Earlier this year, Gary Popejoy reached out to me via The Signal newspaper’s Friday veterans page and he spoke on the phone, which led him to e-mailing me his U.S. Army discharge document (DD214) and a plethora of photographs. When we finally met a few weeks ago at Valencia’s Corner Bakery, I was captivated by his military service and his lifelong experiences.
Work Ethic in High School
James Gary Popejoy, who goes by Gary, was born Dec. 16, 1940, at Orange County’s Community Hospital and he grew up in nearby Newport Beach. While attending Newport Harbor Union High School, Gary wanted to play football but his father forbade it, so he competed on their track team before graduating June 17, 1958. He worked as a paperboy for the Santa Ana Register, handling their largest newspaper route, and he worked part-time at Hoag Memorial Hospital delivering X-rays to doctors and performing miscellaneous odd jobs. In his senior year, Gary recalled dressing as the devil selling fireworks for Independence Day and was paid a box of fireworks. Gary’s father worked in construction and participated in building the Disneyland Hotel, which paved the way for Gary to join the pre-public attendance when Disneyland first opened. His high school held a senior ditch day in which Gary’s class visited Disneyland in May 1958.
In The Army Now
After high school, Gary’s father sent him to Chicago to attend DeVry Technical University for one year to study electronics; Gary rented a room nearby for $7 a week. Following DeVry, Gary travelled throughout the Midwest and stayed with a cousin for a year, where he learned farm work and construction. Next, Gary returned to Southern California and rented an apartment in Costa Mesa and he landed a job for two years with the city of Newport’s sanitation department. At age 23 Gary received a strange draft notice warning letter, which compelled him to visit the draft board, leading him to enlist for three years with the U.S. Army on Sept. 23, 1963. Admittedly, Gary’s favorite uncle, a U.S. Navy veteran, had a strong influence on him. Following a full day at Los Angeles’ induction station, Gary travelled by train to Fort Ord, California, where he endured eight weeks of basic training.
1st Cavalry Division
After basic training, Gary was assigned to six months of technical school at Fort Gordon, Georgia, along with 24 other newly minted soldiers of which only Gary and 11 others graduated. Gary learned everything possible about installing and maintaining Army helicopter and airplane radios and communication devices. After Fort Gordon, Gary was sent to Fort Benning, Georgia, and joined the 11th Air Assault Division in June 1964. Huey helicopters were becoming a primary mode of operations for infantry troops as war in Vietnam loomed large. Possessing effective communications was essential, thus Gary’s role became indispensable. In late October 1965, Gary took a two-week leave of absence to see his family and upon return to Fort Benning a transfer of colors ceremony converted the 11th Air Assault Division to becoming the 1st Cavalry Division. In early August 1965, several 1st Cavalry units deployed to South Vietnam and on Aug. 18, 1965, Huey helicopter pilot Major Donald Radcliff was shot down and killed by Viet Cong forces. The 1st Cav’s An Khe’s base camp was then promptly and aptly named Camp Radcliff. On Sept. 5, 1965, Gary’s unit deployed to South Vietnam, aboard a World War II-era troop ship, the USS Upshur, from Savannah, Georgia.
After passing through the Panama Canal and a 24-hour layover at Pearl Harbor, Gary and his fellow soldiers arrived at Qui Nhon, South Vietnam, on Sept. 28, 1965. Upon arrival via naval landing craft at Qui Nhon’s shore, Gary’s unit immediately boarded deuce and half trucks and drove like mad to Camp Radcliff. While traveling to Radcliff, Gary’s unit was attacked by the Viet Cong and two 1st Cavalry soldiers were killed. At Radcliff their first order of business was establishing their area within their base camp, so they pitched their pup tents while carpenters built latrines, mess hall, etc. Meanwhile, Gary and his fellow infantry grunts patrolled Camp Radcliff’s jungle perimeter and performed bunker guard security to ward off local Viet Cong fighters.
Random Mortar Attacks
Gary’s entire 12-month tour of duty was out of Camp Radcliff. His primary responsibility was overseeing radio maintenance and installations, ensuring senior officers had clear communications with troops on patrol. Two weeks in-country, a Viet Cong mortar blew up Gary’s work station, wounding a close buddy and narrowly missing him. Gary said random, nerve-wracking enemy mortar attacks were a common occurrence. One special assignment took Gary to Saigon to install radios in several Air America helicopters and another short assignment took him to the DMZ. There, Gary monitored enemy radio transmissions from a remote mountaintop and afterward he took a two-week rest and recuperation (R&R) with the first group to visit Singapore.
On Aug. 2, 1966, Gary flew to Moffatt Air Base, California, and was honorably discharged, and soon he took a five-month job with the Atomic Energy Commission at Mercury, Nevada, commonly known as Area 51. Gary participated in one atomic bomb test explosion. In September 1967 Gary was summoned to Air America at Taipei, Taiwan, and then to Bangkok, Thailand, and next to Udorn, Thailand’s airbase. Air America’s creed was, “Anything, Anytime, Anywhere — Professionally.” As supervisor, Gary oversaw 120 employees who repaired and installed radios for Air America’s planes and helicopters until July 1974. Next, Gary worked for the Titanium Metal Corp. until 1980. Gary then joined Lockheed’s Skunkworks Co. until 1986 as department manager of electrical plumbing on the SR-71 (Blackbird) and TR-1 (Dragon Lady) spy planes and the F-117 Stealth Fighter (Night Hawk).
Addies Golden Jewelry
In 1986, Gary resigned from the Skunkworks and joined his wife Anong’s jewelry business, “Addies Gold & Jewelry,” helping her expand their business until 2010. During that time, they were immensely successful, receiving numerous business awards. They were also robbed five times and on Sept. 2, 1992, Gary was shot five times from behind and barely survived. The robbers were gang members out of Inglewood and The Signal published an extensive article on this crime Sept. 3, 1992. This crime occurred about the time Gov. Pete Wilson was approving the three strikes law and Wilson reached out to meet Gary and his family. When Gary worked for Air America back in May 1967 in Bangkok, he met Anong in an office where she also worked. Gary was awestruck and soon a mutual friend introduced them to each other. Gary said, “I couldn’t wait to start dating her. When we went out on our first date for dinner and to see Clint Eastwood’s movie ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly,’ five of Anong’s female friends chaperoned us.” They continued seeing each other for the next several months until Gary proposed marriage. A traditional Thai marriage ceremony was held May 5, 1967, and it wasn’t long before their three children, Terry, Linda and James, were born in the Bangkok Christian Hospital.
Retirement, Writing & Buddhism
At age 70, Gary fully retired but along the way he and Anong had acquired their home and two rental houses. Once into retirement they sold all three houses and they began traveling across America in their motor home for the next six months. Meanwhile, they moved into a Newhall retirement apartment building and Gary began in earnest writing novels. He’s completed two books and has three more in progress. Buddhism became a huge pastime for Gary to the extent that he and Anong support a temple they helped build in Khon Kaen, Thailand. Annually, the Popejoys visit this temple delivering clothing, books, money, etc., to assist the local population. Gary, I salute your military service and applaud your humanitarianism.