Veterans’ Stories Told Through Their Mementos at Heroes Hall

David P. Senner for Voice of OC

Heroes Hall, Orange County's first veterans' museum, will celebrate its grand opening on Veterans Day.

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The torn and faded, two-by-three-foot U.S. flag spent months in the heat, high humidity and ever-present danger of foot patrol combat in Vietnam, carefully folded into the backpack of U.S. Army Sgt. Dave Kendrick.

Separately, a 1797 gold coin the size of a silver dollar, but more than twice as heavy, did two tours and flew 151 missions over Vietnam, securely zipped into the pocket of U.S. Navy reconnaissance pilot Stu Evans.

Now, the flag and coin are among 10 items from four U.S. wars that go on public display Wednesday in Heroes Hall at the Orange County Fairgrounds.

Wednesday is also the 75th anniversary of the opening of the World War II-era Santa Ana Army Air Base, which is now part of the fairgrounds property and once included the Heroes Hall building.

Orange County’s 11 Medal of Honor recipients are recognized in a permanent series of plaques outside the museum. To view videos about each Medal of Honor recipient, click here.

Beginning Wednesday, twice a year for about six months, Heroes Hall will house exhibits that focus on the personal experiences of veterans.

One of the two opening exhibits will honor the original Army Air Base with photos, posters and descriptions of the men and women who were stationed there, including Yankee baseball star Sgt. Joe DiMaggio, pictured as part of the base’s team; Joseph Heller, author of “Catch-22;” Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs), Navajo Code Talkers and more.

The other exhibit, based on Tim O’Brien’s novel, “The Things They Carried” tells the stories of young U.S. military men who served in World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Iraq-Afghanistan using items they carried with them in combat.

Veterans who loaned items for the exhibit or had other ties to Heroes Hall got an advance tour Monday, including 95-year-old John “Skip” Thrune of Fullerton, who trained at the base 74 years ago, and was the first invited in to view the exhibits.

Also in that first group was Richard Shimmons of Costa Mesa who served in the Army in World War II and then Korea, where he was so severely wounded during the first battle of Pork Chop Hill that, he said, “I was reported killed in action.”

High school classes will be given tours of the exhibits to increase students’ understanding of the historic roles played by military men and women in the history of the U.S.

“Freedom isn’t free,” Nick Berardino, chairman of the Orange County Fair & Event Center, reminded guests Monday before the doors opened for a preview of the exhibits.

Berardino, who served as a Marine in combat during the Vietnam War, said students and members of the public who tour Heroes Hall, among other things, will learn maintaining freedom “in a complicated world” takes “tremendous sacrifice,” possibly including death.

It’s a lessen combat veterans know well, and the items that survived are symbols of that sacrifice.

Most U.S. combat veterans were roughly 18 to 27 years old when they served their country in war and experienced the death of colleagues as well as learning how to kill enemy fighters. Those who were on the front lines almost universally downplay their roles.

Before and during interviews about their experiences, Kendrick, the flag carrier, and Evans, who kept the gold coin in his pocket, made it clear that, in their eyes “I was not a hero” as Kendrick put it. According to pilot Evans “the guys on the ground, they’re the heroes.”

Kendrick’s Flag

In his novel, O’Brien described items carried by men in the Vietnam War to tell details of what they experienced.

The flag that Dave Kendrick carried in his backpack in Vietnam

The flag Kendrick carried was given to him in 1966 by co-workers at Cannon Electric (now ITT Cannon Electric) in Santa Ana when he left his home in Garden Grove and volunteered to join the Army. He was 20, one of six children of career U.S. Marine Robert Kendrick, who served two tours in Vietnam, although father and son didn’t cross paths in the war zone.

When he volunteered for Vietnam “I didn’t think I would come home,” Dave Kendrick said. But “I walked away from it and my dad walked away from it.”

Initially, Dave Kendrick, who now lives in Orange, wanted to follow his father into the Marines. Robert Kendrick adopted Dave when the boy was 13 and was a “wonderful man,” according to his son.

His Marine ambitions were thwarted by a long waiting list of volunteers. The Army list was shorter. Determined to serve his country in Vietnam, Dave Kendrick opted for the Army.

The flag he carried was based at Chu Lai, south of Da Nang, as part of the Americal Division, 196th Lt. Infantry, and went with Kendrick on patrols, including during the 1968 North Vietnamese Tet Offensive, one of the largest and deadliest enemy attacks of the war.

“It (Tet) was pretty tough times,” Kendrick recalled, “but that’s the way it was. It was war.”

Shortly after the Tet Offensive, the flag went to war in the A Shau Valley, a North Vietnamese staging area against the historic South Vietnamese city of Hue. It also accompanied Kendrick, an infantry radio operator, on a short assignment with Australian allies.

When Kendrick and his patrol were in areas they felt were relatively safe, the flag went on display, flown from tree limbs or whatever else was handy.

Back at the Chu Lai base, it flew outside Kendrick’s tent.

“I folded it up and always had it with me,” he said.

Make no mistake. He went because he wanted to, he emphasizes, not because he was required to. “I’m no hero. Other vets have suffered their whole life, or lost their life. They’re the heroes. I was not a hero. I was just there.”

When not in combat, Kendrick said he and other soldiers his young

From the private collection of Dave Kendrick

Dave Kendrick with orphans in Vietnam.

colleagues regularly visited orphanages in the cities of northern South Vietnam, bringing food and treats, like candy or stuffed animals, sent to them by family members in the U.S.

“We were able to give food to some orphanages,” he said. “War is horrible but there are some nice things you can do.”

Along with the flag in the exhibit is a note Kendrick wrote: “I’m tattered, torn, faded and tired. But Sgt. Kendrick and I pushed on to give hope of ‘Freedom’ to all in Vietnam and southeast Asia.”

Evans’ Coin

At 19, after two years of community college, Evans enlisted in the U.S. Navy. The mother of one of his friends gave him a British half penny minted in 1797.

The coin flew all 151 reconnaissance missions with Evans in his two tours based on aircraft carriers stationed 100 to 150 miles off the coast of North Vietnam, which the military called “Yankee Station.”

During that time, he said, “close to 40 guys I knew were shot down, captured or killed. I had several friends who were POWs (prisoners of war).”

“I’d wanted to be a pilot since I was a little kid,” said Evans, whose older brother, Charles, was with the U.S. Army during World War II. (The brothers didn’t meet until the end of World War II when Stu Evans was two years old.)

And so, in May, 1966, Stu Evans was onboard the USS Constellation in the Tonkin Gulf at the start of a seven-month combat assignment that meant catapulting into the air in his E-2 Hawkeye twin-turboprop to search for enemy MIGs and warn U.S. fighter planes where they were.

In November, 1967, he and the coin returned to the waters off the North Vietnamese coast aboard the USS Kitty Hawk for an eight-month tour that included the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Evans was flying a reconnaissance mission during the Tet Offensive the day his son was born; a fact he didn’t learn until four days later.

“I do want to stress the fact I didn’t do anything particularly heroic but I sure flew with some guys who did,” he said.

But just getting his plane into the air could be dangerous. One night, the man in charge of the catapult entered the wrong weight for Evans’ plane, which needed to be launched at a specific speed for its engines to keep it in the air.

By putting in a weight that was too low, the catapult sent him off at a speed that was too slow, almost certainly causing him to crash into the sea.

“I thought it was over,” said Evans when he realized what happened. But for no explainable reason, his engines kept the plane in the air. “Wow. Somebody was watching over me that night.”

When he was discharged from the Navy after five years, he and the coin returned to the U.S. at the height of the anti-war movement which had grown so angry that it even hurled slurs at the young servicemen.

“Baby killers” is one phrase he remembers.

Evans, who lives in Mission Viejo, said he never treated the coin as a lucky

From the private collection of Stu Evans

Stu Evans stands next to his coin at the Heroes Hall exhibit.

token, but rather as a treasured gift from his friend’s mother. She died in a house fire before he could return it to her. But later he gave it to her grandson “who she never saw” and then borrowed it back for the Heroes Hall exhibit.

And he has one final reminder: “There’s a lot of guys out there who did a heck of a lot more than I did….I can’t stress the fact the guys on the ground have not gotten the awards, accolades that they deserved.”

You can contact Tracy Wood at twood@voiceofoc.org and follow her on Twitter: @TracyVOC.

  • Truly inspirational stories… kudos to our war heroes and veterans!