Photo by Tenaya HillsSteve Bedunah doesn't celebrate Memorial Day. Although he holds a Veteran Affairs identification card, he claims the military doesn't recognize his Vietnam War-era service. But he calls himself a prisoner of war and suffers exaggerated symptoms of what psychologists have termed post-traumatic stress disorder: haunted, mistrustful eyes; stilted, whispering speech; and a nervous tendency to break into tears when speaking of the past.
Or maybe it's just survivor's guilt. In January, during the torrential rains that descended on Southern California, he showed up at the Weekly'sSanta Ana offices, carrying a backpack full of newspaper clippings from libraries around the country. Everything else he owned was in his truck parked downstairs. He asked to speak to Anthony Pignataro, a former Weeklyreporter who now edits the MauiTimeWeekly,and produced a copy of Pignataro's March 3, 2000, El Toro Watch, "He Who Forgets History Is a Damned Fool." It concerned a June 25, 1965, crash of an Air Force transport plane bringing troops from El Toro to Hawaii and then to Okinawa—where many of the passengers would be processed to Vietnam—that "hit Loma Ridge immediately after departing El Toro, killing all 84 servicemen aboard."
"The article is inaccurate. But it's not the only one," Bedunah said, showing photocopies of nearly a dozen articles about the crash—in the LATimes,NewYorkTimes,OceansideBladeTribune,and SanFranciscoChronicle—allpublished within days of the event, all reporting a total of 84 victims. But then Bedunah pulled from another binder an official "complete list" of the dead servicemen that ran in what was then the SantaAnaRegistertwo days after the crash. Drawing from the flight manifest released by Air Force officials, the list numbered only 83 people.
"I'm No. 84," Bedunah said.
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A few weeks later, he showed up at the Weekly'soffices again, still wearing the same personalized cap and jacket embroidered with the date of the plane crash. This time, he provided more details of a story he says has taken him 40 years to tell. The only reason he's telling it now, Bedunah said, is because he's been diagnosed with terminal colon cancer and believes he has less than a year to live.
"You're the only person other than my mother who knows about this," Bedunah said. "What I'm doing now is payback. These men gave their lives for me."
According to Bedunah, he was an orphan who was adopted by a Marine Corps officer and grew up at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in the 1950s. He says he joined the Navy on April 26, 1962, and served on a destroyer-leader ship in the Yellow Sea, the USS JohnMcCain.On June 25, 1965, Bedunah says he was at El Toro visiting his girlfriend, an Orange Coast College student named Virginia Lee Sturm, but had to return to Hawaii early because his sister lived there and was having complications with her pregnancy.
As Bedunah mentioned Sturm, he pulled up his pants leg to reveal a three-lettered tattoo on his ankle: GLS. "That stands for Ginny Lee Sturm," he said. "But I've changed that to God Loves Steve, because I'm still alive." Bedunah says he booked himself on the ill-fated flight, but while he was packing that afternoon, Sturm's mother called him with an emergency. Sturm's grandfather, a retired Marine Corps officer, had just fallen and fractured his hip in Oceanside; she asked Bedunah to drive her daughter down to San Diego to see him in the hospital.
Bedunah says he lingered too long in San Diego and arrived back at El Toro so late that the plane was already moving down the tarmac to take off. A guard radioed the pilot, who said the plane was leaving without him. "Eighteen seconds later, I saw a ball of orange flame," Bedunah said. "I was supposed to be on that plane," he added, his eyes welling up with tears. "I've spent 40 years trying to live that down. For all intents and purposes, the only reason I'm here today is I did someone a favor."
After that meeting, Bedunah disappeared for a few more weeks. The next time he showed up—unannounced as always—he explained he had fled south to San Diego, where it was warmer. He'd spent some time in the library there reading old newspaper articles about the plane crash before driving north to San Francisco and Berkeley, where he did the same. He was in a good mood and finally ready to return to the place that has haunted him for so long: Loma Ridge.
The closest you can get to Loma Ridge today is a service road behind the Irvine Ranch Water District's Rattlesnake Canyon Reservoir. It ends at a chainlink gate, but Bedunah explained his mission to the driver of a water district truck that happened to be passing by and received permission to hike to the reservoir.
"This is the first time I've been here since the day of the crash," he said, taking in the view. "That's where the plane crashed—where the clouds make that dark spot at the very top of the ridge. There was mist that day, just like today."
The mist may have had something to do with the crash, which was officially blamed on pilot error but occurred during light rain and intense fog in the middle of the night. "The plane crashed at 0134 hours, but they didn't find [it] until 0830 because the roads were so bad," said Bedunah, who accompanied the search team. "All around were little spot fires and tumbleweeds burning. Most of the men, with the exception of the pilot and the radio man, were cremated on impact."
He started crying again. "How can I be talking to you one minute and the next minute you're in little pieces?"
That was the last time we saw Bedunah. He said he was going to continue driving across the country in his truck, trying to talk to every living relative of every victim of the crash—to tell them their loved ones were heroes. Bedunah said he was going to compile their stories into a book called PaidinFullthat will pay tribute to the plane crash victims. He said he won't rest until Pentagon officials declare all 83 crash victims war heroes.
"I've been to the Vietnam War memorial, but I didn't look at it," he said. "There are 83 names that should be there and aren't. Before I leave this earth, I will, hell or high water, make sure these guys are recognized."
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