For 17 years, Leo and Eleanor Cordova have waited for their son Sam Gary to come home, hoping against hope that the young man they knew as an avid athlete and dedicated elementary school teacher was alive somewhere in Southeast Asia.
Last Friday, the hoping and waiting ended when a Marine Corps officer, accompanied by a chaplain, appeared at the couple’s home in Rancho Mirage.
A military laboratory in Hawaii, the officer told them, had confirmed that remains of a Marine pilot shot down over Laos in 1972 during the Vietnam War were those of their son, who was a Huntington Beach resident and teacher in 1969 when he enlisted.
On Wednesday, the remains of Maj. Sam Gary Cordova, along with the remains of four other Vietnam War servicemen who had been listed as missing in action, were scheduled to be returned to the mainland. A military ceremony honoring the men was scheduled to be held at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, outside Sacramento.
For Eleanor Cordova, the full impact of the knowledge that her son is dead has not yet hit, she said Wednesday morning. But she is sure that she will “never give up hope” that the missing sons of other families with whom she has worked will be found alive.
“Never,” she said.
She said she and her husband will continue their years-long membership in the Southern California chapter of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia. The group offers support to families and helps them get information about their missing or captured loved ones.
The elder Cordovas are retired owners of a florist shop in Whittier, where Sam--one of their three sons--attended college and taught school before he moved to Huntington Beach.
A spokeswoman for the Ocean View School District in Huntington Beach said Sam Cordova taught sixth grade at the Haven View Elementary School on Waikiki Lane for a semester during the 1968-69 school year.
Bill Wernett of Orange, now retired but then principal of Haven View, has vivid memories of the young teacher.
“He was only with us a short time, but he was one of the most vibrant people I’ve ever met in the teaching profession,” Wernett said. “He had kind of a magnetic personality. He was interested in everything, and the students loved him.”
Wernett said Cordova was teaching at the school when the young man received confirmation from the Marines that he had been accepted for pilot training.
“He once gave me this little ornamental turtle that I used to keep on my desk and which I still have,” Wernett said. “I always wondered what happened to him.”
Eleanor Cordova said her son, despite his love for teaching, had always dreamed of flying airplanes. He also spent much of his spare time playing tennis, an activity he continued in the military.
The Cordovas had reason to hope that their son would be found, because he was spotted alive on the ground on Aug. 26, 1972, just after his F-4J Phantom fighter was shot down. That was one day before his 29th birthday.
A helicopter rescue crew picked up the jet’s radar operator, but when it tried to pick up her son, Eleanor Cordova said, the craft was fired upon repeatedly from the ground. The next day, she said, her son’s beeper was located electronically, but attempts to make contact with him through the device failed.
In 1973, Leo Cordova traveled to Laos with the family members of about 20 other MIAs but could learn nothing about his son, who was a lieutenant when he was shot down but was later promoted to major.
Last December, 2 days before Christmas, the Cordovas first got word that their son’s remains might have been found. That is when word from the Pentagon of a tentative identification reached them.
The remains were among those of 61 U.S. servicemen that the government of Vietnam repatriated to the United States late last year.
On Tuesday, the Pentagon publicly announced that the remains of five of those servicemen, including Cordova’s, had been positively identified. The Pentagon also identified the remains of another man found in December by a joint U.S.-Vietnam team searching a crash site inside Vietnam.
Cordova’s remains will be buried March 28. A graveside service will be held at 12:30 p.m. at Desert Memorial Park in Cathedral City.
As of Wednesday, 2,371 Americans who served in Vietnam continue to be listed as missing in action in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and China. The remains of another 212 have been repatriated and identified.
In 1985, 14 Vietnam War MIAs were known to have been from Orange County. Any change in the number could not be immediately determined.