honoring his dad, ten years ago Tony was among fifty Gold Star sons and daughters that returned to Vietnam. It was the largest contingent of Gold Star families to ever visit Vietnam together. “The families got to stand in the place where their fathers died. Combine that with seeing Vietnam and making Vietnam a place instead of a bad word and it was an outstanding experience. The locals loved us, anything made in America they wanted. I wish every Gold Star family could have the same experience,” states Tony.

As we all enjoy the Memorial Day holiday, let’s take a moment to remember the fallen soldiers and their surviving family members for their ultimate sacrifice for our nation. Tony was especially keen that this year we remember former Wilmington resident, Tofiga Tautolo, and his family. Memorial Day falls on May 27, which is the one-year anniversary of Tofiga being killed in action in Afghanistan. He is survived by a wife and two-year old son. spt

Jack can be reached at jackbaric@hotmail.com.

Repairing The Ring

photo by John Mattera

Although the Korean Friendship Bell’s home has always been on the bluff in Angel’s Gate Park, the very first time it was rung was almost 6,000 miles away in Seoul, Korea. United States and Korean officials ceremoniously rang the bell before it made its voyage across the Pacific on the Fourth of July, 1976.

The creation and erection of the bell was unlike any monument in the US. The bell was given by the Republic of Korea on the bicentennial celebration of American independence. In creating this bell, they tapped a lost art. When the 17-ton bell was cast, it had been over a thousand years since a bell of that size had been cast in Korea. The bell was modeled after the Bell of King Seongdeok, which was cast in 771 AD.

When the bell arrived in the Port of Los Angeles, it took two weeks to unload 28 cargo containers of materials. Korean stonemasons and carpenters worked 14-hour days to construct the belfry, platform and steps.

Finally, in October of 1976, four months after its first ring, the bell was officially dedicated, and struck on American soil.

Now, almost four decades have passed with little or no maintenance to keep the bell in good condition. Bird excrement is caked onto the belfry, there is obvious deterioration of the protecting layer on the bell and deviants have even marked the inside of it with graffiti. For nearly a year, the bell could not be rung because the link needed repair. The link is the wooden structure holding the bell to the belfry, which had fully broken causing the bell to twist.

The bell was in obvious need of a protector. That’s where Ernest Lee and the Korean Friendship Bell Preservation Committee come in.

The committee of 33 formed in 2006 with hopes of getting the bell back to its former glory.

“The bell called out to us,” says Lee. “ When you see the bell, you feel heartbroken with the shape that it’s in, and still awestruck with its beauty. Rather than just aching about it, we thought, let’s do something about it and have a long term plan.”

Rarely seen photographs of the construction of the Korean Friendship Bell belfry circa the mid-1970s. (photos provided by Korean Friendship Bell Preservation Committee)

While there are organizations that are designated to take care of city or federal landmarks, Lee says they don’t have the trained personnel to do it. Bell making is a particular craft, so the committee did their research.

“We found the company that originally worked on the bell,” says Lee. “All but one of the masters had passed away. We spoke with the surviving member of the group who, in 2011, sent his protégé here to give us an estimate to refurbish the bell.”

The budget based on his estimate: about $360,000.

Lee explains that the reason for the high price tag is that all of the key time frames for maintenance were missed.

“The salt air and strong winds of the area obviously don’t help,” he says. He stresses the need for caution with restoration. “First we want to do no harm. We have to work in careful and steady steps.”

Indeed, if the restoration is done hastily using craftsmen who are unfamiliar with the art of bellfounding, they may do irreversible damage. Besides it being an ancient craft, the bell is also covered with intricate artwork and an inscription engraved in relief on the bell. The bell is made of copper and tin, with gold, nickel, lead and phosphorous added for tone quality.

“The bell was designed to be an instrument,” says Lee. “It has a narrow tube inside and the bowl at the bottom for acoustic resonance.”

Korean craftsmen designed the belfry. Everything about the pagoda-like structure that houses the bell was done with purpose and symbolism. Creating the bell itself was not something that was done easily in Korea. Casting a bell that large is uncommon, and in the first attempt it was broken. The total cost for the bell and structure was over a million dollars, paid for by the Korean government.

With all of the painstaking attention to detail that was administered in its creation, it’s no wonder that there is a laundry list of repairs that the landmark must undergo to regain its full brilliance.

“We need to carefully sandblast the outer bell and fill holes,” says Lee. “There is bird-proofing that needs to be done, painting and the wooden striker needs to be replaced.” They already fixed the link in 2011, just in time for its 35th anniversary.

The road to getting the rest of these restorations will not be an easy one. The group of volunteers has worked tirelessly to get donations. One fundraising campaign was inspired by Lee’s friend and mentor, San Pedro icon, John Olguin.

“He used to say, ‘I’d rather get a dollar from a thousand people then have one person write a check for a thousand dollars,’” says Lee. “We fundraised all over San Pedro and Los Angeles, asking that people give a dollar donation for the bell.”

In following Olguin’s saying, they hope that with individuals reaching into their own pocketbooks, they will feel personally invested and connected to the cause.

The committee has about $280,000 for restoration. $5,000 came from residents in San Pedro and Koreatown and $275,000 has been allocated by the South Korean government. Although grateful for the large influx from the South Koreans, Lee believes that it’s time for the American government to take the reigns.

“We’re hoping that the city council will assist in matching what the South Korean government has donated,” says Lee. “It’s time to say it’s ours, we’ll take care of this magnificent gift.”

The committee is planning a fundraising golf tournament this spring to raise more cash. With the bell being such an iconic San Pedro landmark, Lee believes community members will step up.

“The meaning comes from the memory that attaches to it,” says Lee. Many San Pedrans find that meaning in the memories of family picnics on the great expanse of grass in front of the bell, flying kites, or even one of the many weddings that take place at the bell’s steps.

Deterioration of the wooden bell ringer (left), on the ceiling (bottom left), structural column damage and bell corrosion (right) due to improper upkeep and weather has taken its toll on the bell. (photos by John Mattera)

For Lee, the bell symbolizes an important friendship between two countries.

“If it were not for the United States involvement with Korean independence, I may not be here today,” says Lee. Lee’s parents emigrated from South Korea, which benefitted from the U.S. involvement in the 1950 Korean War. The U.S. defended South Korea against North Korean invasion, splitting the two countries at the 38th parallel or Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

According to the Department of Defense, the total American military casualties resulting from the Korean War were over 50,000. Since the Korean War ended in 1953, South Koreans have fought alongside American military in both Vietnam and Afghanistan.

The bell’s symbolism holds a significance that’s not lost on the committee.

“I feel as the other committee members do,” says Lee. “Honored and privileged to have this opportunity. We’re also painfully aware of the grave responsibility.”

They hope to start restoration as early as May, but funds will dictate their timeline. Their wishlist for the future includes the lower parking lot connecting to the bell and more wheelchair accessible areas. “I know there are Korean War veterans who are disabled and would like to get around up here.”

Most of all, Lee hopes to restore the bell so that future generations can see it as it was when it first traveled nearly 6,000 miles across the Pacific to the bluff at Angel’s Gate Park. spt

For more info, visit www.kfbpc.org or email info.kfbpc@gmail.com.

WWII Air Corps Veteran Gets Silver Star He Never Knew About

After World War II, New Mexico native Domitilio Lucero, like so many others, came to Southern California looking for work.

He got a job at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard on Terminal Island and discovered San Pedro. He married his high school sweetheart, and they put down roots and raised four sons, two of whom graduated from Fermin Lasuen High and two from San Pedro High.

Lucero didn’t talk much about the war, which was typical for most veterans. He had been a sergeant in the Army Air Corps, an engineer/gunner on a B-26 Marauder medium bomber based in England, and had seen plenty of action before being gravely wounded in a mission over Germany during the Battle of the Bulge. It took years of research from his sons to get the whole story, and it turned out to be a whole lot more than even Lucero himself knew. Back in the states, recovering from his wounds, he was unaware he had been awarded the Silver Star, the nation’s third highest award exclusively for combat valor.

Nearly 70 years later, Lucero, now 89 and living in Barstow, will receive his Silver Star in a special ceremony Nov. 5.

The Dec. 23, 1944, raid on the German rail bridgehead at Arhweiler was supposed to be a “milk run” for the 391st Bombardment Group, part of the Ninth Air Force. But the fighter support for the 32 planes in the raid never materialized, and they were sitting ducks when set upon by 60 German fighters. Only 16 bombers made it back to base, and nearly every one of those was damaged, including Lucero’s. His citation for “gallantry in action” reads:

Although thrown from his position, Sgt. Lucero crawled back to his post and although his armament was inoperative, he gallantly continued to inform his pilot of enemy aircraft positions. Sgt. Lucero’s heroic determination and courage under heavy enemy antiaircraft fire despite his painful injury reflect the highest credit upon himself and his organization.

Gerald Lucero, the youngest brother and 1970 SPHS grad, told The Air Force Times what his dad remembers of that day.

“He said they were coming in at you like you wouldn’t believe – five, 10, 15 of them, just coming in at you like you wouldn’t believe. He said he was just shooting everywhere he possibly could, and then they disappeared.” Then came the flak from below.

“He said you could see these black smoke bombs coming from the bottom, and then they were just tearing at the aircraft. He said he saw several aircraft going down, and that’s all he remembered.”

Struck by cannon fire from an enemy fighter, Lucero, then 21, spent 18 months in hospitals, where part of his rib was used to rebuild his nose.

Before he left his supply job at the naval shipyard in 1972 to go to work at the Marine Corps Logistics Base outside Barstow, he saw all four sons follow his footsteps into the service. The oldest, Elroy, a ’65 graduate of Fermin Lasuen, joined the Army and served in Germany. Today, he’s an electrical engineer in San Jose. Stevan enlisted after a cousin was killed in Vietnam. The ’67 Lasuen graduate became a member of the Army Airborne’s Special Forces and fought in Vietnam from 1969-70. The San Pedro resident is a recently retired schoolteacher after a long career with Los Angeles Unified. Vincent joined the Army and served stateside. He’s a security guard in Victorville. Gerald broke with family tradition by joining the Navy. Today he’s a time-share manager in Hawaii. Gerald, point man in the effort to get his dad’s Silver Star, told The Air Force Times of the impetus behind the effort:

“We just want to make sure that my children – his grandchildren – know, and their children know, about his involvement in the war because we’ve all felt… that my dad is a hero and what he had to endure… and I now… hear about this, and it’s even more so.”

Veteran Thanks a Veteran
I got this letter in response to my Memorial Day column on Bob DeSpain, the Rancho Palos Verdes veteran who survived the sinking of the USS Hoel in WWII. It speaks for itself:

“I served aboard the USS Hoel (DDG-13) from Jan. `69-Nov. `72, a guided-missile destroyer. (On) my first WESTPAC cruise `69-70, the ship was chosen to represent the U.S.A. in New Zealand’s bicentennial celebration.

“Our course took us to Pago Pago, then to Samar and over the site of the sunken USS Hoel (DD-533). All aboard paid their respects with a ceremony and wreath casting in memory of the crew lost in the battle.

“The information from official records was read to the crew of the battle and heroism of those men lost and those that survived.

“I salute Bob DeSpain for his labor, tenacity and survival. The battle, being outgunned, was lost yet successful in slowing down the enemy.”

It was signed by William G. “Bill” Forst, a Torrance resident. To Bill, Bob, all of the Luceros and every other veteran, an early happy Veterans Day. spt