San Pedro WWII Memorial

The San Pedro World War II Memorial is in the Patriot Gardens section of Green Hills Memorial Park in Rancho Palos Verdes.  Dedicated in 2005, it honors 162 men from San Pedro who died in WWII.  One of the purposes of this Web site is to tell their stories.
This story of how the memorial came about starts way back in 1925.  That was the year my dad, Eddie Marconi, was born, and my grandmother’s midwife was Mrs. Zazueta.
Sometime in the `30s, Dad spent time with the Zazueta family.  They had a son named Al, who was five years older than my dad, and they became friends.
I don’t know how long he lived there,  but Dad had fond memories of the Zazuetas.  I mean, how many sons of Italian immigrants were eating enchiladas and tamales those days?
Let’s skip forward to 1944.  Al already had graduated from San Pedro High School.  He was a well-known athlete for his prowess on the ballfield.  He was 4F because of a double mastdoid but doing his part for the war as a machinist at Todd Shipyards.  But by 1944, as casualties were mounting among U.S. troops driving toward Germany, Uncle Sam was lowering physical standards and Al, recently married, was drafted into the Army.
He was in basic training in Texas when he got word that his wife was about to give birth.  He got home on leave just in time to see the birth of his daughter, Linda, and left the next day to go overseas.  Four months later, on Nov. 10, Al was wounded while fighting in the Huertgen Forest just inside the German border with Belgium.  It was one of the bloodiest battles of the war, but also one of the least known because it accomplished so little and was soon overshadowed by the Battle of the Bulge.  Al died three days later at the age of 24.
Now we’ll fast forward–to Sept. 11, 2001, to be exact.  In the wake of the Twin Towers and the war in Afghanistan, as we remembered the dead, we were starting to hear once again the well-worn phrase, “We’ll never forget their sacrifice.”

Forgotten after all

I was working at the L.A. Times.  One day, while going into a restroom I’d used dozens of times, I noticed for the first time a plaque hanging on the wall next to the door.  It was the Times’  in-house organ from 1945 featuring a series of mug shots around a story telling about employees who had died in the war.  Sixty years after the war, and this was the place of honor for the men the Times would never forget.  I myself had passed it often without a second thought.  I doubt if many employees ever noticed it, and certainly none of the female workers ever saw it.
About that time, I was visiting my folks, and I asked to see my mom’s 1946  Black and Gold yearbook.  I knew it had a list of SPHS students who had died in the war, and I wanted to check it one more time.  We started talking about Al Zazueta, which Dad almost always did when the war came up, and I remember asking what exactly had happened to Al.  Dad said he thought Al had died in Normandy, on D-Day.  That piqued my interest even more.  A few days later, Dad told me had had been talking with his golf buddies, Nello Saggiani and Paul Gaddis, among other contemporaries, and one of them said, no, Al had died in the Battle of the Bulge.
That began my research into the men from SPHS who had died in the war.  I went to the American Battle Monuments Commission Web site, which lists all the men from WWII who are buried overseas or who were buried at sea or whose bodies were never recovered.  I found Al Zazueta, who is buried at the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery in Belgium.  By listing the regiment and division and date of death, I was able to discover where he had been mortally wounded.

The journey begins

That was the start of a journey that continues to this day.  Originally, it was more of a personal interest thing.  I just wanted to find out how many SPHS students had died in the war.  It took me to San Pedro High, where I hadn’t stepped foot in more than 30 years.  I had the list from my mother’s yearbook to start with, but I knew there had to be more names, and I wanted to make sure I had them all.  Besides, I figured there had to be some kind of memorial somewhere on campus to these young men.  I didn’t remember seeing one while I went to school there, but back then I was too busy with other teen-ager stuff to be much concerned about that sort of thing.
So I passed the huge display case about San Pedro High’s great baseball legacy, and another display case with some other stuff in it, and I suddenly realized, San Pedro High had forgotten its greatest heroes, the men who died in World War II.  And that’s when I decided a memorial was needed somewhere.
At first, I was just thinking of something that school should do, that maybe I would go to the boosters and talk to them about funding a nice memorial just for Pirates.  But then I went to the San Pedro Bay Historical Society to get some more information about the men on the list I had, and I came across the special centennial section published by the News-Pilot in 1988 that honored the men from San Pedro who died in all wars.  I not only was shocked that I hadn’t remembered seeing that section, even though I was working on the Daily Breeze/News-Pilot copy desk at the time, but shocked by what I discovered.  That list that Mel Bobich and Sam Domancich had painstakingly put together through the use of News-Pilot microfilm had 175 names.  My mother’s yearbook only had 34.
Those 175 names, however, included all the men from San Pedro who had died in the war, not just those who had attended San Pedro High, and that was when I began to realize just what an impact the war had on San Pedro.  The Pacific Fleet had made it home here all through the `30s, right up until it moved to Pearl Harbor in 1940, and many of those sailors had made their homes in San Pedro.  Many had married and had children here.  Many of their parents had moved here.  And I realized that San Pedro needed more than a memorial to former Pirates.  A list this big needed something of significance to memorialize the price San Pedro had paid during the war.

Reconnecting with the past

That’s when the real work began, because I soon found out that the list Mel and Sam had put together had little information other than name, rank and maybe branch of service.  There were only a few instances where it mentioned when and where the serviceman had died.  So that was the job I undertook, and believe me, it wasn’t easy.  San Pedro High’s records are incomplete, I found much to my surprise.  Names were spelled a variety of ways, depending on what source I was reading.
At that time, I asked if I could write a column for the Daily Breeze, explaining what I wanted to do and seeking the public’s help in creating a definitive list.  Unfortunately, it was decided to run the column only in More San Pedro, which, I have to admit, even I didn’t read that often at the time. Meanwhile, I had called Ray Frew at Green Hills Memorial Park.  Because of his fine work with the annual Memorial Day observance, I thought maybe he could give me some pointers about how to go about getting this memorial built.  He was kind enough to invite me to the 2004 service as a special guest.  He introduced me and told the audience what I was working on, but it was obvious at the time that few people knew about it.  I received very little feedback on the column, which was disappointing, but I did get one letter that made all the difference.  And here’s where the story comes full circle.
The letter was from a Frances Dunn.  She said that she had seen the column and, while reading it, was thinking to herself, it better mention Al Zazueta somewhere.  Of course, Al had been the impetus behind the entire project, which I mentioned at the very end of the column.  Frances said that when she got to the end of the story and saw Al’s name, she was overwhelmed.  You see, Frances had been Al’s wife.
When I told my dad, he was stunned.  I called Frances and asked if we could get together.  She was thrilled with the idea.  When we arrived, it was like a family reunion.  Frances’ maiden name is Andritsas, kinfolk of the Papadakis clan, and she knew my dad from back when they were kids.  In fact, Dad remembered Frances’ sister, Sylvia.  The sisters worked at the Papadakis’ Anchor Liquor.
Then, in walked Frances’ daughter, Linda, the baby Al Zazueta had seen for only one day.  My dad, who seldom showed emotion, got all choked up.  He couldn’t believe how much she looked like Al, and he said that she even sounded like him.
We had a wonderful time together, but this being San Pedro, there still is even more to the story.  Frances had remarried after the war.  She met a young soldier from Fort MacArthur, who had been at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7.  They were married for 50 years before he died.  His name was Jack Dunn, who my father had worked with on the docks for decades, never knowing he was married to Al  Zazueta’s widow.  And their son, Tom, graduated a year ahead of me.  And there is even more involving Linda.   See my column here.

Green Hills steps in

Meanwhile, I continued working on the list, still not sure how the memorial would get funded and what it would look like.  Then I talked with Ray Frew again, and he suggested a meeting in January 2005.  When he asked me about the memorial, I told him I thought Green Hills would be the perfect spot because of its annual Memorial Day service, which has grown into one of the region’s largest, and because of the other memorials already there that make the park a special place to visit.
That’s when he said that if I was willing to have it at Green Hills, he was willing to fund the memorial, and he even had the man there who builds memorials. Tom Montgomery of United Memorials just happened to have a large slab of granite available, and we shared some ideas of how to design it.
We agreed that 2005 being the 60th anniversary of the end of the war, that Memorial Day would be the perfect occasion to unveil the memorial.  So it happened, and now we’ll never have another excuse to forget.

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