Summer in Town: Remembering Monrovia Veterans
By Susie Ling
In 2006, 21-year-old Raul Mercado was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq. Mercado was born in Monrovia, earned a 3.5 grade-point average at Monrovia High, and was a member of the track and basketball teams. His goal was to buy a home for his mother, a hotel worker. At the lance corporal’s memorial service at Immaculate Conception Church, Mayor Rob Hammond struggled to say something meaningful to Raul’s mother. Hammond said, “I will never forget your son. Raul Mercado will remain in all of our hearts.” Raul gained U.S. citizenship posthumously.
Monrovia has lost others to war. Norman Ross, now 94, was born on Huntington Drive in 1926. He volunteered for World War II along with other African-Americans from Monrovia like Leroy Criss and Julius Parker.
Ross said in an earlier interview, “I volunteered because I didn’t want to be drafted into the Army. I didn’t want to live in a foxhole. I was in the Navy which was segregated. I was a third class steward’s mate on the USS Lyon, AP-71. We weren’t allowed to do anything else but be cooks and service. I was in the Philippines and Okinawa. We were attacked in Okinawa and it was our job to hand ammunition to the gunners. If the gunners were killed, we had to take over. All I wanted to do was go home.” Ross continued, “When I came back from the service in 1946, we couldn’t join the American Legion at Recreation Park because we were black. That was the Monrovia Armory. So we started our own post which was the Phillip Adams Post. All the blacks that came back from the service started it. There were about 20 of us at the Post. We forced them to let us use the building.”
Phillip Adams died in 1944 while serving his country. Born in 1921, Phillip was the oldest son of Frank and Mary Adams, and grandson of John B. and Adeline Morris Adams – founders of Monrovia’s AME Zion Church in 1886. Thelma King, Phillip’s younger sister said, “Mama was so heartbroken about Phillip.”
As a child, Hammond heard about the Vietnam War every day. He said, “By the age of 12, I already knew what I would do if called to the service.” America’s direct involvement in that war ended in 1973, and American soldiers came home to mixed sentiments. Many quickly put away their uniforms and – as best they could – their memories.
In 1996, Hammond got a CD-ROM called Beyond the Wall and out of curiosity, made a list of names of Monrovians who died in Vietnam. Hammond went to a basketball game that night and showed his list to longtime Monrovian, Andy Montgomery. Montgomery recognized Edward Borrego’s name and said, “That’s my dad’s stepbrother.” As Hammond continued to circulate the list, another said, “Tommy Sands was my friend from school.”
A local paper printed Hammond’s list. For every one of those names, many came forward. Hammond said, “One woman wrote me and told me that one of our names was her husband and the father of a son the soldier never met. The young husband had been pressured by his father to join the military for the benefits, and when he was killed, it fractured that family. She was appreciative that Monrovia would not forget her boy’s father.”
Hammond also shared, “One day a big towering guy came to find me to show me these Polaroids of his military buddy. He wanted the family of Kenneth Bird to have these pictures. Ken was with the 173rd Air Borne Brigade and died when he was 19. And then I met Mary Buckley of Greystone Avenue who was in her 80s. She told me that her son, Francis Richard Buckley or ‘Dick’, served in the Air Force and was killed in 1965. He had attended Immaculate Conception school and graduated from Pomona Catholic High School in 1957.”
The local Rotary worked for a tribute to Monrovia’s Vietnam casualties at Library Park – 31 years after Dick Buckley died in Ninh Thuận. Rotarian Hammond said, “The donations came swiftly. Southeast Construction did the rock and cement work, Shaffer Awards got the granite and the engraving, Yost Printers did the programs, The Poppy Shoppe brought beautiful flowers, B and H Signs did a banner… Many of us felt that we had neglected our veterans for too long. We had to come together as a community to say thank you.” On Memorial Day in 1996, under the Moreton Bay fig tree, a large group of friends and neighbors came out in the drizzle to honor the nine from Monrovia who gave their lives to serve their country. The crowd included many alumni of the 173rd Air Borne Brigade.
Hammond said, “Every Memorial Day for many years following, there were anonymous flowers placed at the plaque. One time, I saw Mrs. Buckley standing alone at the park in front of the plaque. She said to our city council once, ‘It is never too late to say thank you.’” On the Valor plaque are listed the names of Francis R. Buckley (26), Kenneth R. Bird (19), Edward L. Borrego (18), Stephen A. Jordan (18), Dennis E. Newman (22), Michael E. Peterson (20), Thomas M. Sands (21), Leland Stewart (21), and James B. Wiltse (18).
Information on all 58,000 American soldiers killed in the Vietnam War is available at Virtual Vietnam Veterans Wall of Faces vvmf.org.