It’s estimated that 20,000 American children lost their fathers in the Vietnam War. To make things worse, these kids had no way of finding and connecting with each other at the time, which would have allowed them to bond with those who understood their pain.
Tony Cordero became one of those children at age four, on Father’s Day weekend in 1965, when his dad, Air Force Major William E. Cordero, died during a mission. It wasn’t until 1989, when Tony was already an adult, that he decided to create an organization himself that would bring together the now-adult Gold Star children of Vietnam. He named it “Sons and Daughters in Touch,” and we discussed it recently on “Christopher Closeup” (podcast below).
Prior to his father’s death, Tony’s family – consisting of his dad, his pregnant mother, and his three siblings – all lived together in off-base housing adjacent to Clark Air Base in the Philippines. “My dad was a navigator in a B-57,” he recalled, “and the pilot was a man from North Carolina, Charles Lovelace. The two of them were on a bombing mission with a couple other planes on the Ho Chi Minh Trail on the border of Vietnam and Laos. And something happened. We don’t know what. We now know where the wreckage is. A lot of the wreckage is still in the jungles of Laos, but we don’t know why the plane didn’t come back with the other two.”
After the plane went down, the Corderos “got the knock on the door that everyone talks about” notifying them of what happened. A local military family and the Catholic chaplain gave them support during this uncertain time when they didn’t know if Major Cordero was a prisoner of war or whether he had been killed. (It was ultimately revealed that he had died.)
The Corderos only remained in the Philippines for another week after the news because it was deemed unhealthy for them to be in the military atmosphere, nor was it good for the squadron to see them and be reminded of the loss. They returned to their home in San Pedro, California, to be near their grandparents.
Tony said, “When I think about what my mom did – she was not 30 years old when she was expecting child number five and her husband was missing in a war zone and she was 7,500 miles from home. She steeled herself and moved us all back to California. And it wasn’t easy….So my mom’s parents were the constant in our lives. Irish Catholics, going to mass every Sunday. My dad’s parents [were Hispanic], in Santa Barbara, California. They provided some emotional support, some leadership, but also some financial support. They paid for us to go to Catholic elementary school…at Holy Trinity School in San Pedro.”
In the absence of his father, Tony’s grandfathers became his male role models: “Even though my maternal grandfather was Irish, he looked literally like Luca Brasi from ‘The Godfather.’ Then my dad’s dad, my paternal grandfather, was… an eighth grade-educated blacksmith…an ornamental iron worker, did all kinds of incredible work especially at the Mission and the Courthouse in Santa Barbara. So the two of them balanced it out for us.”
Tony also credits his father’s stepmom with being a model of selflessness and giving, working at Catholic Charities for 50 years, even when she was in a wheelchair.
There were other things that compounded the pain of Tony and his siblings losing their father. He noted that his youngest brother “was born six months after dad was lost. He never met his dad, never was held by his father. The thing that, I think, troubles me most about the five of us is that the two youngest were not able to go to their dad’s funeral. It was all financial stuff. Today, the military wouldn’t do that to a family, but back then they told my mom, ‘We will fly you, the widow, and two of your children from California to Washington for the funeral.’ Fortunately, my grandparents paid for me to go, so I wore my Cub Scout uniform to my dad’s funeral. But the two youngest boys didn’t get to go to their dad’s funeral. That was egregious.”
For the entirety of his youth and well into adulthood, Tony never knew any other kids whose fathers had been killed in Vietnam, though he knew from the statistics that there were many. As he approached age 31, which was one year older than his father was when he died, he researched whether there was an organization that connected the now-adult Gold Star children of Vietnam. There wasn’t, so with the help of a woman named Wanda Ruffin, he decided to create one himself.
They named their group “Sons and Daughters in Touch,” and invited people to send in their names and addresses by mail if they wanted to be included. This kind of effort took a lot more time during the pre-Internet age than it does now, but slowly, they received many requests to connect with the group. Tony recalled, “When we gathered for the first time, 30 years ago, Father’s Day 1992, at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial [in Washington, D.C.], we had hundreds and hundreds of sons and daughters from all over the country who could look at each other and say, ‘I know what your life was like. You know what my life was like. This was not easy, but finally I’m able to stand here at the Wall with people who understand my story.'”
The annual visits to the Memorial continued, but eventually Tony felt it was time to do something more: organize a trip to Vietnam for the members of “Sons and Daughters in Touch.” They received immediate support from other Vietnam veterans and embarked on a flight to Saigon in 2003, with 50 sons and daughters, as well as 20 Vietnam veterans.
As it turned out, their first full day in Saigon was Ash Wednesday. Tony explained, “We had told the folks in the travel party that if you want to participate in an Ash Wednesday service early on that first morning that we were there, there will be a Catholic Mass in the basement of the Rex Hotel in Saigon. So two of the people that were traveling with us were Catholic priests. One was a Vietnam veteran, and he had brought along another priest with him. So we went to Mass, and we got ashes on our foreheads. Now remember, Vietnam is a communist country. There’s not a great relationship between the government and the church. Americans stick out. They are very obvious when they’re traveling through Vietnam. Not that it’s a bad thing because the Vietnamese love Americans. But here you have this group of Americans…Not only are we obvious tourists, but we’re walking around, some of us, with this black smudge on our foreheads. I can only imagine today what those folks thought about us…not knowing what it was all about.”
The trip to Vietnam was cathartic for everyone involved, including Tony. He admits that whatever anger he had felt before toward the people of Vietnam or the situation in general dissipated.
Tony said, “When we came back home after spending two and a half weeks there, going from Saigon to Hanoi, and enabling every one of those sons and daughters to get to the ground zero where their dads were lost, the boogeyman was gone. We had stared the boogeyman in the face, and he no longer was that evil thing that we had grown up thinking about. Today, my family lives in Orange County, California. We’re registered parishioners at Christ Cathedral in Orange, Robert Schuller’s former Crystal Cathedral. The parishioners there are a composite of my life. They are Caucasian like my Irish grandparents. They are Hispanic like my dad’s family. They are Filipino like where we lived, and they are Vietnamese. I can’t help when I go to Mass on Sundays there to look around and say, ‘This is my life.’ So I have incredible respect and admiration for the Vietnamese people, especially those who are here in the United States today. But when we left Vietnam, the boogeyman had been conquered.”
“Sons and Daughters in Touch” has grown and evolved more than Tony could have imagined back in 1989. Initially, he hoped all the members could “get together at the Wall one time and have a fried chicken picnic or something. Here, almost 35 years later, we have [become] an incredible voice for Gold Star families. We have great relationships with older Gold Star families from World War II and Korea and younger Gold Star families from post-9/11.”
Tony concluded, “Even though we’re an all-volunteer group right now, there may be a call for us to become bigger than that and no longer be all-volunteer, but we’ll explore that. I think that’s one of the objectives that helps brighten that path. But to look at the impact that this organization has had on the lives of so many people – when in their darkest moments of despair, if they need a friend, they can simply go to our private Facebook page and ask a question or start talking to people. That gives them comfort. [The deaths of our fathers] isn’t what dominates every moment of life, but it is an undeniable fact about what happened to us, and it’s not a pretty story. The middle chapters of the story aren’t pretty, but the ending is what can be.”
(To listen to my full interview with Tony Cordero, click on the podcast link):