Marching forward: Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 53 marks the 40th anniversary of a timeless bond
by Robb Fulcher
Vietnam Veterans of America might look like any other service organization. As the local chapter, which covers the South Bay and Palos Verdes, turned 40 years old last month, the veterans can boast a long list of civic accomplishments, including:
- Handing out about $100,000 in student scholarships,
- Promoting legislation to designate Highway 1 the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway and raising $25,000 for new highway signs,
- Creating an iconic memorial of marble and tall flags, which stands at the municipal gateway to Hermosa Beach.
They are notably set apart by profound shared experiences that include firing machine guns from helicopters, and diving behind sandbags when the air whistles with potential death. But that’s not their focus.
“We don’t sit around and tell war stories. We do things,” said Dennis Wild, a Redondo Beach chiropractor and the president of Chapter 53.
“We try to mix it up, have a lot of fun, and do some good,” said Steve Crecy, a longtime member and former president.
The group includes combat and non-combat veterans. Some who were drafted and others who enlisted. They range from frontline infantry to those who served during that era without going to Vietnam.
‘Kind of underground’
VVA was founded nationwide in 1978, when the experience of Vietnam veterans felt different than that of their older counterparts.
Unlike other veterans, when Vietnam vets returned home in the ‘60s and ‘70s, many “faced scorn,” Crecy said.
“Nobody wanted to be recognized as a veteran. You were just kind of underground on it,” he said.
Even other veterans often saw them differently.
“There was a time when some veterans thought the Vietnam War was just a police action,” Wild said, referring to a phrase then used to describe an undeclared conflict. “They weren’t going to accept that it was a war…People are dying around you. It’s a war.”
Chapter 53 currently numbers about 170 members “on the books.” About 25 regularly attend the monthly meetings, and 15 or so form the backbone of the civic efforts.
From the frontline
Wild was among those who joined up to serve in the war.
Initially posted stateside, he insisted on being sent overseas, where he dodged artillery shells along the Demilitarized Zone. Eventually he drove over a landmine and went home, fortunately without a permanent injury.
Wild’s family lineage is a military one. His father, a B-24 pilot, flew 30 bombing missions over Germany in World War II. Wild’s uncle served as a radioman on a B-24, and both grandfathers were World War I veterans.
Wild graduated from high school in Michigan, and enlisted once he turned 18.
“I joined the Marine Corps Oct. 28, 1965. Before that, both parents would have to sign. My dad would, but my mom wouldn’t,” he said.
“I wasn’t going to college. I felt I wanted to join the Marine Corps. I felt it was an honorable thing to do,” he said.
Wild was sent to the west coast for an abbreviated, two-month boot camp at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island.
“They called us the Hollywood Marines because we were trained in California,” he said with a laugh.
After infantry training at Camp Pendleton in San Diego County, Wild was ordered to receive additional training as a truck driver.
‘I want to go to Vietnam’
“I was stuck at Camp Pendleton working the motor pool there… I talked to my commander and said ‘I want out of here. I want to go to Vietnam,’” he said.
“I told my dad, I never told my mom,” he said. “Some people think I was crazy, but I joined the Marine Corps, and it wasn’t to sit around in the states.”
His first major battle came in 1966, and the next year the action was heavier.
“It was getting very interesting,” he said.
Wild served as part of a small motor pool supporting a howitzer battery.
“I have to tell you, it was the best thing that happened to me. We were a family. They depended on me,” he said.
He and his comrades were near the DMZ, where major battles were being fought.
“We got hit all the time. Most of us were lucky,” Wild said.
The camp at Dong Ha “got hit hard, it was May 15, I believe,” he said. “We lost three killed, seven or eight wounded.”
An average day was frequently punctuated by incoming artillery shells.
“It seemed like every day. It was close to it, but it wasn’t all day.”
‘A little unnerving’
From there, Wild was sent to Con Thien, famously the site of fierce fighting, and might have left Dong Ha just in time.
“For two weeks they were telling us we’re going to Con Thien, we’re going to Con Thien,” he said.
Finally, at 3 o’clock one afternoon the prophecy came true. Then, within about four hours, the bunker Wild had vacated, a sandbag-and-wood makeshift against incoming artillery fire, was destroyed by the enemy.
“Our motor team bunker took a direct hit,” he said. “It was blown away. That was a little unnerving.”
At Con Thien, the North Vietnamese army shelled the Marines from eight to 10 miles away, throughout the day, several days a week. If the shells seemed to hit a target, “they really started lobbing them in,” Wild said.
“It got to be so much you kind of got used to it. It was a scary time. You’d hear it whistling in, and hope and pray that your bunker could withstand it,” he said.
“Sometimes we would hear something go off, then you’d have seven or eight or nine seconds to head for the bunker.”
Wild’s five-ton truck hauled up to 100 artillery rounds weighing 100 pounds apiece.
“There were no detonated heads on them, so we could throw them around pretty good. Especially when we were unloading while we were being shot at,” he added with a laugh. “We were surprised how strong we were. We were picking them up like they were 20 pounds.”
At some times Wild joined in the firing by “humping rounds,” handing them to a Marine who would drop them into the gun.
The Marines’ position at Con Thien had been overrun shortly before Wild’s unit got there, and it was overrun again shortly after the unit returned to Dong Ha.
One day Wild sustained the wound that sent him home.
“I was the lead truck, fully loaded… I drove over a landmine and fractured my leg,” he said.
Wild didn’t know at first that his leg was broken.
“It wasn’t blood and guts. I thought it was just a terrible, terrible sprained ankle.”
The landmine “blew the road away,” and a helicopter carried Wild to Da Nang for treatment. It was there he learned from the doctors that his tour of duty was over.
“They said ‘See you, you’re out of here.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’
“They had to pin it, and they couldn’t do that in Vietnam…They couldn’t just cast it. Three days later I was at Great Lakes Naval Hospital in Illinois,” Wild said.
“I was not a happy camper,” he said. “I didn’t want to leave my guys.”
Wild kept in touch with some of them through letters, and wound up seeing some at reunions in later years.
Back stateside, Wild was well received.
“I didn’t face what some fellows did coming home,” he said.
Two years after coming home, Wild and Dick Cunningham, another veteran who would later join Chapter 53, took up offroad motocross racing.
“It was great to get the adrenaline up,” Wild said. “When you get out of the service you need something like that. It was an outlet.”
He worked construction for eight years, then moved to California, where he bought a home in Hawthorne.
“Dick and his wife moved out here two years before I did,” he said.
Wild became a chiropractor, and has maintained a practice in Redondo Beach for the past four decades. He and his wife, Donna, have a grown daughter and a grown stepson.
Dirt and sandwiches
Wild, now 75, served as secretary of Chapter 53 for 10 years, before becoming president.
When veterans get together, they often swap odd or funny stories from the old days, rather than recounting jungle combat.
In Con Thien, Wild shared a bunker with another truck driver, from Montana, who had been saving up bread, peanut butter, and jelly to make a “gigantic” PB&J sandwich. He used to muse about the sandwich he would build.
The two men slept above ground because the bunker “was hit too much,” and took shelter in the bunker when artillery fire came.
“I was walking by when a round came in, and, without thinking I jumped into the hole,” Wild said. “I didn’t know he was already in there, and I landed on top of him.”
The man ended up covered in dirt, along with the sandwiches he held in both hands. His face reflected all the pathos of a culinary dream turned to dust.
“He looked like a Little Rascal,” Wild said. “I couldn’t stop laughing.”
Asked about the Vietnam War in its broad geopolitical context, Wild said, “We were there for a very good reason. It didn’t work out well. We can get into the politics of the situation, but it wasn’t handled well.”
He mentioned a visit he made to Hawaiian Gardens when the traveling version of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall made its way there.
“There were several politicians who were Vietnamese, who thanked me from the bottom of their heart. That was worth its weight in gold. It made me so proud.”
‘I’m in the Army now’
John Masaki was drafted.
He fired a machine gun from the side door of a gunship helicopter onto enemy ground troops to provide cover for infantrymen. Later, he had to come to grips with shooting a 12-year-old mistaken for a Viet Cong fighter, in the fog of guerilla warfare.
Masaki, 76, was raised on a farm in Torrance, “back in the days when there was still some farmland in Torrance.”
In 1965 his father died in a drowning accident, and Masaki found himself at loose ends. Out of high school, he worked on cars, helped out with the family business, and attended what was then called El Camino College.
“I didn’t have a whole lot of direction,” he said.
In 1967 he “stepped out of school for a semester, and it was like they were waiting on my doorstep.
“All I knew was, I’m in the Army now.”
Masaki’s experience growing up American had been distinctly Japanese-American.
By this time he had learned his mother and father, both native-born US citizens, had been held in an internment camp in Arkansas during World War II. He recalled getting in elementary school fistfights with boys who called him “a Jap.”
But when he was drafted, he said, “none of this meant a thing to me. I’m no different from them when we get drafted.”
He was hustled off to Fort Ord, California for basic training, then to Fort Rucker, Alabama to learn how to maintain helicopters and shoot a machine gun from their doors.
“We shot an M60 machine gun from a tower. It was a lot of fun.”
He was sent to Fort Bragg, N.C. for further training, and thought he might not be sent overseas. Then in 1968, about halfway through his two-year stint, he got his orders, took his place in a Flying Tiger cargo plane and soon found himself at Base Bearcat, about 20 miles from Saigon.
There, he was offered an extra $65 a month – about double his pay – to add helicopter gunner to his maintenance duties.
Another man mulling the same choice convinced Masaki to take the money. After all, he had no wife back home to worry about, and faced possible death by artillery even if he stayed at Bearcat.
While other helicopters flew troops to the battle areas, Masaki flew on a gunship helicopter to provide cover. Positioned at an open side door, he fired on enemy ground troops with an M60 that hung from the ceiling of the fuselage by a strap “like a belt for your waist.” He also threw grenades that were near at hand.
Strewn in the cabin nearby him were M 16 rifles, ammunition and grenades.
“It was insane, if you think about it,” he said. “White phosphorus grenades. If those went up – It was dangerous as hell and we knew it. We just lived with it.
“I was fearless. Why that was the case, I’m not sure.”
In one sense, he said, “It was like an eight-hour day job. In the morning we would drop off the infantry, then we would park in a designated spot for a while, always in contact.
“I felt so bad for the infantry guys,” he said. “They really took a beating. It was an ugly situation for those guys.”
One day Masaki was providing air support from his gunship, on the way to a landing zone, when he spotted someone who appeared to be a Viet Cong fighter at the tree line below.
“I yelled to the pilot, ‘There’s a target on the left side!’” Masaki said.
The pilot relayed this to the colonel in charge, in a helicopter above, who answered over the radio, ‘Take him out,’” Masaki said.
“Without waiting, I started firing. He was getting to the tree line, and he was going to reach the hooch – that’s what we called a house.”
Masaki hit the target.
“He went down in a pool of blood. I felt pretty good, we had one less Viet Cong we have to worry about,” Masaki said.
“Then another individual came out of the hooch, probably his father, and he picks up the body, holds up the individual. A sampan hat came off. I could see he appeared to be a young kid,” Masaki said.
“At that point I did not feel so good. It looked like I shot somebody quite young.” Masaki paused. “But Viet Cong come in all sizes.”
Masaki’s pilot complained that Masaki fired without an order from him. Masaki responded with “yessir,” but added that he heard their colonel give the order.
“All we heard all the time, wipe out the enemy. If you have the chance to take them out, shoot them,” he recalled.
A US medevac unit picked up the person for treatment.
“The report came back. He was a 12-year-old boy, he was a complete civilian, and that was his father,” Masaki said. “The boy died.”
Masaki’s reaction to the event was complicated by the confusing nature of the guerilla war.
“I kept thinking, Bullsh*t. That’s the story, he’s a civilian. How many civilians are civilians by day and Viet Cong at night.”
His Army stint ended in 1969, and with input from his first wife, he did not talk about his experiences, he said. The advice he got was “Put it behind me.”
In 2010, he attended a seminar about veterans’ benefits, which led to meeting a readjustment counselor named Everett Wong.
“PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] was something I had never heard of, but pretty soon I started realizing I had some of that,” Masaki said. “Especially when my son turned 12, I thought a lot about it…Now I could really relate to the person who was holding the body of the person I killed.”
Masaki finally got to process deeply held feelings about the event.
“I had to go back through my thought process,” he said. “This was all about war. I did what I was told to do.”
Along the way, Masaki had three children, remarried, and enjoyed a career in sales with the American Automobile Association.
In the 1990s Masaki met Jerry Yamamoto, then president of Chapter 53. Masaki took Yamamoto’s card and filed it away.
Much later, in 2021, Masaki attended a reunion including his old helicopter group, and appreciated the camaraderie. When a fellow vet talked up Vietnam Veterans of America, Masaki recalled Yamamoto, and joined Chapter 53.
Crecy recruited him onto the board of directors, and he served there as well.
Vietnam Veterans of America “is something that is not going to last forever,” Masaki said. “We are all getting up there in years.”
‘My time was coming’
Dick Cunningham volunteered. He was reticent to speak of his war experience, preferring to recount catching a Bob Hope USO show. When he returned home, he dealt with PTSD, and found a meaningful connection with other veterans.
Cunningham was attending college in Michigan, and his student deferment from the draft was set to end.
“My two brothers were already in the Army. I knew my time was coming… I volunteered, and in October 1967 I was inducted,” he said.
He was sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky for basic training. Then he was sent for additional training as an infantry and mortar specialist at Fort Polk, Louisiana.
He was sent to Vietnam in February 1968.
Asked about his war experience, Cunningham grew quiet.
“I was an infantryman,” he said hesitantly. “I was in combat.”
After a pause he said, in a brighter voice, “I can tell you about a Bob Hope show, if you want to hear about that.”
He was “selected, somehow” to sit among a massive outdoor audience at an Army base in Long Binh.
He and a friend, who also was selected, had to make their own way from their forward operating base, where the mission was to secure Saigon.
They caught a ride to the show, and afterward they hitchhiked back, Cunningham said. He recalled the dicey nature of moving throughout the region.
“You’ve got to make sure you’re hitchhiking to the right place,” he said.
Between trips, he watched Hope entertain the troops for a Christmas special that would be shown on TV.
“I was in the nosebleed seats, but I didn’t care,” Cunningham said.
Also appearing on the show was actress and singer Ann-Margaret.
“On the way out, I passed close to her. I got to wave to her, anyway. She was very pretty.”
Cunningham came home in 1969.
“If you waited until you had less than 150 days left on your commitment, they would give you credit for your full two years,” he said.
“I didn’t trust the Army. I came home with less than 150 days – I think it was 147 days – to make sure.”
He was welcomed home.
“I know California had a lot of issues, but I was welcomed back,” he said.
He found a special camaraderie at a local VFW hall.
“The difficulty came – in short, PTSD – in a couple of weeks. I got an industrial engineering job at a steel mill. I had been working for a week or two when a guy said ‘You want to go to lunch?’ I said ‘Sure,’ and he said ‘You know, you come in and you sit down with these huge IBM reports, and you never look up. You just keep doing your job.’
“I realized, I don’t talk to anyone, I don’t socialize. There was no one there I could talk to. What I had been through, there was no way I would tell them.”
“More than anything, if you haven’t been in combat you can’t understand it, and there’s no way you can explain it,” Cunningham said.
A turning point in reintegration came when Cunningham made friends with another veteran.
“He was a friend of my brother’s, a Marine. He was in a truck that got blown up, but he survived. We ended up racing motorcycles.”
His new friend was Dennis Wild.
“We started our own dirt bike racing team, and it might sound silly, but that got everything going again for me. We’ve stayed best friends,” Cunningham said.
He visited California, where Wild had relocated, and when he returned to Detroit there was “six inches of new snow on top of the foot and-a-half that was there when we left, and it was about 9 degrees.”
That settled it, he was California bound for good.
He wound up settling in Torrance, where he lives with his second wife, “the most wonderful girl I have ever known in the world.” He also has two daughters and two grandsons.
“Things are looking pretty good,” Cunningham said.
Along the way he became chief industrial engineer at Murrieta Aluminum, and later retired as head of western regional risk management for Farmers Insurance.
He is 79 years old.
A common language
His tenure with Chapter 53 has included a 10-year stint as treasurer.
“It was such a high paying job, nobody wanted it,” he joked.
On the special connection between veterans, Cunningham mentioned meeting another infantryman at a recent convention in Orlando.
“He was an 11 Charlie like me [an infantryman and a mortar specialist] and right away we’re speaking the same language. I can sit down with another infantryman, and right away we understand each other,” Cunningham said.
“It’s a different world, and if you haven’t been in it, you can’t understand it.”
A slice of history
David Jonta got drafted.
He served stateside, joining in a sweeping study of the Army system of ranks and grades. He also had a ringside seat for what then was the largest ever antiwar rally, which actually breached the Pentagon.
Jonta got his draft notice from the Army a couple of weeks before graduating from Marian College Indianapolis.
He went to Fort Knox for basic training. The initial plan was to make him a company clerk, which would have kept him at Fort Knox, but his orders were changed.
Jonta, whose degree was in sociology, was sent to Fort Myer, next to the Pentagon, in early 1967 to help with the rank-and-grade study.
The study group was formed in response to morale problems. Specialists, who rank above private first class, “had very little command authority” compared to “hard stripers” such as corporals and sergeants, Jonta said.
The study group traced the evolution of the rank and grade structure from the War for Independence to their present.
Jonta remarked on the thoroughness of the study. It also looked at the grade structure of the Soviet army, which “tried to incorporate doing away with class distinctions.”
“I worked on that study for most of 1967. After it was completed, the big outcome was that it gave more authority to specialists. It changed the grade and rank structure a little bit,” Jonta said.
As an information specialist, he worked within the office of the deputy chief of staff for personnel at the Pentagon.
“One of my jobs there was helping to put together an Army personnel letter that was distributed Army-wide, to keep people informed about current personnel policy,” he said.
“It was kind of Kiplinger style,” he said, referring to the personal finance newsletter.
In late 1967 Jonta had a ringside seat for a slice of Vietnam era history, the March on the Pentagon, at the time the largest antiwar rally ever held.
As many as 100,000 protesters mobilized to pressure President Johnson to end the war.
Author Norman Mailer was famously arrested, and later immortalized the protest in his Pulitzer Prize winning nonfiction novel “The Armies of the Night.”
“I was on hand for that,” Jonta said.
“The Defense Department sent crack MP units – Texas comes to mind – and there were a pretty good number of federal troops on hand,” he said.
“There was some concern that they would break into the Pentagon, which some did briefly near the Mall entrance, but they didn’t get far,” Jonta said.
Jonta, who slept at night at Fort Myer, within walking distance of his Pentagon office, was called upon to pitch in.
“I put on a uniform and did guard duty that night, checking the hallways. There were stacks of C-rations, and quite a few troops.”
Jonta was able to gaze out at the mass protest from a high vantage – a window or rooftop, he couldn’t recall for sure.
“One of the highlights, if you will, was seeing that demonstration,” he said.
Upon his discharge from the Army, Jonta worked as a reporter, and editor for the Indianapolis Star newspaper. He visited California, found the weather nice and the atmosphere “pretty laid back,” and moved here.
He worked for various LA area newspapers, took up technical writing, and editing in defense and aerospace, and retired from the Aerospace Corporation in El Segundo, where he lives.
Jonta is 79 years old.
“A few years ago a friend of mine told me about Chapter 53. He said I should join. I said, I don’t think I can. He told me all Vietnam era veterans are entitled to join,” Jonta said. “I thought I would check it out. I didn’t intend to join. I thought, I’ll go to a meeting.”
“Even though I did not have the distinction of having served in combat, I was accepted as a member,” Jonta said.
Through companionship with other veterans he was able to get his brother, a helicopter crew chief in Vietnam, together with another crew chief who had served nearby in a sister company.
Jonta pitches in on Chapter 53 projects, and serves on its scholarship committee. He also serves in the chapter’s color guard, providing a dignified, ceremonial presence for events, including the annual Veterans Day candlelight commemoration in Hermosa Beach.
“The color guard is special to me. The overall feeling of comradeship is special to me,” Jonta said.
“As much as anything, it’s just feeling a part of that special period. Even though I didn’t go to Vietnam, this makes me feel more part of that group and that integral era.”
An era in time
“Military experience, it does shape you. It gives you exposure to something you probably won’t find anywhere else, and that gives you a special kinship with fellow service members,” he said.
“It was a turbulent time. There was a lot going on. It was a controversial war, it was divisive.
“We’re all born into different eras, I guess. It was a different time. Was the war legal or just? Well, it’s your duty to serve. If they call you, you go.
“The country is probably a little more introspective now.
“Personally, I feel the government didn’t make a good case for the war in Vietnam, but I didn’t have a political position about it.”
Crecy, who was a major player in the creation of the iconic Hermosa memorial, sought to place war, in its larger sense, within his perception of the veteran experience.
“Who likes war? It’s not a good thing. Sometimes, unfortunately, it’s necessary. We all thought we were doing what we needed to do,” Crecy said.
“When we got home, I guess a lot of people thought it wasn’t handled well. There is an expression, ‘When I left, we were winning.’
“I think we were fighting more or less for the system, for democracy or freedom, versus an oppressive regime.” ER