Tom Lasser served as a helicopter pilot; Pete Whalon as a lifeguard; and Rick Parker as a combat photographer. The three were among the local Vietnam veterans who posed for pictures in front of clumps of bamboo at Redondo Beach last Thursday.
The all-day event was to record the faces and stories of South Bay veterans for a new book on the war by Tom Sanders, 27, whose first book, The Last Good War: The Faces and Voices of WWII, was named non-fiction book of the year in 2010 by Forewords Review Magazine and praised by Publishers Weekly.
Sanders—a slender, soft-spoken man who listens to each subject as if his or her story is the most enthralling of all—began photographing WWII veterans while studying at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
In 2006, at age 21, he was inspired by a World War II Army Ranger, Lt. Randall Harris, who told him of continuing to fight the Germans in Sicily after his legs and stomach were torn open from a land mine explosion. When a medic was finally available for Harris—who was holding his intestines in with his hands—the Ranger refused medical treatment until all his men were assessed first.
“When Randall was my age, he was trying to live to the next day,” Sanders said. “Right then, a bell went off in my head. I was going to photograph and document as many WWII vets as I possibly could.”
He expends no less passion when talking about Vietnam veterans.
Born in Sonoma County, Sanders moved to Redondo Beach—the place where his parents grew up and his brothers were born—six years ago. “I came down here to get my feet wet in the industry,” he said. “Being a freelance photographer, it’s hard to figure out how to make it work right out of school.”
He landed commercial photography jobs, and was able to travel the country to finish the WWII book, which was commissioned in 2009 by Belmont Village (a retirement franchise), and ultimately published by a division of Random House.
Although Sanders never served in the military, his grandfather was a Korean War vet, he said during a lull in the park photo sessions. Believing “it is important to honor all veterans,” the photographer said he views his work as a “way of giving back” to those who served their country.
The new book, which is yet to be titled, will draw some distinctions between WWII veterans and those who served in Vietnam.
Where “WWII vets were honored as legends,” Sanders said, “Vietnam vets were not (always) treated as heroes. This is part of the reason so many Vietnam vets have PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).”
Most of the veterans who filtered into the park last week, however, had anything but gloomy stories to tell.
'What a souvenir!'
Pete Whalon, 64, a Redondo Beach resident since age five, had “a little different tour than most people,” he said. “I’m sure you never met anyone who did what I did for the Army. I was a lifeguard at a swimming pool in Vietnam. I actually had fun over there.”
Whalon, who bears the same moustache he had as a youth, was stationed at Long Binh, one of the biggest U.S. military bases in Vietnam in 1970 and home to 35,000 troops, he said. The base was "bigger than than Redondo Beach. They had twelve above-ground pools just for the guys working in communications and supply. So they needed lifeguards, and I got lucky.”
Whalon wrote about his 22-month Vietnam stint in The Saigon Zoo, Vietnam’s Other War: Sex, Drugs, Rock ‘n Roll, a book that portrays the more raucous, weed-smoking side of Army life.
On his website, he tells about the “pool (that) became affectionately known by ‘fringe’ soldiers throughout Long Binh as ‘The Bayou.’ Since the pool was only 4 feet deep, the most important lifeguard skill was the ability for us to scream: ‘Stand up, idiot!’”
Yet, for returning Vietnam veterans, he said, most “just wanted to forget about it … not even think about it. I know when I came home, you didn’t even want people to know you were there. You didn’t go brag about it.”
Things are different now, he said as he gazed out at the that is surrounded by bricks dedicated to those who served and their families. “I have a brick here for my father, who was in WWII, and I have a brick for myself.”
He is elated Sanders is focusing on Vietnam veterans, now in their 60s and older.
Whalon first met Tom Sanders at a book signing for The Last Good War. “I told him I had a Beach Reporter with a picture of (Louis) Zamperini on the cover,” Whalon said.
“You mean the one with the flag?” Sanders asked at the time. “I took that picture.”
Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner and WWII prison camp survivor, moved with his family to Torrance in the 1920s. In Sanders’ book (as on the cover of the Beach Reporter), he is shown as he looks today, holding the Nazi flag he tore off Hitler’s Reich Chancellery while in Germany for the 1936 Olympics.
In the photo caption, Zamperini says, “Boy, what a souvenir!”
"A life-changing experience"
Another happy warrior, Lt. Col. (Ret.) Tom Lasser, 66, said serving in Vietnam as a U.S. Army helicopter pilot “was a life-changing experience. I got my first Purple Heart when I was 21 years old. The whole process was one of maturation … a remarkable time.”
Before he went off to war, Lasser was “flunking out of college and didn’t want to be drafted,” he said. “But I wanted to serve. My dad was a WWII and Korean War veteran, and flying always interested me.”
Unable to join the Navy or Air Force without a college degree, Lasser discovered the Army had a program called the Aviation Warrant Officer Aviator Flight Course. “If you could pass the physical, the boards, they sent you to flight school.”
Sure enough, he passed all the tests, got his "Army Aviator Wings and within 30 days I was shipped to Vietnam as a copilot,” he said. He soon became an aircraft commander, flying UH-1 Huey helicopters and later Boeing CH-47 Chinooks.
During two tours of active duty (a total of seven years), Lasser flew more than 1,000 missions, including some 1,800 hours in combat, and remembers down to the microsecond when he was wounded the first time.
“I was shot down on the 22nd of November 1967 a couple of kilometers north of the DMZ at 3:15 in the afternoon,” he said, minimizing his wounds as “a little shrapnel in my hands and face." Then he added with a laugh, "There was more urine in my flight suit than there was blood on me."
Still, he accumulated a raft of medals, including the Distinguished Flying Cross and Bronze Star, and served another 33 years with the California National Guard.
Lasser never confronted the bitterness some veterans experienced. “No one called me a baby killer or spit on me,” he said. Meticulously dressed in a blue, Los Alamitos Air Field polo shirt and Veterans Memorial cap, he added, “If they had, I would have popped them one.”
Instead, Lasser went on to graduate from college, launch his own consulting firm, (T. E. Lasser & Associates, LLC) and put his heart, soul and untold hours into the Redondo Beach Veterans Memorial Task Force.
With each veteran who posed for pictures, the stories varied dramatically.
One of the earliest arrivals, Bob Martinez of Long Beach, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, recalled a celebratory dinner at Lawry’s (restaurant) after the war. Everyone was honoring him as a Vietnam vet, yet he had to “go outside and smoke a cigarette in the bushes” because that was his only comfort zone, he said.
Martinez, 67, bought gallons of milk and six-packs of beer to have on hand when he awoke in the middle of the night, craving the things he missed on endless patrols in the jungle.
Rick Parker, a member of the 69th Signal Battalion Photo Platoon in Vietnam, showed Sanders a number of pictures from that period, including one of him waiting for transport to Tuy Hoa in the fall of 1966—an M16 rifle in one hand, and multiple cameras slung around his neck.
After three months in Saigon, Parker, then 22, was attached to the 101st Airborne Division for four months, “the beginning of my actual combat photography experience,” he said.
He would spend up to two weeks taking pictures in the midst of the fighting, and then return to Saigon to process the photos and write captions before going back in the field for another combat stint.
“I was shot down two different times while photographing the 48th Aviation Company and was awarded the Air Medal for meritorious achievement,” said Parker, who escaped injury.
He was shot once in the back, however.
“Luckily … the bullets lodged in two AR-16 ammunition magazines that were in the backpack I was wearing," he said. "I brought those empty magazines home and still have them today.”
Parker had less luck finding work as photographer after the war.
“I used to work for PV News before I went over there,” said the Torrance resident, who attended Palos Verdes High School from 1961 to 1962. “I applied for photo jobs when I came back and had a really nice portfolio to show ... but got nowhere.” (Photos of Parker's Vietnam days can be seen on his website.)
Hoping to work for National Geographic, Parker freelanced where he could. Now retired, he has several hobbies, including photography and live stream model trains, describing himself on his business card as “Chief Engineer, Desperadoes Railroad.”
Sanders, whose fascination with his subjects never seems to wane, encourages veterans to open up about their lives before and after the war. “It’s like therapy in a way,” he said. “Their stories are humanistic and so interesting.”
His photos are gripping portraits that communicate the emotions of war, from the elation of victory to the devastating effects of death and loss.
Sanders plans to take the next year to complete the Vietnam book, photographing veterans all over the country and writing their narratives.
Although weddings are not among his photo services, he intends to be in one—a wedding, that is.
Tom Sanders will marry Alison Arbuthnot, a food and wine writer and former Patch reporter, on June 9 in an historic mission in Sonoma.
Expect a lot of veterans to send the bride and groom their best wishes for a long and happy life.