Long time Signal subscriber Jim Lentini and I recently met at his beautiful Sand Canyon home to discuss his U.S. Army experiences while serving at Korea’s contentious Joint Security Area (JSA) at Panmunjom of the Demilitarized Zone. We chatted in Jim’s spacious garage (his man cave) which contains his impressive renovated 1952 Oldsmobile and his memorabilia collection.
Jimmy versus Gasper
Jim was born December, 1939 in Oak Park, Ill., but his family moved to San Fernando, Calif., in 1948 where he grew up. Jim’s formal first name, Gasper, must be explained. Following Sicilian tradition, Jim’s father and mother, Vincent and Mary Lentini, named him Gasper after Vincent’s father. Vincent placed “Gasper” on his birth certificate without Mary’s knowledge so she made sure that everyone called him Jimmy.
Jim loved California’s warm weather so at 8 years old he asked his Dad for a bicycle whereupon he was told “get a job”, so Jim became a paperboy. Hence, Jim has never ever been without employment.
Jim’s mother demanded that he attend Notre Dame High School, but the $15 monthly tuition was unaffordable. To cover expenses, she earned a “Commercial Drivers License” and with other parents a bus was purchased which she drove her son and other students to high school.
Jim graduated from Notre Dame High School in June 1957 and went on to earn an Associate’s Degree in Police Science at Valley College. In September 1960, Jim volunteered for the draft and was immediately inducted into the U.S Army at Fort Ord, California where he took Basic Training.
Relishing KP duty
Following Basic Training, Jim was assigned to Fort Lee, Va., for on the job training (OJT) with a Military Police Company. His Platoon Sergeant took him to Fort Lee’s rifle range where Jim fired off a clip of .45 bullets, thus Jim was immediately assigned MP duty. Jim also qualified for Officer Candidate School as he received orders for duty in Korea. Since Jim was enthusiastic to see the World, he chose Korea thinking OCS could wait.
After a 30 day home leave of absence, Jim traveled to Oakland, California’s Army Terminal where he boarded the USS General M.M. Patrick, a World War II era troop ship bound for the Far East. This troop ship was the exact ship Jim’s uncle, WWII Marine Veteran Joseph Fese, journeyed on to the South Pacific. Jim instantly questioned the wisdom of his decision when he saw his crowded bunk area. Fifty soldiers were crammed into a tiny space with multiple bunks one above the other, but fortunately Jim was assigned to KP duty (Kitchen Police) for the entire 11 day journey to Korea. Jim relished this duty as it wasn’t cramped, plus he had plenty of chow before everyone else.
Finally, Jim’s 11 day cruise ended and he was assigned to JSA which was located front and center at the DMZ. As an MP, Jim’s responsibility was protecting neutral personnel from Sweden and Switzerland who represented the United States and South Korea in negotiations with North Korea’s neutral personnel from Czechoslovakia and Poland.
Jim’s unit also provided security for JSA where peace talks were conducted with North Korea. The meetings were held with representatives of all nations that fought with the United States in the Korean War. By 1960 the United States had accused North Korea of over 5,000 DMZ violations of our 1953 Armistice. Jim said, “This was the only place in the world where enemy troops were posted between United States Guard Outposts, but then young soldiers believe they’re invincible”.
Jim and his fellow soldiers literally bumped shoulders with North Korean soldiers. At one point, Jim stood near several North Korean officers when a 4 X 4 truck with U.S. soldiers arrived. In amusement, Jim saw one U.S. soldier, a 6’-5” menacing young man, clamor from that Army truck while those diminutive North Koreans gawked in amazement.
Ain’t worth a lick
While at the DMZ, Jim’s Company Commander, a West Point graduate, suggested that Jim should attend Officer Candidate School. Jim sought advice from his Sergeant Major on this subject. That crusty old WWII Veteran said, “Son, if you got the smarts to pass that test you can make it on the outside. This peacetime Army ain’t worth a lick”.
That’s all Jim needed to know so he finished his tour of duty, returned stateside and was Honorably Discharged September 4, 1962. Jim returned home to resume his education at Valley College majoring in Business Management which led him to insurance business. In 1964 Jim established his own insurance firm in Newhall, Lentini Insurance & Investment, Inc, of which he is President and owner. Jim was married in 1964: a marriage that didn’t last but produced two wonderful sons, Nicholas and Jeffrey whom he raised and loves dearly.
Love story, Lentini style
In August 1979, Jim and four close buddies visited Mazatlan on a four day fishing trip and shortly after arrival, while waiting for their hotel rooms, they did what all young studs do on a fishing trip. They hung out in the hotel bar drinking Mexican beer and tequila shooters. Suddenly, one of Jim’s pals said, “Hey, there’s a classy looking one”. This prompted Jim, to spin around and spot a beautiful young woman, which embolden him to approach her and brusquely state, “Hi, how are you? Are you married? Are you single? Would you meet me later for a drink?” This woman replied, “Fine, no, yes, and maybe”. But at least she gave Jim her name, which was Susan Conley, so Jim rejoined his pals.
At some point, Susan’s friend and roommate gave Jim their room number. Jim called Susan and invited her to join him on the beach for a drink. And there they began to become acquainted. During the next several days, Jim and Susan met for dinner and drinks until Jim’s fishing trip ended, but not before he obtained her contact info in California.
Jim fondly says, “I was the only one who got caught on that fishing trip”. Susan lived in Orange County, which was a terrible commute for Jim who lived in Valencia. For the next two months Jim drove to Orange County until he realized he needed Susan at his side permanently. Finally Jim, blurted out, “Let’s get married! We like being together!” To Jim’s amazement, Susan said yes. Amusingly, to this very day Susan is not exactly clear on how that marriage proposal went down, but they were married three months from the day they first met.
Veteran with honor
Jim served his country with honor and though he didn’t choose the military as his career, he’s very proud of his service and would do it again in a New York minute. It’s noted that Jim had two uncles who served in WWII and his son Jeff is an Iraq War veteran who served in Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
Jim’s Uncle Andrew Lentini was in the initial Normandy Invasion and was killed in action on July 4, 1944. His Uncle Joseph Fese a career Marine fought on Guadalcanal and all through the Solomon Islands. Jim believes all young men and women should serve our country.
In 2016, Jim was honored as SCV’s Man of the Year due to his extensive charity work. Jim is a proud Rotary Club Member and was selected as Centennial President in 2005 for the SCV Rotary Club. Jim currently serves as Veterans Chairman of the SCV Rotary Club and Veterans Co Chairman for Elks Lodge #2379. Jim is a good friend and I’m proud that he nominated me to join the Elks Lodge several years ago. Thank you, Jim. You are a strong veterans advocate and a great American.