Roy Wheat

Many will be taking advantage of the holiday Monday, May 28, by enjoying a day off from work. For some, the three-day weekend is an opportunity to get away, as the holiday unofficially marks the beginning of summer.

 Marine Gunnery Sgt. Rudy Cordero, however, will be spending time with fellow veterans at Pioneer Cemetery where they will honor those who served in the military but didn’t make it back.

Cordero, treasurer for the American Legion Post 176 in the city of San Fernando, will participate in a Memorial Day ceremony at the cemetery starting at 11 a.m. that includes a rifle salute, a flag raising and the playing of “Taps.”

Cordero said he will be especially thinking of two fellow Marines who served with him in Vietnam.

One was a fellow classmate of his who enlisted about the same time he did. Manuel Garcia was in a tank that was directly hit by a projectile; the “shrapnel hit him in the chest,” Cordero said. “He was about 10 miles away from me (when it happened). I think about him,” he added.

Cordero signed up for the Marines even before he finished high school. “I turned 18 in Vietnam,” remembered the 70-year-old, who spent nearly 30 years, from 1966-1995 in the Marines. He spent 13 months in Vietnam, where he was involved in plenty of battles, operations and ambushes.

A Platoon Member’s Bravery

Cordero says he will also give pause on Memorial Day to remember a member of his own platoon, Lance Cpl. Roy Wheat.

Born in Mississippi, Wheat arrived in Vietnam in March 1967 and was assigned duty as a rifleman with Company K, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division. In June 1967 he was promoted to lance corporal.

Wheat showed a lot of bravery during his tour in Vietnam. Cordero recalled a night when Wheat “heard a noise” that turned out to be the “spoon” (safety handle) of a grenade and “threw himself to cover some guys.”

Wheat survived and after recovering from his injuries, he returned to active duty a month later.

Another time, while on patrol, Wheat “accidentally” hit a booby-trap. “He told others to ‘step back’; the sergeant got everybody back about 20-40 feet away. He (Wheat) ran [away from the booby-trap] and he got shrapnel in his back,” Cordero recalled.

For those acts of bravery,  Wheat received two Purple Hearts.

Again, after recuperating from his injuries, he came back to his platoon.

On Aug. 11, 1967, Wheat and two other Marines were assigned to provide security for a Navy construction battalion crane and crew operating along Liberty Road in Quàng Nam Province. After setting up in the tree line adjacent to the work site, Wheat searched the surrounding area for the enemy. He had returned to within 10 feet of the security post when he triggered a mine.

Hearing the distinctive hiss of the mine’s fuse, Wheat shouted a warning to his two fellow Marines and then threw himself on the device, smothering its blast with his body. He was killed in the explosion. He was the 19th Marine to receive the Medal of Honor in Vietnam.

Cordero was witness to the incidents and Wheat’s tragic death which, he said, is deeply etched in his mind.

“He was a regular white boy from the country. (After it happened), the teeth and his eyes were the only white parts of him,” Cordero said. “We literally had to pull his arms and legs from trees. He got blown to pieces.”

Memorial Day

Memorial Day, officially observed on the last Monday of May, honors the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. Originally known as Decoration Day, it originated in the years following the Civil War and became an official federal holiday in 1971.

Pioneer Cemetery in Sylmar is one of the oldest graveyards in the San Fernando Valley and contains the tombs of soldiers dating back to the Civil War.

“We go and say a prayer. Even though we don’t know [all the people buried at the cemetery] personally,  they’re still our brothers in arms,”  Cordero said. “Unfortunately some of them didn’t make it back.”

“All of us have had very good friends who died,” shares Fernando Alegria, another Marine who spent more than two years in Vietnam. He arrived just as the Tet Offensive began.

This operation was a turning point in the war. It was a coordinated series of attacks by some 85,000 North Vietnamese troops on more than 100 cities and outposts in South Vietnam.

Battles raged for weeks and cost more than 4,000 US military lives and 14,000 South Vietnamese civilian lives.

The North Vietnamese lost more than 58,000 troops.

“I feel like a survivor,” Alegria said. “When you see a buddy getting blown up next to you, that’s all you can think of.

“There’s no honor in going to a Third World country and (expletive) it up,” adds the 70-year-old, who says he still suffers from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

After the ceremony at Pioneer Cemetery, Alegria, Cordero and other friends will return to the American Legion Post 176,  where they will have their own private commemoration at 3 p.m.

“We hold a moment of silence. We stand under the flag and pray for the ones that didn’t come home,” said Jimmy Romero, a US Army veteran who served from 1984-1988, and was fortunate not to be assigned active deployment to a war zone.

He says he can only imagine what Alegria and Cordero lived through and grieves for all of those who lost their lives.

“I feel like I survived a catastrophe,” Alegria said about the 26 months he spent in Vietnam.

All together, Cordero lost about 10 members of his platoon during the 13 months he spent in Vietnam.

“We don’t forget them,” he said.

The ceremony at Pioneer Cemetery starts at 11 a.m. Pioneer Cemetery is located at 14451 Bledsoe Street (corner of Foothill Boulevard) in Sylmar.