First of all, we are very fortunate to live in such a wonderful community as the Santa Clarita Valley and it seems everyone knows a local Veteran and I constantly receive recommendations from friends and others on who to interview next.
Well, this week I’m reporting on Vietnam Veteran Jim Pilarski by way of my good friend Sharon Bronson. Thank you Sharon!
Adventure Came Calling
Jim Pilarski was born May 10, 1945, in Waukesha, Wisconsin, and, at age two his family relocated to Burbank, California.
His father opened his first restaurant, “James Drive-In” in San Fernando in 1951 where Jim grew up and graduated from San Fernando High School in June 1963.
Jim attended Valley College for a while but adventure called and he embarked on a sailing journey throughout the Pacific Ocean aboard a 40 foot Norwegian ketch named “Resoy.”
Jim’s impromptu escapade cost him his prized student deferment status with Local Draft Board #82 on Colfax Avenue in North Hollywood, which he learned when he phoned his parents from Hawaii.
Naturally, Jim had to hustle home but not before Resoy returned to the mainland.
When he arrived at LAX in August 1965, Los Angeles’ Watts Rebellion was fully enflamed. Interesting, in that, as Jim entered military service and a war zone in South East Asia, he was exposed to a war zone right here in Los Angeles.
Booted From OCS
Once Jim returned home, he read his draft notice, but believing Army draftees were treated poorly, he promptly joined the U.S. Marine Corps in September 1965.
His recruiter allowed Jim to finish one more semester at Valley Junior College and then he left for Boot Camp at San Diego in April 1966, where he qualified for Office Candidate School.
After Boot Camp and Individual Rifle Training at Camp Pendleton, Jim received a 30-day leave of absence during which time he proposed to his sweetheart, Stella Marie DeLaCerda.
Jim was next sent to Quantico for Officer Candidate School as he sought to become an officer, however. when he requested a leave of absence to return home to marry Stella he was promptly booted from OCS and given orders to serve in Vietnam.
Upon his harsh rejection from officer’s school, Jim was sent home for a short leave. The very first thing he did was marry Stella Nov. 19, 1966.
Their marriage ceremony was held at St. Ferdinand’s Catholic Church in San Fernando and they had a lavish reception at Korean-American actor Phil Ahn’s Moongate Restaurant in Panorama City.
Digressing to Jim’s attendance at Valley Junior College, his mother, a friend to Stella’s mother, volunteered Jim to help Stella with her high school homework. Over time he gradually became enamored with her and it was mutual.
“It was as though God intervened and guided me to the perfect woman,” Jim remembers thinking.
Road to Khe Sahn
After quick honeymoon jaunts to Las Vegas and San Francisco, Jim returned to Camp Pendleton for two weeks of training before deploying to Okinawa and Da Nang, South Vietnam in January 1967.
Jim was immediately assigned to the 11th Engineering Battalion, 3rd Marine Division at Dong Ha.
His first taste of combat came when he was abruptly assigned as 50 Caliber Machine Gunner on personnel carrier to escort Sergeant Waters, who had a package to deliver to Khe Sahn.
Traveling down a dirt road bordered with heavy elephant grass a monsoon began dumping buckets of water on them and that’s when North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers opened up.
Jim immediately began furiously firing his 50 Cal ripping apart everything in sight and meanwhile his vehicle was peppered with AK47 rounds; bullets were flying everywhere.
But soon Jim’s mighty 50 Cal brought a calm quiet.
“My God I cannot believe how lucky I am,” Jim thought.
Jim sensed a number of NVA perished in that firefight, however Sergeant Waters was wounded thus aborting their mission.
Soon, Jim began working to create “The Strip,” an area just below the DMZ stretching 500 yards wide from the Rockpile to the Gulf of Tonkin.
The plan was to create a wide open, defoliated and bulldozed swath designed to curtail North Vietnamese soldiers from crossing into South Vietnam. Once completed, “The Strip” was sowed with mines, barbed wire, sensors, and covered by concentrated artillery.
It was a major project and Jim’s role was surveying the entire south side of the strip, which required him and two others to spend periods up to 90 days alone in the deep jungle surveying and carving a trail along the south line. Following well behind them were 100 more bulldozers whacking the jungle away.
Often, Jim and his fellow Marines encountered small NVA recon teams and numerous firefights resulted in which artillery support was periodically required, which Jim called in.
These three Marines managed to avoid injury, however, numerous NVA were killed in action.
“This major project simply led the NVA to extensively use the HO Chi Minh Trail, of which I take full credit,” Jim says in amusement.
Back in the USA
Jim’s work on the strip continued for the remainder of his tour of duty which ended Feb. 10, 1968, on the very day North Vietnam launched its massive 1968 Tet Offensive.
During his tour of duty, Jim was promoted to Buck Sergeant E-5. He was ordered to take a helicopter to Dong Ha and a C-130 to Da Nang and then a commercial flight to Okinawa where he lingered for six days.
Next Jim flew to Marine Corps Air Station at El Toro, California, and he hitch-hiked rides to LAX where Stella, his Mom and Dad brought him home for a 30-day leave of absence.
Jim spent the next year at Camp Pendleton surveying the base. He was promoted to Staff Sergeant E-6 before he was Honorably Discharged March 1, 1969.
Stella gave birth to their first son, Thomas Patrick, at Camp Pendleton. His company Commander tried in vain to have Jim re-enlist, but Jim and Stella were anxious to rejoin civilian life.
Achieving His American Dream
Afterwards, Jim landed a job with Los Angeles City for nine years and, taking advantage of the G.I. Bill, he pursued his education – first at Pasadena City College and then Valley State College at Northridge (now CSUN).
Jim earned his Land Surveyor License which paved the way to becoming a partner with LBH Engineering Inc. The Company was soon renamed Hovel & Pilarski Engineering Inc.
Jim worked 38 years before retiring Dec. 31, 2016, but, along the way, he and Stella had three wonderful sons which led to six grandchildren and one great grandchild.
These days, Jim stays busy working part time with his old firm wrapping up projects that he had initiated, but he and Stella plan to pick up golfing as soon as possible.
Jim is a proud Marine and very proud of his service to this great country and his memories of his service are vivid.
Semper Fi, Staff Sergeant James T. Pilarski and Welcome Home!